by James P. Rubin · March 16, 2017
Angela Merkel, whether she wants the job or not, is the West’s last, best hope.
This time the media hype surrounding a White House meeting is no wild exaggeration. When President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally get together on Friday, the leaders of the West’s two most powerful countries are sure to come off more like an odd couple than two close allies chewing over plans for some joint enterprise. And for good reason. Merkel and Trump are not only polar opposites as people, but they share little in terms of international outlook.
Their styles reflect their vastly different backgrounds. Merkel, Germany’s first and only female chancellor, was raised by a pastor in communist East Germany, where she earned a doctorate in physical chemistry. Although she is the longest-serving and most powerful leader in Europe, she is unfailingly modest, competent and consensus-oriented. Trump’s all-about-me mentality, Queens upbringing and brash, tabloid-and-reality-TV personality couldn’t be more different.
The contrast in substance is just as stark. From the Eurozone meltdown to the refugee surge, Merkel has been through multiple crises. She has no illusions about Vladimir Putin and the spy-ridden Kremlin team running Russia, and places a high value on quiet diplomacy, free trade, international law and the institutions of the European Union.
Trump is untested, unable or unwilling to criticize Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, determined to judge U.S. foreign policies by the trade balance involved or the extent to which the costs of U.S. military deployments are reimbursed, and happy to talk up the possibility of other EU countries following Britain out the door.
With his alliance diplomacy facing intense scrutiny following reports of tense phone conversations with the leaders of Australia and Mexico, Trump will be on his best behavior. Likewise, Germany’s government has no interest in playing up controversy and hopes to declare the session a diplomatic success.
Nevertheless, Merkel will try to persuade Trump to reverse his cheerleading for the collapse of the EU and put a stop to his ignorant critique of NATO. And why not? Such reversals have become a regular feature of the Trump foreign policy. In the Middle East, despite a lot of talk, the U.S. Embassy in Israel has not moved, nor has the administration taken steps to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. In Asia, the Chinese government humbled the new president by insisting he shelve the idea of reconsidering Washington’s support for the “One China” policy.
Considering that Trump went out of his way to criticize Merkel just ahead of his inauguration, saying her decision to admit hundreds of thousands of refugees was a terrible mistake and that he intended to treat her and Putin in roughly the same way, expectations for the meeting are modest. No diplomatic breakthrough is envisioned, and a general meeting of the minds between two longstanding allies before the world’s media should be sufficient to avoid further diplomatic damage.
Behind the scenes, however, the evolution of the Trump-Merkel dialogue will shape the direction and strength of the Western alliance. While Merkel has resisted the label of defender of Western values, the fact is she was the only leader prepared to play a form of hardball with the new president. By saying that Germany would work with America based on shared values (the rule of law, tolerance and equal rights), she became the de facto leader of those determined to defend those values. And this was done at the same time British Prime Minister Theresa May was rushing off to Washington to be the first European leader to meet with Trump.
The German chancellor is the only leader in Europe who even has a plausible claim to moral leadership. As a victim of Soviet communism, Merkel was always going to be listened to carefully on the question of morality. And given her longevity she was always going to be respected. But it was her unexpected decision to accept some 1 million refugees that established her moral credentials, especially since no other political leader has taken such a political risk.
The cruel irony of Trump’s election is that for many decades it was the United States that was seen as a moral leader. During the Cold War, Soviet dissidents looked to the United States. And after communism fell, it was the United States that led international actions to protect victims of repression or hardship. Whether it was the Kurds in northern Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, or the spending on medicine to treat millions suffering from HIV in Africa, the United States was the country expected to act.
Not recently. After “leading from behind”—way behind—during the six years of civil war in Syria, Washington was seen as abdicating its traditional role. So the mantle of leadership was empty until Merkel stepped in to help hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and chaos. Trump not only rejects the idea that the United States should act to prevent tragedies like Syria but also that it should help care for the millions of refugees fleeing the conflict. Trump and Merkel thus represent the two poles of the debate about refugees and responsibility in 2017.
It’s Germany, too, that has led the world in imposing sanctions on Russia for its invasion and occupation of Ukraine. Trump, meanwhile, not only has refused to criticize Putin for the invasion—he has often suggested that sanctions be lifted to make a new relationship with Russia possible.
One indicator of a real breakthrough between Trump and Merkel would be a recognition that he is hearing out her concerns about Putin. Merkel is the wisest leader now in office in assessing the danger from Russia, and the most experienced in dealing with Putin himself. She’ll likely urge him to cool his enthusiasm for rapprochement with Moscow—will he listen?
The Russia question will play out over many months. In the meantime, those who care about Western values can continue to look to Merkel, but now with a small dose of optimism. For while this week’s election in the Netherlands may not be a permanent setback for Europe’s neo-nationalists, it should give comfort to those who worried that Trump’s victory in America would be contagious and that continental Europe was sure to catch the disease.