Angela Merkel was dubbed the leader of the free world on the eve of her visit to see Donald Trump. The stakes, we were told, could not be higher. The Atlantic alliance was at stake. The future of NATO in peril. Merkel’s buddy-buddy relationship with George W. Bush and Barack Obama was over. Confrontation, not cooperation, would be the order of the day.
Not so fast. The meeting and joint press conference on Friday between the two leaders proved rather anticlimactic. The meeting was not really about substance but about atmospherics. Attention focused on body language, Trump’s failure to shake hands a second time, and so on.
From the outset, their powwow was overshadowed by events in Asia, where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talked about all options being on the table when it came to dealing with the recalcitrant North Koreans. Tillerson may, to use Trump’s term, be low-energy when it comes to standing up to the rigors of travel—he didn’t even visit the embassy in Tokyo, preferring to rest in his hotel and bolted early from South Korea due to what the administration says was “fatigue”—but he didn’t shy from lobbing some verbal hand grenades. The time for talk with North Korea, he suggested, was over. Any problems in Europe, where the Ukraine conflict continues to sputter fitfully, seem to pale by comparison. The prospect of a conflict with North Korea, which would incur China’s wrath, suggests that the Trump administration is moving pell-mell away from its original declarations about allies carrying the burden. It also appears from news reports that the Trump administration is contemplating a massive new arms sale to Taiwan that would further exacerbate tensions with China—and discourage it further from attempting to help Washington contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Finally, Trump himself went out of his way to taunt the Chinese in a tweet by claiming that they have been “playing” the United States—a flippant term that is bound to provoke anger in Beijing.
So what was left for Trump and Merkel to discuss? Consistent with modern Germany’s aspiration to be seen as an economic rather than a military power, she had a bunch of business executives in tow from companies like BMW. The message to Trump was supposed to be that tens of thousands of jobs in the United States depend on German businesses and that following White House adviser Peter Navarro’s prescriptions from trade wars is a recipe for disaster. Still, Navarro has not been off-base in noting that the Germans have indeed profited from the low value of the Euro, which suppresses the cost of their exports. Trump himself, however, strayed when he complained that Germany’s “trade deals” with America have been good for it at the expense of the United States—there are no direct German trade deals with the U.S.
Details, details. This meeting was more about atmospherics than anything else. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung captured the spirit of their encounter in calling it “first cramped, then conciliatory.” Trump engaged in generalities, declaring that “we ideally seek a peaceful solution” in Ukraine. He talked about the importance of NATO and also reiterated his demand that American allies pony up their fair share to pay for a common defense. He also stated, “I don’t believe in an isolationist policy but I also believe that a policy on trade should be a fair policy,” he told the German chancellor. “I’m a free trader but I’m also a fair trader.”
Meanwhile, Merkel looked as though she didn’t quite know what hit her. When Trump joked that they had both been the victims of wiretapping by the “past administration,” she looked confused. Trump compounded the confusion by claiming that it was all based on a report from Fox News. Shep Smith promptly denied that Fox itself had any knowledge of whether Trump had been wiretapped. “It just feels off the rails,” he added. At the same time, the British went into a hugger-mugger over the administration’s allegation that President Obama had outsourced any spying on Trump Tower to them. Words like “rubbish,” “ridiculous,” and “garbage” were hurled from across the pond at the administration by various British worthies. The Germans may even have savored the tensions between London and Washington as it took the spotlight off them.
For now, Merkel herself is maintaining a stiff upper lip when it comes to the Trump administration. Her meeting with Trump accomplished little other than an opportunity to probe the new president’s intentions and ambitions first-hand. The likelihood in coming years is that the two sides will continue to talk past each other. It won’t be the first time that Germany and America have experienced tensions—they differed over the Vietnam War and Ostpolitik. Ronald Reagan, for that matter, was not the most popular guy among the German public in the 1980s, eliciting the kind of derision that Trump does today. Berlin and Washington will ride it out. Anyone looking for a radical shift in the relations between the two countries is probably fooling themselves. It may well be a case when it comes to German-American relations of the more things change, the more they stay the same.