Angela Merkels trip to Washington will be no love fest, but the two leaders have more in common than wed like to think
Does Europe have a phone number ?, Henry Kissinger famously asked. In a bout of unexpected humor, Catherine Ashton, until 2014 the EUs high representative for foreign affairs, replied: Yes, of course. It is mine. When you call it, a computer answers: for Germany, press one; for Britain, press two, for France, press three.
Donald Trump must have figured out the centrality of Germany on his own, which is why he invited Angela Merkel to the White House this week. If you want to talk to Europe, she is the go-to leader. Who else? Britain is on the way out, never mind the special relationship. France, once the continents No 1, has suffered a precipitous deterioration during the course of its reign of Franois Hollande, and it might take years to restore its old grandeur. Italy is a study in ungovernability, with 60 administrations since the second world war.
So Merkel is Europes emperor by default. She is the last woman standing. To boot, she brings impressive assets to the White House. Unlike its neighbours, Germany has remained fairly immune to populist demagoguery. The economy, the worlds fourth-largest, is booming. By weight and strategic posture, Germany looms over the remainder. That is why the chancellor is among the first batch of foreign leaders to get a one-on-one in the Oval Office.
So in the run-up to her visit, Trumps minions fanned out to put the right spin on site visits. The message to the media was: we like and we respect her.
Nonetheless, this journey is no love fest. The New York Times got it right: The great disrupter confronts the last defender of the liberal world order. In the run-up, Trump had called Nato obsolete, and said the EU is gonna be hard to keep together. Trumps economic adviser Peter Navarro has been going after the Germans for aping China in depressing the euro so as to rack up ever larger trade surpluses.
Meanwhile, the administration has been changing its tune. Trump himself has received kind words for the EU; he was totally in favour of it. His vice-president, Mike Pence, has celebrated Americas unwavering commitment to the alliance, while defence chief James Mattis praised our enduring bond.
So German angst has been receding, especially since Trump no longer cheers Vladimir Putin as his newest best friend, vowing instead to increase the US defence budget by $54 bn. The superstars are aligning, and the chancellors visit is coinciding with a moment of serendipity.
Sure, Trump had been threatening the Europeans with pay up, or we ship out. Yet as his approach to Russia is hardening, the Germans have, of their own accord, moved toward rearmament. After two decades of relentless downsizing, Berlin decided last year before Trumps electoral triumph to increase defense spending by a whopping 8 %. This mirror Russias annual spending boosts.
Of course, the Germans have a long way to run, having cut their forces by two-thirds since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their fabled panzers are down to 250 from 3,000. Yet the basic point still holds: the US and Germany are now on the same page about Europe needing to expend more on defense, politenes of Putin, who has been pressing hard on Natos eastern perimeters after grabbing Crimea and launching a surrogate war in south-eastern Ukraine.
Its the parlous security situation that has pushed Merkel and Trump together. The chairperson has grasped that Nato isnt so obsolete after all, serving, as Americas first line of defence as it has done for 70 years. And the Germans, nervously eying the Russian wolf at Natos eastern door, have decided that it is in their own interest to pay up.
At this juncture, though, serendipity begins to wane. Merkel went to Washington to remind Trump ever so softly, as is her style, of some enduring economic verities. For Trump has not laid aside the axe he has raised against the liberal trading order the US had built and nurtured since the 1940 s.
In their one-on-one talks, the chancellor surely told the president that the Atlantic trade and investment relationship is the worlds largest. That hundreds of thousands of well-paid American jobs are rooted in the export sector. That automotive manufacturing relies on foreign proportions to the tune of 50 %. That German BMWs, Mercedes and Volkswagens sold in the US are actually Attained in the USA. That protectionism will attain both sides poorer.
It stands to reason that Merkel will have driven home the insights of economics 101 before she returns. As to the grander strategy of things, we might conclude that Trump will not want to face Russia and China on his own without Europe and its trustiest anchor. Who else is there, given Brexit and Frances economic miseries , not to speak of Marine Le Pen, who will stay in the game even if she fails to subdue the Elyse, Frances presidential palace?
Cold-eyed realpolitik bids Trump to trench the axe he is holding over the liberal order. He should take in what his German guest has told him. But wisdom in the White House lasts merely until the presidents next tweets.
Josef Joffe is the Editor of Die Zeit in Hamburg and Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford where he teaches international politics .
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