Donald Trump and Angela Merkel now agree about the main issues in US-German relations. “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are a way past us,” Merkel told a beer-tent rally of her political party. “We Europeans really have to take our fate into our own hands.” That is just what President Trump has been telling the Europeans since the beginning of last year’s US election campaign, demanding in particular that Europe pay more for its own defense. Both Trump and Merkel, moreover, say they want the Euro to strengthen against the US dollar. That buries the two bones of contention between Berlin and Washington. Everything else is political posturing and fake news.
The German Chancellor in effect threatens to throw President Trump into the proverbial briar patch, giving him what he wants while appearing to denounce him (those who miss the pop-culture reference may find an illustration here).
Merkel is running for re-election to a fourth term in next September’s national elections, and it does her more good to denounce Trump than to speak of policy convergence. The German public hates Donald Trump with a visceral passion. The country’s largest-circulation news magazine, Der Spiegel, titled an editorial last week, “It’s time to get rid of Donald Trump,” explaining: “Donald Trump has transformed the United States into a laughing-stock and he is a danger to the world. He must be removed from the White House before things get even worse.”
Trump’s unashamed nationalism elicits revulsion in a land whose 20th-century experience with nationalism was less than satisfactory. The Germans never will understand American populism; for them, populism is the dank fen of German politics that incubated National Socialism. Germany’s self-styled populists of the Alternative for Germany party are infested with Nazi apologists. In the distorting mirror of German history, Trump looks like a monster.
Even worse, Trump stepped on Germany’s sore toe with big boots when he denounced Germany’s 2015 decision to admit more than 1.2 million Muslim refugees supposedly from Syria, but including economic migrants from as far away as Afghanistan. For Germans, this was a grand national sacrifice to world-citizenship; to Trump and the American political right, it was a hallmark of civilizational decline. That may be true, but the Germans insist on their right to decline in their own chosen fashion.
Trump also raised hackles in Germany earlier this year by complaining that Germany had kept Europe’s common currency artificially weak in order to boost exports. This theory came from Trump advisor Peter Navarro (I characterized it at the time as “Navarro-Navarro Land”). The Germans responded that his was unfair: Germany had allowed Europe’s central bank to engineer negative interest rates for the benefit of economic laggards such as Italy, Spain and Portugal, to the detriment of German savers. Last week, Chancellor Merkel herself declared that the Euro was “too weak.” Again, she is running against the European Central Bank’s negative-interest rate policy, a smart move for a German politician before a national election. And once again, she agrees with Trump. Prof. Navarro meanwhile hasn’t been heard from in months.
Berlin and Washington agree on another important strategic issue, namely relations with Russia. If Berlin harbored concerns that President Trump might be too soft on Russia, they were allayed when presidential advisor Gary Cohn declared May 26 that Washington had no intention of removing economic sanctions on Russia imposed after its intervention in Ukraine. That is Merkel’s position.
Where do Trump and Merkel disagree? In Germany, where environmentalism is very nearly the established religion, Trump’s doubts about the Paris Climate Agreement place him outside the bounds of civilized discourse. But that is an ideological rather than a practical matter.
The Middle East, to be sure, remains an area of disagreement between Berlin and Washington. Trump sold $350 billion of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia during his visit to the kingdom last week and denounced the Saudis’ main rival, Iran. By contrast, Germany’s Foreign Ministry, now directed by Merkel’s Social-Democratic coalition partners, hails Iran “as an important regional actor.” Germany has always taken a more benign view of Iran, and that is a disagreement of substance. It is nonetheless a secondary one.
Merkel and Trump both want a solution to the Syrian civil war, which among other things would reduce the stream of refugees pouring into Europe. As a practical matter, that requires an agreement with Russia, which adroitly inserted itself into Syrian affairs and cannot easily be extracted. Iran, Russia’s ally of convenience, can deploy a nearly inexhaustible reserve of Shi’ite fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Lebanon as mercenaries in the Syrian war. Berlin knows as well as Washington that a Syrian deal requires a nasty negotiation. Trump’s effort to isolate Iran well might define the boundaries of a prospective deal with Russia.
For all the beer-tent talk about taking Europe’s destiny into its own hands, Chancellor Merkel knows perfectly well that she needs the United States to deal with the actual and prospective crises on Europe’s borders. Germany will increase its defense spending, but young Germans will not join the Bundeswehr to fight for future generations, for the simple reason that there won’t be much in the way of future generations. German women (excluding immigrants) average 1.3 children, one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. Germany’s infecund, aging population has no reason to fight for a dubious German future.
Germany’s military is in disrepair. As Elizabeth Braw reported on the Foreign Policy website, “Most of the Navy’s helicopters were not working [in 2014], and of the Army’s 64 helicopters, only 18 were usable. And while the Cold War Bundeswehr had consisted of 370,000 troops, by last summer it was only 176,015 men and women strong.” Berlin spends only 1.4% of GDP on defense. An increase to the 2% NATO target, as Trump has demanded, will not make Germany into a military power. There is talk of a common European army, but only talk. That’s the sort of thing one discusses after a few beers in the depths of the briar patch.