Since the election, President Obama has done his best to guide President-elect Donald Trump rather than attack him, pledging to work with Trump and hosting him for a long White House meeting. Obama’s thinking appears to be that Trump, whose policy ideas are fairly malleable, can be convinced to leave aspects of things like Obamacare and the Iran deal partially intact if given enough of a one-on-one sales job.
But on Thursday, Obama subtly diverged from this approach. In a joint statement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, published in the German magazine WirtschaftsWoche, the president — without mentioning Trump’s name — issued what amounted to a quiet attack on his successor’s worldview.
The statement begins with what sounds like boilerplate — and would be at any other time:
Germany and the United States are deeply linked together: Our joint history has led us through both bright and dark chapters and resulted in the deep friendship we enjoy today. That friendship is based on our shared commitment to personal freedom and dignity, which only a vibrant democracy under the rule of law can guarantee.
But saying that the US and German relationship is built on mutual respect for “personal freedom” and “the rule of law” is not, right now, a neutral statement of principle. When the incoming US president has threatened to ban Muslim immigration and enhance libel laws to restrict press freedom, it’s more of a warning: that Trump’s proposed domestic policies threaten to sunder America’s ties with one of its closest and most important allies.
Indeed, Merkel said basically the same thing right after Trump’s election, when she offered Trump “cooperation” — but only if his administration adheres to basic liberal values.
“Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said in a November 9 statement. “I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”
Obama, by signing on to this new statement, is subtly endorsing Merkel’s position as laid out on November 9. It’s a way of rebuking Trump’s proposed vision for America without attacking him by name.
This becomes clearer when the statement gets more specific, as it directly rebuts some of Trump’s most startling policy ideas.
Take NATO, for example. During the campaign, Trump regularly derided the alliance as obsolete and threatened to pull the US out of the alliance or effectively dismantle it by failing to protect Eastern European allies from Russian invasion unless they spent more on their own defense.
Obama has tried to push Trump away from this stance, saying in a press conference after their meeting that “one of the messages I will be able to deliver is his commitment to NATO and the Transatlantic Alliance.” The Merkel-Obama statement makes the case that Trump has to adhere to this more forcefully:
Our countries share a joint responsibility to protect and preserve our way of life. It is in this spirit that we are working hard to ensure that international law and norms are respected around the globe – which remains a prerequisite for stability and prosperity. Our countries are committed to collective defense within the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) because we want to preserve the security of the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole.
Trump wants to stop accepting Syrian refugees and says climate change is a Chinese hoax. Merkel and Obama argue that the West has a moral responsibility to refugees and a critical role in stopping global warming:
Our deep respect for human dignity compels us to provide humanitarian relief and aid for millions of refugees worldwide, because we know it is our treatment of those most vulnerable that determines the true strength of our values. And U.S.-German partnership was essential to achieving a global agreement in Paris that offers the world a framework for protecting our planet.
Trump thinks globalization and free trade has been devastating to the United States. Merkel and Obama argue that “the future is upon us, and we will never return to a pre-globalization economy:”
On this firm basis of shared values, German-American economic relations are flourishing. Europe and the United States form the largest economic zone in the world, accounting for one third of global trade and almost half of the global gross domestic product. Strong German-American economic relations form an unshakeable core of this zone. Since 2015, the United States has become Germany’s most important trading partner with a trade volume of 173 billion euros, and conversely, Germany has become a cornerstone of U.S. economic relations with the European Union.
It’s not too hard to read between the lines here: Obama and Merkel are laying out a series of demands for the Trump administration.
Toe the line on civil liberties, US alliance commitments, transnational issues like refugees and climate change, and don’t try to blow up the global free trade system —and you can expect some degree of cooperation from your domestic political opponents and close allies. Don’t, and you will court serious resistance both at home and abroad.
“Today we find ourselves at a crossroads,” the statement concludes. “We owe it to our industries and our peoples — indeed, to the global community — to broaden and deepen our cooperation.”
Ball’s in your court, Mr. President-elect.