clock menu more-arrow no yes

The epic Trump-Merkel feud, explained

The president’s trip abroad caused a subtle, unsettling shift in the world order.

Getty Images

In the wake of President Trump’s trip to Europe — deemed an unparalleled success by Republicans — there has been a subtle, unsettling shift in the world order.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a political rally the day after Trump’s departure, she suggested that Europe could no longer count on the US. A fracture had appeared in the once-airtight alliance.

“The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over,” she declared during a speech in Munich on Sunday. “I’ve experienced that in the last few days — we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Trump’s conduct toward Europe at the NATO and G7 summits had been so adversarial and so off-putting that he managed to compel Merkel — the most iconically measured, technocratic leader in the Western world — to call for Europe to chart its own course.

Trump’s response to Merkel’s criticism has been to, well, tweet angrily. “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change,” he tweeted around the break of dawn on Tuesday.

So far, the tensions between the US and Europe remain rhetorical; there have been no concrete policy changes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. “Rhetoric is not unimportant,” Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former US ambassador to NATO, says. “The relationship, particularly NATO, is at its bottom a relationship based on trust, based on confidence that when necessary you can count on your other partners.”

Right now trust is plummeting. And what’s most striking about it is that while there are real ideological differences that explain it, there’s no crisis causing this to happen so quickly. Which raises the question: What if one emerges?

In many ways, spreading mistrust through fickleness and disrupting partnerships is one of the biggest themes of Trump’s foreign policy so far: He’s withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he broke his pledge not to intervene in Syria, he’s threatened to undermine diplomatic norms with China, he’s been skeptical of the Iran deal, and he’s likely to withdraw from the Paris climate accord imminently. The list goes on and on.

Trump’s unapologetic unilateralism, combined with his inability to hold steady positions on policies, is achieving the opposite of what Trump set out to do with his “America First” strategy. As Merkel’s comments demonstrate, the global community is less likely to rely on and work with the US to solve problems and pursue shared interests. And as America recedes from its global leadership role, other countries will step into the vacuum.

Merkel has many reasons to sound pro-European right now

Merkel calling for Europe to chart its own course in Munich.
Getty Images

Merkel had a few audiences during her groundbreaking remarks on Sunday. The most immediate one was the German electorate, who is watching her closely as she makes her fourth bid to lead the country. Germany is not immune to the wave of right-wing populism making inroads in Europe, but in the upcoming election Merkel is mainly competing in the electoral space against three major parties that are strongly pro-Europe.

So when she made her strongly pro-Europe comments on Sunday, “she neutralized her opposition,” Daalder says. That was evident in the way her main political rival, Martin Schulz of the center-left Social Democrats, immediately endorsed her remarks. Sounding pro-European and resolute as a leader is simply good politics for her.

And since then, her administration has ensured that nobody has to read between the lines to understand what’s going on. "The short-sighted policies of the American government stand against the interests of the European Union,” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, said on Monday. “The West has become smaller, at least it has become weaker."

Merkel’s second audience was the broader European community. She’s emboldened by the election of Emmanuel Macron in France; his resounding victory over the anti-European populist Marine Le Pen earlier in May brightened the prospects of a European Union threatened by rising nationalism across the continent. Merkel is more confident about the possibility of European unity, and is looking to carve out a path for Franco-German cooperation and leadership.

And finally, her third audience was the US and the UK, which have taken the path of nationalism at the expense of their relationship with Europe. As the West engages in huge debates over reversing trends in migration, globalization, and foreign policy, Merkel is keen on defending — and perhaps leading — the globalist wing of the Western alliance.

Trump’s trip to Europe: how to lose friends and alienate people

Merkel was driven to this in large part by Trump’s tour de force of aggression in Europe last week.

In stark contrast to his well-received visits in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump’s visit to Europe was filled with tension. While in Saudi he went out of his way to promise that “[w]e are not here to lecture,” in Europe that’s exactly what he did. He chided European allies for failing to spend enough on defense, and refused to reaffirm Article 5 of the NATO charter, the crucial principle underpinning the military alliance that holds that an attack against one member is an attack against all. He declined to endorse the Paris climate accord. He cast aspersions on Germany, deeming them “bad, very bad” for their trade practices, and suggested he could take punitive measures against them for their prowess at selling cars. He diverged from European leaders on how to handle the threats posed by Russia, because his administration is bent on having friendly relations with the Kremlin.

For a good summary of how European leaders felt about Trump’s visit, just watch their uncomfortable facial expressions during his NATO speech in Brussels:

The timing of Trump’s NATO provocations made it especially grating to America’s European allies. At his speech, he unveiled a memorial to the victims of 9/11 — the only event that has caused NATO to invoke Article 5. The NATO alliance collectively fought the war in Afghanistan, which was launched in the wake of those attacks on the US, and many Europeans perished as a result of that commitment.

At the same time, NATO stepped up its commitment to US-led initiatives during Trump’s visit: It decided to officially join the US-led coalition against ISIS (although it did not pledge the use of combat troops as part of that commitment). In other words, as the NATO nations collectively ramp up their commitments, Trump is deliberately degrading the alliance.

His claim that 23 of 28 nations in NATO don’t fulfill their formal obligations to spend 2 percent of their GDP on their militaries was accurate. And his refusal to back Article 5 wasn’t pure sadism — it was a bid to compel them to ramp up their spending.

But Europe sees spending on national security very differently than does the US, and it’s going to be hard to persuade them to change their current course. As Andrew Moravcsik, a professor of politics and director of the European Union program at Princeton University, notes at the Financial Times, Europe does actually spend more than 2 percent of its GDP on its national security, but through nonmilitary tools like aid, trade, and international organizations.

Europe provides two-thirds of the world’s development aid and is the world’s largest funder of the UN. And to take an example of how it spends money on a local national security issue of great importance: The continent outspent the US 10 to 1 on its nonmilitary responses to Russian meddling in Ukraine in recent years — through foreign assistance, trade deals, sanctions, energy policy, and more, according to Moravcsik.

This is why Merkel has called the 2 percent spending standard “narrow-minded” — and why much of Europe feels the same way. They believe they are pulling their weight, and military might is not their preferred mode of projecting power.

On the issue of the US’s trade deficit with Germany — the fact that it imports a lot more from Germany than Germany imports from the US — the countries are also likely to remain at odds.

Germany does have an unusual structural advantage in trade over many countries because it uses the euro. Usually a country that exports vast amounts of goods the way Germany does will see its currency rise, its goods grow more expensive, and demand for them decline. But since Germany uses the euro, which is an average of the entire eurozone’s currencies, it’s shielded from that natural balancing dynamic. Germany is selling goods at a much, much lower rate than it would be if it used its own currency. But the euro isn’t going anywhere, and Germany doesn’t control monetary policy — that’s controlled by the independent European Central Bank.

Trump’s means don’t serve his goals

That said, Germany could pursue a fiscal policy that’s more likely to stimulate the global economy. If Berlin were willing, for example, to increase demand in its economy by doing something like cutting taxes, more Germans would have money in their pockets, prices in the country would go up, and that would make global demand for German goods decline. Germany would be exporting less and importing more, and would thereby help stimulate the global economy. But Germany shows no signs of interest in changing up its fiscal vision.

And perhaps just as importantly, Trump has no real plan for pressing Merkel on the issue in a sophisticated or disciplined way. Instead, he slams trade deficits with other countries as inherently bad for the US economy (which isn’t true) and does so in a crude, threatening way that alienates them rather than invites them into a discussion of possible solutions. And he does the same on other crucial issues like coordinating on climate change.

Merkel has made up her mind that Europe is best served by pushing back against Trump’s disinterest in cooperation and sober discussion of disagreements. But some observers think she is jumping the gun and that she’s reinforcing Trump's divisive attitude by pushing back at him so hard.

“It is a mistake to allow four months of the Trump presidency to throw into doubt a Transatlantic alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 70 years,” writes Gideon Rachman at the Financial Times. “It may come to that. But it is also possible that Mr Trump is an aberration and will soon be out of office.”

Rachman argues that there’s something self-fulfilling about stating that the Western order is disintegrating, and that Merkel might be better served by ignoring Trump’s antics or feigning deference toward him and just waiting him out.

But it’s hard to blame Merkel for trying her strategy — Trump has shown a tendency to make a lot of noise about change while sliding back to the status quo on everything from China policy to Middle East intervention. Merkel is standing her ground, and likely hoping that Trump might find his way back to her at some point.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.