Chancellor Merkel Comes to Washington as Germany Navigates its Relationship with the Trump Administration

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany will meet with President Donald Trump on March 14 in Washington. This will be the first in a series—their bilateral meeting will be followed in the coming months by gatherings at NATO, the G7, and the G20 (which Merkel will host in Hamburg, Germany, in July). Germany looks toward Washington with a mixture of vulnerability and confidence as its relationship with the Trump administration begins to take shape. Germany is Europe’s largest economy, but its successful trade- and export-oriented economy depends heavily on the free movement of goods and capital, which appears newly tenuous as Britain prepares to leave the European Union and the United States contemplates fundamentally reorienting its trade policy. Germany is the de facto leader of the European Union, but the Union is undergoing internal and external trials that make its future uncertain. And Germany has placed all of its security eggs in multilateral baskets, and thus it is one of the countries most affected by the United States’ foreign policy moves, especially with regard to NATO.

Early public statements by the Trump administration have evoked equal portions of puzzlement and concern in Berlin. There have been suggestions from Washington that Germany uses the European Union and the euro to its economic advantage and to the detriment of the United States’ economic well-being. That view ignores the postwar history of Europe, when Germany deliberately sought and accepted constraints on its national power, with U.S. support. This approach sublimated German interests within international institutions in order to promote European interdependency and avoid the national competition that produced three major wars in Europe between 1870 and 1945. The president has criticized repeatedly the chancellor’s handling of the 2015 migration crisis, a politically sensitive issue for her. And the enthusiasm of some of President Trump’s closest advisers for European populist and nationalist movements, with President Trump predicting that there will be future “Brexits,” raises concern in Germany that the United States could stoke fringe parties that seek Europe’s unraveling, diminishing its prosperity and security at a time of acute challenges. The apparent common cause of media organizations such as Breitbart and Russia Today makes the possibility all the more troubling for Berlin, as national elections loom in six months.

Thus far Chancellor Merkel’s approach to the Trump administration has been cautious, emphasizing a readiness to work with Washington but laying down clear markers that Germany’s relationship with the United States depends on shared values and principles and that U.S.-German cooperation will take place only in that framework. Germany’s relationship with the United States, which has seen its share of ups and downs over the decades, has always been held together by an understanding that Germany depended on U.S. power and that, whatever its policy on a particular issue, Washington acted within a framework of values that sustained the partnership and made it acceptable to the German public. Berlin is now apprehensive that a fundamental shift may be underway in the U.S. administration. Germany therefore must hedge against a possible U.S. policy based on power dissociated from shared values.

Merkel in this case is caught between her characteristic pragmatism and public opinion in Germany, which will elect a new Bundestag on September 24. President Trump is extremely unpopular in Germany—a recent German poll showed that only 13 percent of Germans support Trump, with 78 percent opposed. This antipathy is and will be a hallmark of opposition parties’ election strategies, which Merkel must navigate. The absence of predictable and clear policies, as well as the frequency of conflicting and deleterious statements from Washington about Europe, complicates her predicament. She will therefore come to Washington seeking to establish some form of modus vivendi with President Trump that reinforces economic cooperation and transatlantic security. If that effort fails, Merkel will have to determine how much political distance she will need to put between herself and President Trump to protect her political future.

The security partnership with Washington is equally pressing. President Trump’s remarks about NATO’s supposed obsolescence shook German officials’ previously unquestioned faith in U.S. reliability as an ally and Germany’s security guarantor. Speeches by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the February Munich Security Conference were somewhat reassuring, but also formulaic, and Germany’s security elite took note. The president’s State of the Union address on February 28 moderated concerns that the United States would hollow out its commitment in the short term, but the first weeks of the Trump administration have created serious doubts about the depth of the U.S. commitment and how quickly Washington could reverse it. Those uncertainties cannot be dispelled quickly.

Germany understands President Trump’s focus on the need for NATO allies to increase defense spending and has been moving in that direction in recent years. Germany’s defense budget has increased by 8 percent this year, and the government is pledged to meet the NATO target of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense by 2024—with an economy of Germany’s size, that would be an enormous expansion of European military resources. Although Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, has cast some doubt on the ability of Berlin to continue increasing defense spending, Germany’s healthy government budget surplus should enable further increases in the coming years. It will fall to the next German government to develop plans for long-term spending increases that achieve the 2 percent goal and with it a focus on the critical military capabilities needed to contribute to Germany and NATO’s collective defense.

Whenever Europe or the United States has faced a serious international challenge, they have turned to each other—that has been a foundational principle since the end of World War II and the creation of NATO. It has evolved into an extraordinarily high degree of trust over seven decades, and the transatlantic economic link is the largest and densest in the world. The relationship with Germany is among Washington’s most crucial partnerships, connecting the United States with the center of economic and political power in Europe. Germany’s importance for achieving U.S. objectives will only grow as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union and Berlin’s weight within Europe increases. For its part, Germany’s foreign and security policy depends, for obvious historical reasons, on acting in partnership with other democracies to validate its actions and to dispel fears that German power could be misused. Sustaining and strengthening this partnership—and acknowledging the security and economic inseparability of the United States and Europe—will be among the most consequential actions of the new U.S. administration.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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