The fight against terrorism, the issue of NATO, and relations with Russia will be at the heart of discussions on Tuesday between the German chancellor and the U.S. president, animated by very different values. The Trump administration recently attacked Germany for its $65 billion trade surplus.*
Will she, like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, escape Donald Trump’s fierce handshake? Angela Merkel knows how to stand up for herself. On her March 14 visit to Washington, the German chancellor does not expect to be impressed by the U.S. president, with whom she has little in common.*
Merkel embodies European leadership in a wavering world facing rising populism, and represents as well the defense of humanist values, openness, and solidarity in a world faced with the threat of isolationism. As head of the leaders of the international community—she has been in power for 12 years—Merkel recently proved as much at the 53rd Munich Security Conference. She advocated for multilateralism and cooperation, stating, “No nation can resolve the world’s problems alone.” The contrast with Trump is strong. In his speech to Congress, the U.S. president pushed his protectionist policy, embodied by his slogan “America First.”
Regarding immigration, a wall stands between Merkel and Trump. The chancellor openly criticized the anti-immigration decree that was promulgated on Jan. 27 and subsequently frozen by the courts. Last Monday, Trump presented a new, watered down version. Iraq is no longer among the seven Muslim-majority countries whose nationals are barred from entering the United States for 90 days. Holders of valid green cards and visas are also no longer affected. This is not enough to change Merkel’s opinion, and it is difficult to imagine that she will not address this topic with the U.S. president.
’Catastrophic’ Asylum Policy
In January, Trump did not mince words about Merkel. In an interview with the German publication Bild and The Times in Britain, he denounced her asylum policy and described her decision to open her country to hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers as “catastrophic,” linking it to the attack on a Berlin Christmas market on Dec. 19 by the Islamic State. By 2015, Germany had registered a record 890,000 asylum applications, and the number was down to 280,000 in 2016. By comparison, the United States admitted 89,994 refugees in 2016. Trump will allow no “more than 50,000” this year.
Regarding temperament as well, they are polar opposites. Pragmatic and reserved, Merkel knows how to keep her cool and seems rather thoughtful. She will face a hot-tempered man, capable of knee-jerk reactions, who did not hesitate a few days ago to describe his predecessor Barack Obama, whom he accused of having wiretapped him, as a “bad (or sick)” man.
No General Suspicion
What, then, can bring them closer together? They will probably find common ground on the fight against terrorism and security policy. Trump has made the “eradication” of the Islamic State group one of his priorities. But here again, Merkel will not make concessions with respect to her principles. For her, the “necessary, decisive battle against terrorism does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion.” She told him this herself, during a Jan. 28 telephone call.
The statement released by the White House after the discussion focused primarily on NATO, another issue on which the two leaders should be able to see eye to eye now that Trump has changed his mind. “The President and Chancellor also agreed on the NATO Alliance’s fundamental importance to the broader transatlantic relationship and its role in ensuring the peace and stability of our North Atlantic community,” read the White House text.
’We Will Always Be Your Greatest Ally’
Trump no longer treats NATO as “obsolete.” Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the Munich Conference, reiterated that the United States will stand by the Europeans to perpetuate a common defense if they decide to devote more resources to that defense. “The United States of America strongly supports NATO and will be unwavering in its commitment to our trans-Atlantic alliance,” Pence said. “The United States is and always will be your greatest ally,” he added. Merkel will want to hear this directly from Trump. In front of Congress, Trump also adopted a more conciliatory tone, stating that America was “willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.” Other issues to be discussed include Russia and the situation in eastern Ukraine. On Friday, a U.S. official said that Trump, who will be traveling to the Group of 20 leading the rich and developing nations’ summit in Hamburg in July, hoped to hear “the chancellor’s views on her experience interacting with Putin.”
On the trade front, China became Germany’s primary partner in 2016, relegating the United States to third place after France, which rather reassured Germany given the U.S. president’s protectionist policies. Peter Navarro, Donald Trump’s trade adviser, has just declared that the United States will seek to reduce its $65 billion trade debt with Germany, outside the procedures imposed by the European Union. Navarro accused Europe’s biggest economic power of taking advantage of the euro’s fall against the dollar. Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, reacted strongly. His country’s current surplus is the result of “the high competitiveness of its companies,” he said. Schauble will meet his American counterpart, Steven Mnuchin, in Berlin on March 16. The taxes Trump plans to impose on foreign products will of course be discussed.
Finally, Merkel may know how to play a bit more to the president’s personal side: Trump’s paternal grandparents were German. Friedrich Trump immigrated to the United States at the age of 16. He first worked as a barber, then as a restaurant manager, before participating in the Klondike gold rush. He returned to Germany to marry but lost his citizenship when the authorities discovered that he had emigrated to escape military service. He thus had to return to the United States.
*Editor’s note: German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with President Donald Trump in Washington on Friday, March 17. This article was written prior to that meeting.