A further drifting apart of society can only be checked if Merkel, her CDU and the other established parties draw lessons from Trump’s election victory.*
The election of such an angry citizen as Donald Trump for president of the United States is as exceptional as the reactions. Those reactions included the appearance of Angela Merkel, who dutifully offered him close cooperation, but with conditions: respect for democracy, the rule of law and human dignity no matter what origin, skin color, sex and sexual orientation. It sounds as if she was reminding the president of the United States about the U.S. Constitution.
Such a thing has never been in the relationship between the United States and the Federal Republic, which once received American instructions on democracy as it developed from a dependent country into a more and more self-assured and close ally. And now it’s the chancellor who is setting the conditions for continued collaboration.
Putin, Erdogan, Orban … and Now Trump
From this, the direction in which Merkel’s concerns lie can be deduced. She is well-versed in dealing with presidents who act with the authority of democratic constitutions but pursue totally different politics. Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban are such men. And now also Trump. So it cannot hurt to remind him right away of the principles currently underlying cooperation, which are nothing less than the foundations of what we would call a Western community of shared values.
At the moment, no one knows what direction Trump will take as president and with which advisers he will be surrounded. There are two widespread views in Europe: One says it won’t turn out to be so terrible. We have experienced a ruthless campaigner; a President Trump will be a different person for whom respect for the office and its complex challenges will teach humility and lead to recognition of America’s international obligations.
The other view draws an apocalyptic picture. If rage becomes a category of international relationships, if Trump, Putin and Erdogan connive, if the French elect a right-wing populist as president, then it will result in the collapse of a predominantly peaceful post-war order in the Western world as we know it.
Probably neither the one nor the other prognosis is correct. One must be concerned that Trump’s aggressiveness and his delight in breaking the law were not only campaign tactics. After his success, why should he be different in the White House? On the other hand, it is most often a mistake to immediately extrapolate epochal change from a surprisingly extreme case as this election result.
More Defense Spending, More German Armed Forces Deployment
Much speaks in favor of this being Merkel’s view. Her statement about Trump’s election shows that she is aware of the responsibility she faces. From an international viewpoint, Germany seems to be an island of stability and its chancellor a guarantor of reliability, seriousness and democratic values in times of such great political uncertainties. Merkel is, in the meantime, by far the most experienced head of government among the great industrialized nations. It is apparent that with the foreseeable absence of the United States as the presumptive leading power, she will be confronted with the expectation of taking up an even stronger leadership role – in case of doubt, even against the new government in Washington. A leading example of that was when Gerhard Schröder said “no” to George W. Bush’s Iraq War.
So it works well that the German federal president and the federal government announced at the 2015 Munich Security Conference that Germany wants to, and is able to, take on more international responsibility. This promise can now be honored. That means, however, that the chancellor must explain to her citizens what this policy of greater international responsibility means – among other things, possibly more defense spending for the buildup of European military structures and even more German army deployments in regions of crisis.
These are not especially attractive prospects in an election year, particularly in the face of an Alternative for Germany party that beats the drum for isolation and Germany’s retreat into national interests.**
This can only be achieved at all if Merkel, her CDU and the other established parties simultaneously draw lessons from the U.S. election. It is a matter of getting credible answers to the question of how to redress the societal split between winners, for whom it is going as well as never before, and the many others, who feel they are without prospects, because this is not only an American phenomenon, but instead one affecting the entire Western world and its liberal elite. That would also make a very interesting, very relevant election campaign topic.
*Editor’s note: CDU is short for Christian Democratic Union, a Christian democratic and liberal-conservative political party in Germany.
**Editor’s note: The Alternative for Germany is a populist and Eurosceptic political party in Germany, founded in 2013.