Merkel Makes an Enemy
Not since 2011, when Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was captured on a wiretap disparaging the size of her backside, has Angela Merkel suffered so grievously from the boorishness of allies. Donald Trump, on his first diplomatic visit to Europe, strong-armed the prime minister of Montenegro. He neglected to praise Article 5 of the NATO charter in a speech. He lectured European leaders about the need to contribute more to Western defense. These lapses, if they were lapses, don't seem like biggies. But the Western media have treated them as if they were the biggest diplomatic catastrophe since the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia.
Merkel seems to agree. At a beery Bavarian campaign meeting on Sunday, May 28, she threw oil on the fire. "The times when we could fully rely on others are kind of over," she said. "I experienced that in the last few days, so I can only say, we Europeans really need to take our fate into our own hands—naturally in friendship with the U.S.A. . . . " It sounded like she was declaring Germany's intention, on the basis of a lack of confidence in Donald Trump, to pull the countries of continental Europe out of the transatlantic alliance. Trump took it that way. On Tuesday morning, May 30, he fired off an angry tweet: "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."
Merkel's defenders were quick to say Trump had gone too far. She was a friend of the United States. She had backed the Iraq war. It's only logical that as America moves from being a custodian of global order to pursuing the interests of "America First," there will be slack to pick up. Perhaps, three months away from election, she was showing her usual political mastery, playing to the gallery with a bit of subtle anti-Americanism. Perhaps she was even trying to help Trump, by finding a way to coax the Trump-hating German public to spend more on the military.
No. Trump was right to sense that Merkel means business. For the third time in her chancellorship she has announced a shift in her country's strategic orientation seemingly on a whim. She committed Germany to eliminating nuclear power in the days after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. She invited Middle Eastern refugees into her country by the hundreds of thousands in 2015.
Those initiatives may have been spur-of-the-moment. This one was long-hatched. Since November Merkel has made Trump swallow one insult after another. Her contemptuous congratulatory note after his election victory promised cooperation, provided the United States managed to respect "democracy, freedom, . . . the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views." Her participation in a forum in Germany with former president Barack Obama during Trump's NATO summit visit was a humiliation. Worse, the insults were delivered to a gallery of like-minded Trump-haters in a tone of knowing, nodding confidence that he would be too slow-witted to pick up on them. But egotists are always attentive when the talk is about them. It may be that Merkel has simply misplayed Trump. More likely she sought his enmity. She seems to have acquired it, along with Spielraum for her government and some potential problems for her country.
A writer in the Green newspaper taz accused Trump of wrecking the G7 and NATO summits. It would be more accurate to say he is the only Western leader who treated them as real, pre-Internet Age gatherings, where projects are hatched and fights picked. Tops is the trade deficit. The United States exports $49 billion a year to Germany; Germany exports $114 billion to the United States. German experts say that the size of the deficit is wildly magnified by the U.S. tax code—U.S. exporters, who would be taxed at prohibitive rates if they tried to repatriate their profits, often take them in more tax-friendly jurisdictions abroad. Economists differ on whether that is a problem. Americans have adjudicated the dispute in their usual democratic fashion.
Germany is also free-riding on Western defense, on which the country spends 1.2 percent of GDP—below the 2 percent NATO guidance and well below the 3.6 percent the United States spends. Like many countries in the modern West, Germany needs every penny it can spare to buy social peace, particularly since it must now house and police more than a million mostly nonworking young men newly arrived from the Middle East. What really saps Germany's military spirit is that since the defeat of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago, the benefits Germany draws from NATO are less directly evident to its frugal voters.
Such differences can be hashed out. Germany does not seem to be interested. The break with Trump is being announced not in sorrow but in a spirit of outright exuberance, across the political spectrum. Merkel's Socialist rival for the chancellorship in September, Martin Schulz, has described Trump as the "destroyer of all Western values." Her foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel says, "The West has become smaller"—as if the United States had recently seceded from it. The weekly newsmagazine Der Spiegel calls Merkel "the leader of the free world."
Most often the word "values" is a synonym for empty rhetoric. Not now. Over the past decade a gap has opened up in all Western countries between a ruling elite and a part of the public that feels itself frozen out of its country's democracy. The United States is the first country in which the frozen-out classes have taken power. There now are big differences between the United States and certain of its allies, especially Germany, and they concern the most important political matter of all: sovereignty.
From The Weekly Standard (June, 2017)