German Chancellor Angela Merkel met United States President Donald Trump on Friday for the first time since her re-election in Germany in September. The mood music in Merkel’s White House visit that lasted only around two hours, and achieved none of the diplomatic breakthroughs she wanted, contrasted sharply with the pomp of the earlier three-day state visit of French President Emmanuel Macron.
While Trump on Friday said that Merkel is “an extraordinary woman” and that they have “a great friendship”, bilateral relations are unquestionably cooler under his presidency. And the personal factor here is important with Merkel’s style and values colliding with those of Trump, who relishes his role as disrupter of the established western order that she embodies, whereas she had a very strong relationship with his predecessor, former US president Barack Obama.
This was not just symbolised in March 2017, when Merkel first met Trump and he appeared to refuse shaking her hand at a press conference. Added to this are subsequent tensions over multiple issues, including climate change, and the two did not even speak from last Autumn for more than five months before a phone call on March 1.
The lack of personal chemistry between the two had been softened by the cordial relationship Merkel and her team, previously, enjoyed with Trump’s secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. However, it remains very uncertain whether the Germans will have the same accord with their more hard-line replacements Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
Beyond these personality issues, Trump also is aware that since last September’s German election — which saw Merkel’s ruling CDU party and its sister CSU organisation lose ground — she is very likely in her last term as chancellor and a weaker figure on the global stage. This is a big turnaround, in only around half a year, given that Merkel had — for perhaps a decade — been indisputably the most important political leader in continental Europe, and had claims to being the most influential leader in the Western world in the Trump era.
To put her achievements into wider international perspective, three US presidents (George Bush, Barack Obama and Trump), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Macron), and the same number of United Kingdom prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) have already served during her tenure. And Merkel has also already exceeded the previous record of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest-serving female leader, which was 11 years.
Yet, there are now doubts whether she will now serve a full fourth term to 2021, by which she would match former German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s 16 years of office from 1982 to 1998 and surpass Konrad Adenauer’s service from 1949 to 1963 as Germany’s first post-war chancellor. Indeed, a full fourth term would see Merkel — who is still widely admired across much of the world and the longest serving G7 and EU leader — only sitting behind Otto von Bismarck who served for almost two decades from 1871—90 during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs having helped previously drive unification of Germany.
Reflecting his disruptive diplomacy, and possibly Merkel’s post-election weakness as well, Trump has been much more critical than Obama on several long-standing issues in the bilateral relationship, especially trade and defence spending. On trade, Trump called Germany on Friday “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus — with exports larger than imports — and the president has particularly singled out the nation’s car exports which he has threatened to put tariffs on.
Merkel is acutely aware of this irritant in bilateral relations and has asserted that Germany’s trade surplus is on a pathway to narrowing due to higher domestic demand. Last year, for instance, saw the first decline in the nation’s trade surplus from the 2016 record high of $304.44 billion (Dh1.11 trillion) to $300.9 billion in 2017.
A second sore point is Germany’s failure to spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence spending, a key Nato goal, and this was also highlighted by Trump on Friday. Indeed, the country spent ‘only’ 1.13 per cent of its GDP in 2017. Again, Merkel acknowledges the vulnerability here. She asserts that the nation is committed to the 2 per cent target, despite the nation’s post-war disregard for military force, with foreign missions from Mali to Afghanistan, and humanitarian aid in Syria.
It was this cauldron of discontent that Merkel stepped into on Friday, hoping to try to win Trump around on at least two points. Firstly, with the prospect of big US trade tariffs hanging over the European Union, she lobbied for an extension of the current exemption, which is scheduled to expire tomorrow, from Washington’s trade sanctions on steel and aluminium imports that has been granted to Europe. Secondly, she pushed Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, which he has given the other signatories — Germany, France, UK, Russia and China — a May 12 deadline to “fix the terrible flaws” of. Or he will refuse to extend US sanctions relief on Iran.
On both agendas, Merkel did not appear on Friday to have made decisive progress, given her only short White House meeting and troubled Trump relationship. Failure to get breakthroughs on both these issues soon will only up the tempo in transatlantic tensions in advance of June’s G7 summit.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.