Like it or not, Angela Merkel is now the main guardian of the norms, values, and institutions that make up the Atlantic alliance.
- By Paul HockenosPaul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message of congratulations to a newly victorious President-elect Donald Trump was markedly unlike that of her European counterparts. In it, she was neither fawning nor curt: “Germany and America are bound by their values,” she reminded the new president-elect dispassionately, “democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political conviction.” She continued: “On the basis of these values, I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
The message was immediately seized by some commentators as an admonition on Merkel’s part — a sign that the German leader was subtly chastising the incoming president for bad behavior on the campaign trail. But this is likely wrong. Insiders in the German government say Merkel has no intentions of setting herself up for a fight with Trump or to serve as some kind of moral foil. This, I was told, would be pure folly — and not in Merkel’s cautious character.
Rather, Merkel was making a strategic offer of cooperation and delineating the parameters within which it could happen. Maintaining a good relationship with Germany — and, by implication, all of Europe — she intoned, was straightforward: It required upholding the basic principles and values espoused by the West.
If this congrats-with-a-caveat sounds familiar, it’s because the United States once handed out these sorts of messages to unpredictable leaders with whom it nonetheless hoped to have productive relationships — back when it was the undisputed heart of the community of nations and values known as the “Atlantic alliance.” Her words underscored that Europeans are still very much interested in working closely with the United States, in the North Atlantic and beyond, as long as that cooperation takes a somewhat familiar form. Merkel’s statement, in other words, wasn’t an admonition — it was an offer.
The day after Trump’s victory, Europeans, and especially Germans, are looking at their world with new eyes, and — wholly unprepared for a Trump victory — they’re completely flummoxed by what they see. Political insiders admit that like so many others around the world, they have no idea what to expect from a Trump administration and that they must be prepared for the worst. Berlin’s top diplomats say they don’t even know Trump’s foreign-policy advisors — an unprecedented state of affairs. “With Trump’s election, Germans are standing in front of a black hole,” opined Stefan Braun of the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. “The world could change for Germany in a way greater even than it did with the fall of the Wall.” One commentator grimly called it the “end of the West.” Berthold Kohler, publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, declared, “If Trump does in foreign policy what he promised in the campaign … then the already stressed Atlantic alliance and geopolitical structures system of the West are facing a revolution.”
What does seem likely is that Germany — and thus, Merkel, whether she likes it or not — will now be thrust to the forefront of international affairs on Europe’s behalf, as the main proponent of the norms, values, and institutions that comprise an alliance that has been the foundation of world order for the past seven decades. With her words on Wednesday, Merkel signaled that she understands that the United States now has other options but that Germany remains committed to the values that America taught it after World War II.
The Atlantic alliance, formed in the wake of World War II as a bulwark against Soviet expansion with the United States at its center and European countries like (West) Germany loyally beside it, has shaped the world for the past seven decades. The alliance was based on shared interests, such as free trade and collective security structures, including, first and foremost, NATO. But it was also based on a commitment to shared values, including human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and pluralism; it promoted these values at home, and selectively abroad, with both soft and hard power.
Germany is not the new leader of the free world, and it’s far too soon to call the United States a dangerous transgressor. But Europe now finds itself facing the sudden possibility that a President Trump makes good on his campaign promises to withdraw from world politics and, as part of this neo-isolationist strategy, pull back from NATO, the alliance’s keystone. Europe is a region currently beset by crises, including the increasingly authoritarian regimes in Russia and Turkey, EU acrimony, a weak French government, and a Brexiting Britain. Berlin is suddenly much more important to maintaining any semblance of the current order, for the simple reason that there is no one else to take the wheel.
Most Europeans recognized long ago that the postwar Atlantic alliance’s ambitions had shrunk since the Cold War. During the two terms of George W. Bush, relations between the United States and its European partners descended into naked hostility over the Iraq War. Under Barack Obama, the alliance’s prominence shrank further still, as the president made clear that his priorities lay not with Europe but with Asia and other parts of the world.
And yet, despite this, the continent never formulated a Plan B. The EU, which has had aspirations of joint foreign and security policies for decades, has struggled — and largely failed — to produce anything coherent and effective. Europe’s ever deeper divisions and the union’s deficits prevented it from integrating on the level of foreign affairs, with the exception of trade, and today its prospects to do so look worse than ever.
Nor did most European countries bolster their military spending to meet NATO targets, despite the express disapproval of the United States. On the campaign, more than once Trump said U.S. support for NATO depended on countries paying up. This is suddenly on the table in Germany and will probably be across Europe, even though such a move has been politically unpopular in many countries. (Germany, for its part, buckled to pressure from Washington this year by declaring it would increase its defense spending, although no precise figure was mentioned.)
The U.S. election has already altered the political calculus on this issue in Europe. Due in part to its history, Germany and Merkel will never be able to fulfill the role the United States played in the alliance — that is, the military superpower, providing the nuclear umbrella under which other countries found shelter. But what it may be able to do is steer the European Union as a whole in a more self-reliant direction when it comes to security. “This could be a wake-up call. Europeans have to wake up and grow up fast,” says Michael Bröning, an international politics specialist at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a German think tank close to the country’s Social Democrats. “Having the U.K. out of the way has already given integration some momentum.”
Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, said Trump’s election could provide an “important stimulus” to upgrading the EU’s military capacity and bolstering its structures. “The defense of liberal democracy,” she said, “has become our highest priority.” This means that “the EU has to take over more responsibility in foreign and military affairs.” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has again brought up the possibility of an “EU army,” an idea that has been periodically rolled out and then quickly mothballed in the past but could find more traction under a President Trump. EU foreign ministers met on Sunday in Brussels to parley over the implications of a Trump presidency at a special dinner, called for by Germany.
And with illiberal forces gaining ground everywhere, including within the EU itself in countries like Poland and Hungary, Berlin could also play a role in setting the tone when it comes to values in the alliance going forward.
In many ways, Merkel is the anti-Trump, Bröning said. “In terms of temperament, she’s very sober, rational, and controlled. She a physicist by profession and rarely shows emotion. And, on the other hand, she has a strong moral approach to politics, as you see on issues such as climate change, migration and borders, and EU integration. At the root of her positions are strong moral convictions,” he said.
According to Alan Posener, a columnist for the daily Die Welt, Merkel’s congratulatory words to Trump were actually meant for her fellow Europeans, not for the U.S. president. “She was telling them: ‘Don’t abandon our values when making deals with Trump,’” he said. Europe’s commitment to Ukraine, for example, “can’t be traded away, even if Trump decides to do a grand deal with Putin.” Posener argues that Merkel and the rest of Europe are going to have to learn to deal with a new U.S. president who thinks like a businessman: “They’re going to have to offer him something to get something. Like the Europeans finally beef up their militaries, and in exchange Trump sticks with NATO and doesn’t sell us down the river to Putin.”
Though not mentioned explicitly in her words to Trump, the specter of Russia and the possibility of closer U.S.-Russia relations — to the exclusion of Western Europe and democratic principles — hung over them. Merkel was underscoring the choice that the new president will have and that breaking with the status quo of the North Atlantic alliance will have enormous implications. The Europeans are extremely nervous that an undemocratic Russia embraced by a U.S. administration that itself flaunts liberal values will put European democracy under severe pressure. Obama, who is due to visit Europe this week, is likely to find himself besieged with urgent questions about where his country is headed.
Germany hasn’t been the little brother of the United States for some time now, arguably since unification in 1990. Yet it has relied on Washington and its security guarantees to avoid making tough decisions on its own security and its role in the world.
“The Brexit decision and the election in the United States have set a new course” for Europe, said von der Leyen, the German defense minister. Merkel and her fellow Europeans are now scrambling to determine exactly what that will be.
Photo credit: Jochen Zick – Pool / Getty Images