Argument

Angela Merkel Has a Playbook for Bullies Like Trump

Literally, there’s a five-point plan that she has used to take down macho adversaries her entire career.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference with Sweden's Prime Minister (not in picture) in Stockholm on January 31, 2017.
Merkel is on a one-day official visit to Sweden. / AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND        (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a press conference with Sweden's Prime Minister (not in picture) in Stockholm on January 31, 2017. Merkel is on a one-day official visit to Sweden. / AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Angela Merkel may not seem at first glance the hardest-nosed operator: She’s soft-spoken, physically unimposing, and concertedly uncharismatic. But if Donald Trump thinks he can intimidate the German chancellor into doing his bidding, or at least staying out of his way as he does his own, he might consider counsel from his fellow parody of hyper-masculine bullying, Vladimir Putin. The Russian president, whose economy is now paying the price for testing her on Ukraine, considers Merkel a “dangerous person,” alone among her European peers capable of pushing back, according to Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

The chancellor’s astounding record in outfoxing, outlasting, and outmaneuvering full-of-themselves male rivals, however, began before Putin appeared on the scene. Her track record offers the outlines of a go-to plan for dealing with bullies — and, not coincidentally, it dovetails tightly with her top foreign-policy advisor’s five-point plan for taking on Trump.

Merkel prides herself on her caution and dispassion, and she has thus far refused to dignify Trump’s repeated excoriation of her refugee policy as a “catastrophic mistake” with a direct response. But she wasted no time in responding full force to the president’s immigration ban that bars the entry of refugees and others from several Muslim-majority countries, pointedly reminding Trump of the international right to political asylum embedded in the Geneva Conventions. At a press conference Monday, she sugarcoated nothing: “The necessary and resolute fight against terrorism in no way justifies a general suspicion against all people who share a certain faith, in this case people of the Muslim faith, or people from a certain background.” The procedures adopted by the Trump administration contradict the fundamental philosophy of international refugee assistance and international cooperation, continued Merkel.

From zero hour of the Trump era, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that she will not play the patsy. Upon learning on election night that Donald Trump would become the next U.S. president, she insisted that Germany’s relationship with the United States continue within the traditional parameters of the North Atlantic alliance, based on their common values of democracy, freedom, and human rights. She specifically underscored respect for “the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.” On the basis of these values, she said, “I offer close cooperation to the future president of the United States of America, Donald Trump.”

Berlin insiders say the German government is extremely wary of the new president and his team and uncertain whether he sets any store at all in the North Atlantic alliance. Among other headline issues, Germany is deeply worried that he’ll unravel the tenuous deal in Ukraine by abandoning sanctions against Russia, damn NATO with faint attention, or through either meddling or bungling exacerbate existing rifts in the EU. Trump and Merkel spoke by telephone Saturday afternoon, for the first time since the inauguration, apparently discussing a wide spectrum of issues including NATO, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, the conflict in Ukraine, and relations with Russia including sanctions.

Though caught off guard by Trump’s victory, the German government has scrambled to come up with a strategy of dealing with him. Indeed, Merkel has a plan, one that builds on her considerable experience taking on aggressive “alpha male” bullies, evident in the dozen or so scalps she already has on her belt.

Most outsiders have probably forgotten a pivotal early moment in Merkel’s precipitous rise in German politics, namely her brazenly principled, unemotional cutting loose of her political mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Merkel’s dramatic move in 1999 stunned the country and burnished insight into how she’d deal with domineering, ethically challenged alpha males in the years to come. As the brand-new Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chair, Merkel, who owed her entire political career to Kohl’s patronage, unceremoniously relieved Kohl of his post as honorary CDU chairman (and de facto king-maker) for operating secret party bank accounts worth millions of dollars. In the name of principle, she effectively banished Kohl from German politics.

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A sense of how bold and — especially in the top-down, authority-obliging CDU — wildly contentious this was: Merkel was still a relative political fledgling. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kohl handpicked the 37-year-old nobody from East Berlin, a naive-looking career physicist with no political record at all, to serve in his cabinet, a post from which he shepherded her into ever higher positions of power, eventually as the CDU’s No. 1 in 1998. She was referred to as “Kohl’s girl” — and appeared to demurely accept the part. Kohl, in stark contrast, was a world-renowned statesman, a figure destined for the history books for engineering German unification and redefining German Christian democracy. But Merkel did the right thing — the secret accounts for funding the party branches were completely illegal — and stuck to her guns when the CDU faithful came after her screaming “treason” and “patricide.”

In many ways, Merkel’s cold dispatch of Kohl presaged how she would deal with a long string of male rivals in German politics, as well as how years later as chancellor she’d engage with the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Putin — and she shows every intention of using much the same playbook with Trump. The day before the inauguration, her foreign-policy confidant, Christoph Heusgen, in an entirely unprecedented move, publicly issued a five-point policy paper on Trump-era transatlantic relations. In short: Germany will not be coddling Trump the way British Prime Minister Theresa May seems wont to do.

No sudden movements. Strategic patience is needed at first, according to Heusgen. Understandably, the chancellery has said it wants to see what Trump really has up his sleeve in Europe before Germany can act.

This will not prove challenging for Merkel; it is the foundation of her career, especially when dealing with unpredictable hotheads, whether they’re German, Russian, or American, and the aspect of it most deeply rooted in her upbringing. What some criticize as a lack of pathos is in fact a go-slow pragmatism gleaned from three decades of living as a pastor’s daughter in the dictatorship that was communist East Germany. She watched and waited for the government’s actions, keeping her cards close to her chest. (Some former East German oppositionists note that she waited much too long to become involved — until after communism had collapsed.)

Central to Merkel’s demeanor is her steely patience, which makes her impossible to bait. “She’s not like Meryl Streep, who’s provoked to emotional reaction by Trump,” said Caroline Fetscher, a columnist for the German daily Der Tagesspiegel. “She rose in German politics in a party dominated by loud, West German men. She, an East German woman, watched them very closely to identify strengths and weaknesses, but she never mimicked them.”

Fetscher claims that Merkel has employed this reserve to her advantage again and again. “Merkel is so not an alpha that she’s constantly underestimated,” Fetscher said. “But she’s thinking, observing. She often appears vague, but she has a taste for power. This helps with big-headed people because she isn’t intimidated by them. She’s obviously not one of the boys, nor can men play up to her femininity because she goes for none of that either. She doesn’t play on the same chessboard they do, and that flummoxes them.”

As for Putin, one 2007 episode might have led him to respect Merkel even before her pushback on Crimea’s annexation. At Putin’s summer residence in the Russian city of Sochi, Merkel, who is famously afraid of dogs, remained calm and even forced a smile when the Russian leader let into the room his full-grown black Labrador Konni, who stalked around for a while before finally settling at Merkel’s feet. She kept her nerves and refused to lash out at Putin afterward, even though German observers saw it as a deliberate, audacious provocation. She told the German press corps after the incident that only insecure types resort to such tricks. And through them, she added, is how you discover their vulnerabilities.

Show off a little. The chancellery has recognized that one of Trump’s beefs is Germany’s failure to meet its commitment as a NATO member to spend 2 percent of GDP on national defense. Apparently Berlin has received the message and is willing to pitch in more, if not the full 2 percent, which would be politically unpopular.

But the implication of Trump’s one-liners is an insult: that Germany and other NATO members don’t do much of anything on security at all, but rather simply free-ride on America’s coattails. The Heusgen manifesto says Germany has to flaunt what it can do and has done on the geopolitical stage.

Merkel is not a showoff; on the contrary, understatement is an art form she has perfected. But Merkel has presided over a foreign and security policy with victories to its credit — they’re just not the kind that hawks such as Trump think matter. Those successes tend to involve significant compromise and long, arduous negotiations, such as those at the height of the euro crisis — which kept the EU intact (for the moment, at least) — and in hammering out a deal with Turkey on refugees, which in 2016 cut down the number of refugees arriving from Turkish shores.

Take Russia again. When Russia grabbed Crimea in 2014 and then went on to encourage and arm ethnic Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, it looked like pro-Russian forces would march straight to Odessa. But Germany led the diplomatic efforts to end the war, and even though the Russians didn’t stop in their tracks, they eventually halted. American hawks urged the Europeans to respond militarily. But Merkel ruled it out, grasping that this could ignite full-scale war with Russia. The German-brokered Minsk accords are anything but perfect (Crimea isn’t even addressed), yet they finally stopped the worst of the carnage, maintained the formal territorial unity of Ukraine, and introduced a civilian peacekeeping mission into the country. Rather than a military response, Germany led the imposition of EU sanctions on Russia, which are hurting Russia still today.

Heusgen underscored other German contributions: Bundeswehr troops in Latvia, German warships in the Aegean, military helicopters in Mali. Germany is involved in police and peacekeeping missions across the world. Merkel could go further, pointing out that Germany spends a much higher proportion of its budget on development aid than does the United States, which some observers think will do leagues more to maintain international stability than investment in weaponry. The total that the EU and its 28 member countries pay for aid is nearly three times that of the United States under former President Barack Obama’s administration. Look for Merkel to remind Trump of that.

Make (or resist) a deal. Germany has to speak a language that the businessman in Trump understands, the chancellery maintains. Apparently, this was a piece of advice that Obama gave Merkel on his final swing through Europe in late 2016. The Germans figure that a businessman will listen to dollars-and-cents reasoning. But all indications until now are that that’s just wishful thinking on their part.

Rather, Merkel will soon probably find herself forced to accept that any deals with Trump will have to proceed from his idiosyncratic idea of American interests. Here, her résumé illustrates that she won’t cave in if she thinks Germany’s bottom-line values are at stake, be they human rights or international norms. The deal many Europeans are expecting is some quid pro quo for dropping sanctions against Russia (perhaps involving a Russian reduction of nuclear stock piles). Many EU nations have been hurt economically by the sanctions and would gladly call them off. Some suspect this is what Theresa May is currently negotiating with the U.S. president.

But Merkel has been unbending when it comes to the fundamental values of Europe’s liberal order. By far the most well-known instance is her highly controversial migration policy. Though she has come a long way from the open-borders policy of 2015 (and the number of refugees entering Germany has dropped by nearly three-quarters), Merkel has steadfastly refused to limit the right to asylum for the politically persecuted.

Do-it-yourself leadership. If the United States pulls back from NATO, the EU is going to have to stand up to replace the alliance’s security guarantee, the cornerstone of Atlantic security since World War II. This is easier said than done considering the vast discrepancy between America’s military capabilities and those of the EU states. Europe has been trying unsuccessfully for ages to get common foreign and security policies off the ground but to little avail.

Nevertheless, Washington threw the Ukraine conflict into Berlin’s lap, and it responded admirably. Germany has led most of Europe’s important diplomacy in recent years. Moreover, Heusgen notes, Germany has been pushing for a joint central command for European troops for ages, but the Brits had until now blocked it. Brexit has changed that.

Merkel doesn’t want to give up the American leg of the Atlantic alliance; she sees the North Atlantic-led West as responsible for ending communism in Europe — and liberating her and her fellow East Germans. But her relations with Trump will be largely determined by the extent to which Merkel believes that Europe can go it alone and the extent of the leverage she feels that gives her. The stumbling block is that neither she nor anyone else in Europe has a clear vision of what a post-NATO European alliance would look like. How much investment would it take to plausibly defend Eastern Europe? So unexpected was Trump’s victory that no one has even done the numbers yet.

Fire back.“When steps are taken that adversely impact German interests,” the chancellor will “duly comment on it,” claims Heusgen. Although “duly commenting” doesn’t really amount to “firing back,” the chancellor’s first diplomat was surely just being professional. In her release of Kohl, German politicians first learned that this unassuming woman could and would fire back — coolly, without anger or vengeance, but with cold efficiency. And she has done it many times since then. As a matter of fact, she has already fired back at Trump: with her bold election night note and clear condemnation of the president’s immigration ban. Firing back may weaken his moral legitimacy or even contribute to isolating the United States under Trump’s leadership. But Merkel isn’t leading the entire free world against Trump. Rather, she’s defending a liberal Europe, which is under threat from its own populists now, too, who hail Trump’s every move.

Merkel’s masterpieces in political power have been when she is the weaker protagonist, says political scientist Detlev Claussen. “She didn’t seek out confrontation but rather waited until her opponent showed weakness or sentimentality and then, ice-cold, drove a knife into their back.” Claussen notes that Europe isn’t Trump’s priority at the moment. “She’ll probably wait until some of his initial glitter rubs off. But this is how she’ll take him on.”

Photo credit: JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

Paul 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).

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