With a bit of exaggeration, but is the upcoming meeting of Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump a meeting of the leader of liberal world order with the leader of illiberal world order? At this stage what does Merkel want from Trump and vice versa? Read few comments.
Erik Jones, Professor of European Studies and International Political Economy, Director of European and Eurasian Studies, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University
I think what Germany wants from the United States is precisely not to be left alone as the bulwark for the ‘liberal world order’. For both historical reasons and because of the many divisions (and veto players) within the German political system, Germany is reluctant to take a strong leadership position within Europe. It is even more reluctant to do so at a global level. And that is before I stop talking about ‘Germany’ in this anthropomorphic sense and start talking about Angela Merkel as a person.
My guess – without knowing her personally – is that Chancellor Merkel is trying as hard as she can to focus her attention on maintaining control over her governing coalition and winning the upcoming elections. Along the way, she has to wrestle with the many issues that her government faces both domestically and in Europe. The turbulence coming from the other side of the Atlantic is only complicating that situation.
If Chancellor Merkel could get more solid commitment from the Trump administration toward NATO (in exchange for the promise of more equitable burden-sharing), if she could get the Trump Administration to say fewer negative things about the European Union and to stop proposing bilateral trade deals with EU member states, and if she could win some suggestion that the Trump Administration will not suddenly change U.S. policy toward Russia, those would be important stabilizing elements. If, by contrast, the U.S. President insists on downgrading NATO, encouraging other BREXIT-like sentiments (or politicians), and suggesting that a rapid reset with Russia is imminent, then I think Chancellor Merkel will be dissatisfied with the meeting.
There is a further particular bilateral element. The Trump Administration is highly critical of Germany for its macroeconomic imbalances and the incoming U.S. Ambassador to the European Union has suggested that he would ‘short the euro’ as a single currency. I suspect Chancellor Merkel would like to encourage the U.S. President to back off of both positions. Whether that happens remains to be seen. If the U.S. President reiterates these positions at the meeting, then I suspect Chancellor Merkel will be even more disappointed. If President Trump uses the occasion to repeat his assertion that Chancellor Merkel’s asylum policy was a disaster, she will be insulted.
What I do not expect to emerge in the conversation between the two leaders is any serious discussion of the global system or the liberal world order that it encompasses. I could be very wrong on that. It would be interesting if they had a deep conversation about the nature of international relations and the role of great powers in the current arrangement. But I suspect that is not going to happen. Instead, they are going to talk about more specific things and then leave us to read some broader meaning in the tea leaves.
Jörg Forbrig, Senior Transatlantic Fellow for Central and Eastern Europe, German Marshall Fund
Chancellor Merkel’s upcoming visit to President Trump is likely to be her most delicate meeting in a long time. Their (so far long-distance) relationship has been marred by open disagreement, with Trump openly attacking her approach to the refugee crisis and German economic policy broadly, while Merkel admonished him publicly to honor Western values and institutions. There are outsized expectations to Merkel who, considered by many to be the last defender of the liberal world order, is to reign in the illiberal leader of the largest Western power. The visit comes at a time when Merkel herself is at risk of falling into political isolation in Europe, with Dutch and French elections, Brexit and Poland’s illiberal turn all putting key partnerships in question. At home, it is campaign season and Merkel faces unexpected headwinds from her Bavarian sister party, from re-energized Social Democrats, and from a virulent far right alike. In all these respects, the visit may easily backfire and further weaken Merkel, and it is for this reason that quite a few in Germany plainly consider it a mistake.
However, she cannot avoid reaching out to President Trump at this stage, hopefully developing a workable rapport. For two main reasons. First, after fierce campaign rhetoric that questioned hitherto transatlantic cooperation, more recent statements by the new U.S. President and some of his key staff have considerably dialed down the tone. This is a momentum that Merkel wants to gage and cultivate. Second, Germany holds the G20 presidency and will host the group’s summit in July. A key part of President Trump’s agenda is trade policy, which is said to become considerably more restrictive. This is much to the concern of all other G20 states who fear repercussions for their bilateral trade with the U.S. and for the international trade system overall. Engaging Trump in this discussion early is as much Merkel’s job as current G20 chairwoman as it is responsible stewardship on behalf of Germany’s export-oriented economy. Third, there are obviously a series of global security threats, from Russia to Iran to the Islamic State, which have so far been addressed jointly by the U.S., Germany, and others in the Western community. Keeping this cooperation intact and advancing it further is certainly high on Merkel’s agenda.
In these respects, this visit is inevitable. What is more, this early point in time is the best-advisable option. Taking place now, Merkel’s encounter with Trump happens before this year’s uncertain political dynamic in Europe fully unfolds. Within weeks, there will be a crucial election in the Netherlands and the U.K.’s triggering of the Brexit procedure, followed by another key vote for the new French president before Germany’s own election campaign takes off. There are also a number of wildcards: Russia, Turkey, the refugee and Eurozone crises that can both erupt anew. Given all these uncertainties, any later stage may only complicate Merkel’s outreach to Trump and, if unsuccessful, set her back politically even more strongly both in Germany and in Europe.