The German Chancellor and other European leaders have run out of patience with the President.
This past July, on the final day of the nato summit in Brussels, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, proposed a closed-door emergency meeting. The emergency was Donald Trump. Minutes earlier, the President had arrived late to a session where the Presidents of Ukraine and Georgia were making their case to join nato. Trump interrupted their presentation and unleashed a verbal assault on the members of the alliance, calling them deadbeats and free riders on American power. Trump threatened to go his “own way” if they didn’t immediately pay more for their own defense. His barrage centered on Merkel, Europe’s longest-serving democratic leader.
“You, Angela,” Trump chided Merkel. Most of nato’s members had failed to fulfill the goal of spending two per cent of G.D.P. for defense, but Trump focussed on Germany’s military spending of just over one per cent of G.D.P. In front of television cameras the previous day, he had accused Germany of being “totally controlled by Russia,” because of a proposed new gas pipeline. His tweets that day sounded like blackmail. “What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.”
Now, with the room cleared of staff, the nato leaders sat stunned by what one called the “bizarre spectacle” of Trump’s harangue. It fell to another woman, Dalia Grybauskaitė, the President of Lithuania, to defend Merkel. Germany had sent troops to protect Lithuania from Russia, Grybauskaitė pointed out, and Merkel was committed to spending more on nato’s common defense. The Danish and the Norwegian Prime Ministers also pushed back. In the corner of the room, Merkel strategized with other Europeans about how to stop Trump. Eventually, Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, offered the President what he appeared to want most: a way to claim victory. Rutte noted that, since Trump took office, the nato allies had collectively raised their defense budgets by some seventy billion dollars. Take the win, he urged the President. Trump did just that.
And yet, when he emerged from the meeting and spoke with reporters, Trump lied, claiming not only that his allies had capitulated to him but also that they would consider his demand to raise their annual military spending to four per cent of G.D.P., an assertion so politically impossible that Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, immediately issued a public rebuttal. Trump, of course, went on behaving in his erratic, inexplicable manner. As he left the summit, he interrupted the Chancellor while she was addressing her fellow nato leaders, and kissed her. “I love this woman,” he said. “Isn’t she great?” A senior German official who told me about that particular Trumpian flourish resisted any attempt at full understanding. “It’s up to psychologists and historians what to make of that,” he said. Four days later, Trump ended his European tour in Helsinki. There, standing next to Vladimir Putin, he spoke with bewildering sympathy for Russian foreign policy, ill-concealed contempt for his nato partners, and implausible skepticism about his own intelligence services.
The astonishing week in Europe was the culmination of a four-month period in which the President imposed tariffs on allies by calling them “national security” threats, pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which they had jointly negotiated with the United States, and held affectionate summits with two of the world’s most powerful autocrats, Putin and Kim Jong Un, while casting aspersions on America’s most constant allies. No one was more of a constant target than Angela Merkel.
European leaders now worry that Trump’s illiberal aims go well beyond his insistent demands on Merkel to pay more for nato and stop shipping so many cars to the U.S. “Many European leaders have told me that they are convinced that President Trump is determined to destroy the E.U.,” a former senior U.S. official told me. Trump has begun publicly calling the E.U. a “foe,” and promoting the resurgence of nationalism, which Macron and Merkel see as a direct threat. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a recent speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, attacked the United Nations, the E.U., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and derided what he called Europe’s flawed vision of multilateralism as “an end to itself.”
Europe has had many fights with American Presidents over the years, but never in the seven decades since the end of the Second World War has it confronted one so openly hostile to its core institutions. Since Trump’s election, Europe’s leaders have feared that it would come to this, but they have disagreed about how to respond to him. Many hoped to wait Trump out. A few urged confrontation. Others, especially in nations more vulnerable to Russia, urged accommodation. (Poland offered to name a new military base Fort Trump.) Macron tried flattery, and then, when that failed, he reverted to public criticism of Trump-style nationalism.
The challenge from Trump has been especially personal for Germans, whose close relationship with the United States has defined their nation’s postwar renaissance. Merkel grew up in Communist East Germany and credits the United States as essential to the liberation of the East and to German reunification. As the head of Europe’s largest and wealthiest nation, she has sought to guide the Continent through the standoff with Trump, but has struggled, because the President’s harsh words reflect a painful truth: Europeans are dependent on the United States for their security and increasingly divided as Putin’s Russia threatens the nations in the east. “Not all of what he says is wrong,” said the senior German official, one of ten who spoke with me. “Europe has been free-riding for some time.” Asked for comment about Trump’s criticism of Merkel, a White House spokesperson told me, “He is often toughest on his friends, and he considers her one. He views Germany as a powerful, prosperous country that should be doing more on defense spending.” But the risks for Trump are also considerable: call your friends enemies long enough, and eventually they may start to believe you. Is this, then, finally, the end of Pax Americana?
On November 16, 2016, eight days after Trump was elected, Barack Obama flew to Berlin to meet with Merkel; it was the last foreign trip of his Presidency. Obama and Merkel had not started out as good friends, but they had become as close as two public figures could be. Over dinner in the Adlon Hotel, they discussed the shocking events of the previous few months, particularly Great Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union and Trump’s victory running on the slogan “America First.” Through the windows of their private dining room, Merkel and Obama could see the floodlit Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of a reunified Berlin.
Merkel, who was nearing the end of her third term, confided that she reluctantly felt that she had to run again, in order to be a buffer against Trump, Brexit, and the surge of right-wing populism throughout Europe. Obama urged her to do so. “Obama was obsessed with the fate of Europe during his last year in office,” Charles Kupchan, who served as Obama’s top National Security Council adviser on European affairs and accompanied him on the trip, told me. After the election, the situation seemed even more urgent. “His view was that Merkel was needed to keep Europe together,” Kupchan said. “He was afraid that, without Merkel, Humpty Dumpty was going to fall off the wall.”
The dinner was emotional. Obama later told Benjamin Rhodes, his deputy national-security adviser, that he had said to Merkel that the Trump Presidency would be like a storm. Obama told her to just “try to find some high ground,” and hold on to it, Rhodes recalled to me. By the time they said good night, three hours later, it was the longest that Obama had been alone with another world leader in his eight years in office. In an adjoining room, advisers to Merkel and Obama were concluding their own dinner. Rhodes offered a rueful toast: To Angela Merkel, he said, now “the leader of the free world.”
Rhodes was not the first to bestow this title on Merkel. When Time named her its Person of the Year, in 2015, it called her “Chancellor of the Free World,” citing her decision to take in more than a million refugees. Merkel’s immigration policy infuriated Trump, and he seized on it to help define his candidacy for the White House. “I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year,” Trump tweeted. “They picked person who is ruining Germany.” He often brought the Chancellor up on the campaign trail in 2016, saying at a rally in March, “What Merkel did to Germany, it’s a sad, sad shame.”
Before the election, Henry Kissinger had visited Berlin, and he advised German officials to arrange a meeting with Jared Kushner, which they did, although the German policy élite, like the rest of the world, didn’t think Trump would win. “We were extremely poorly prepared for this,” Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German Ambassador to the United States, who now heads the Munich Security Conference, told me. “I think everybody has been in quite a state of shock.”
After Trump was elected, other world leaders schemed to play golf with Trump or schmooze him at Trump Tower. Merkel, for her part, released a statement, at once congratulating the President-elect and subtly announcing their differences. It spoke of “common values,” including “democracy, liberty, respect of the law and of human dignity.”
The foreign-policy establishment, in both Washington and Berlin, told Merkel and her advisers that Trump was sometimes unpredictable and volatile, but not an existential threat. He was ignorant, but would be constrained by his staff. He didn’t really mean what he said. One veteran of Republican Administrations recommended “strategic patience,” telling a senior German diplomat to ignore the tweets and focus on policy. Other Europeans received similar advice and came to similar conclusions. Rob Malley, a senior Obama adviser on Europe, who now heads the International Crisis Group, said, of the French, “Their view was that you shouldn’t take irreversible steps as the result of a reversible Presidency.”
From the start, Merkel entertained no illusions that Trump could be easily managed. Still, she had surmounted serious differences with Trump’s two predecessors, George W. Bush and Obama, and became close partners with both. When Merkel took office, in late 2005, Germany had not moved past its antipathy for Bush, whose invasion of Iraq had opened a rift with her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. But Merkel and Bush got along, and their unlikely friendship was captured for the cameras when Bush gave her a back rub at a G-8 summit. With Obama, a decisive moment came in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Obama and Merkel worked together to form a coherent response to Putin’s aggression, imposing sanctions and demanding peace talks. By 2016, they spoke as often as once a week and had what advisers for both leaders told me was a genuine personal and intellectual connection.
Russia figured heavily in the dinner conversation at the Adlon: Trump was threatening to abandon the Ukraine policy and embrace Putin. Obama’s lobbying that night to get Merkel to run for a fourth term was, I’ve been told by German sources, critical in her considerations. “I think the Chancellor listened very carefully to what [Obama] said,” a senior German official told me. As Rhodes recounts in his memoir, “The World as It Is,” when Obama left the country, on November 18th, he thought he saw a tear rolling down Merkel’s face as she said goodbye. Obama turned to Rhodes and said, “Angela, she’s all alone.” Two days later, Merkel announced that, because of “insecure times,” she was running again. However, she cautioned those who hoped that she would be a foil for Trump and the Trump-friendly forces throughout Europe: “No person alone, not even the most experienced, can turn things to good in Germany, Europe, and the world, especially not a Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.”
Afew days before Trump’s Inauguration, John B. Emerson, Obama’s Ambassador to Germany, met for the last time with Merkel in her glass-walled office on the seventh floor of the Chancellery, in Berlin. “My advice was: get to Washington as fast as possible and build a personal relationship with him, because that’s how Trump operates,” Emerson recalled.
In March, Merkel flew to Washington for her first meeting with Trump. She “had never prepared longer or harder for an initial meeting with a head of government than for her first meeting with President Trump,” one of her top national-security aides told a fellow-diplomat. Merkel studied a 1990 Playboy interview with the future President, which has become something of a runic text for Trumpologists on both sides of the Atlantic. She also watched episodes of Trump’s NBC reality show “The Apprentice,” read his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” and spoke with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who had recently met one-on-one with Trump.
The first Trump-Merkel encounter in the Oval Office began with almost comically awful optics: Merkel offered a ceremonial handshake for the cameras, which Trump seemed to rebuff. After the photographers left the room, Trump reportedly announced, “Angela, you owe me one trillion dollars.” (A White House spokesperson denied that Trump used that language, but acknowledged that he shared the sentiment with the Chancellor.) Steve Bannon, the hard-line nationalist who was Trump’s chief strategist at the time, had asked the National Security Council to come up with a number to dramatize how much more money would have gone to nato since 2006 if the allies had been spending two per cent of their G.D.P. on defense, according to Ivo Daalder and James M. Lindsay’s book, “The Empty Throne.” This calculation ignored the fact that the two-per-cent goal isn’t supposed to take effect until 2024, never mind that the nato allies don’t “owe” Trump anything.
Merkel intended to talk about Putin and the threat posed by his dream of Russia’s retaking former Soviet territory. She brought with her a handout prepared for Trump, who she knew disdained lengthy briefing papers. It included a map that showed the borders of the Soviet bloc in 1982, overlaid with Putin’s current territorial ambitions. Trump was unmoved. Merkel later told others that he had interrupted her efforts to discuss Russia in order to boast about his poll ratings among Republican voters.
The President and the Chancellor are almost epically mismatched. Merkel is a trained scientist, who declined a teaching position because she refused to inform on her colleagues. She has a distinctly analytical cast of mind, and she has tried to reason with Trump, or to explain complicated situations that he has persisted in oversimplifying or whose facts he has ignored entirely. “She talks about things that you get the impression he doesn’t fully grasp,” one of the senior German officials told me. Once, Merkel attempted to explain the intricate politics of the Middle East to Trump. “It seemed like she was expecting too much of her audience,” the official concluded. Other leaders, such as Macron and Shinzō Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, have had similar experiences, but they decided to play to Trump’s ego, whether with military parades or long rounds of golf. Not Merkel. “She doesn’t flatter,” another senior German official told me.
In meetings between Trump and Merkel, the German team came armed with numbers to prove to Trump that he was wrong to call Germany the winner in the U.S.-German trade relationship. The Germans told Trump that, if you take the whole trade balance, it’s actually in America’s favor. Trump “just laughed it off,” one of the German officials told me, leading them to conclude that “it’s very hard to get through to him with fact-based arguments.”
But this was not merely about getting through to a new President. The problem, it soon became clear, ran deeper than Trump’s habitual dismissal of rational argument or ordinary differences over policy. The President, the German officials concluded, harbored a deep animus toward Germany in general, and Merkel in particular. “There’s a single-mindedness to it and almost an obsession, it seems, and this is something we are hearing from colleagues in the Administration, too: an obsession with Germany,” one of the senior German officials told me. “It seems like it’s very often issues that can seemingly be boiled down to a single number, like two per cent, or to a single concept. . . . He latches on to that with a certain fixation.” Niels Annen, a Bundestag member who is the German equivalent of the Deputy Secretary of State, told me, “Unfortunately, Germany seems to be very high on the agenda of the President himself.”
During a recent visit to Berlin, I found that many conversations veered into armchair psychoanalysis of what drives Trump’s relentless focus on Germany and its leader. There was no shortage of theories. Some suggested that Trump dislikes strong women; others speculated that Merkel reminds him of Hillary Clinton. Or perhaps it was all about his father, Fred Trump, who spent the years after the Second World War denying his German heritage and claiming to be Swedish. (Donald Trump repeated the falsehood in “The Art of the Deal.”) Others supposed that Trump saw Merkel not only as an Obama confidant—and therefore toxic—but also as the embodiment of the “globalist,” multilateralist politics that he considers anathema to “America First.”
Still others posited that Trump’s contempt for Germany and Merkel was fuelled by positive media coverage of Merkel as the new leader of the West. “It’s one more reason to hate her,” one of the German officials told me. But Trump’s treatment of their country as his “punching bag,” as another German diplomat put it, may well have little to do with bad personal chemistry with Merkel. In the Playboy interview, Trump inveighed against German cars and complained about “being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies,” themes that he still regularly invokes. “Donald Trump has had it out for Germans for thirty years,” Ivo Daalder, the former U.S. Ambassador to nato, told me. “When he talks about allies, he means Germany. When he talks about the E.U., he means Germany.”
Trump’s obsession with Germany has frequently come up in his meetings with other world leaders, and he has questioned Merkel in front of many of Germany’s close European allies. In a session early last year with Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, Trump asked about Merkel’s electoral prospects, and seemed surprised when May predicted that she would win reëlection. After Macron’s meetings with Trump, word invariably filtered back to Berlin that Trump had criticized Merkel.
In an Oval Office meeting last March with Stefan Löfven, the Swedish Prime Minister, Trump launched into a lengthy monologue in which he castigated Germany, according to a senior European diplomat briefed on the meeting, “as he does all the time, irrespective of who is the man or woman.” Trump rambled on to Löfven, then abruptly announced, well before the scheduled time had elapsed, that the meeting was over.
By the spring of 2018, America’s European allies could no longer deny the scale of their Trump problem. “The allies spent all of 2017 trying to figure out how they could entice him into more of a traditional relationship, and they collectively absolutely failed,” Daalder told me. “By 2018, they were starting to realize this was the real Trump.”
In March, Trump imposed steel and aluminum tariffs by invoking a “national security” provision, and refused to exempt his closest allies in Europe and Canada, even after months of lobbying. Trump also fired two of the three officials whom Europeans had most relied on for stability and reassurance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, replacing them with the hard-liners Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. The one remaining member of what had been called the “axis of adults,” Defense Secretary James Mattis, appeared to be an increasingly isolated establishment holdout. In May, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, despite Mattis’s opposition and last-minute personal visits to Washington by both Macron and Merkel. “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, tweeted after the decision. “But frankly EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realize that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
Merkel, however, was no longer looking like the leader who could provide a counterbalance to Trump. She barely won reëlection in the fall of 2017, and the arduous work of assembling a “Grand Coalition” centrist government comprising her Christian Democratic Union and the fading Social Democratic Party dragged on for six months. The far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party did better in the elections than any such party since the end of the Cold War.
While Merkel’s focus turned to German politics and her party’s survival, Trump’s attention remained fixed on her. In June, at the G-7 summit in Canada, he privately assailed Germany and nato (“Why do we need it?”) and publicly demanded that Russia, which had been thrown out of the group after the annexation of Crimea, be readmitted. When leaders negotiated with Trump to stop him from blocking the group’s traditionally unanimous communiqué, Merkel took the lead. The confrontation was captured in a photograph that her staff posted on Instagram: Merkel stands over a seated Trump, who wears a scowling, obstreperous expression and has his arms crossed over his chest.
Bolton, the new national-security adviser, relished the fight. “Just another G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank,” Bolton tweeted, with the photograph. “The President made it clear today. No more.” A few days later, Ian Bremmer, the founder of a geopolitical advisory firm, reported to his clients a memorable detail from the President’s standoff with Merkel. At the end of their bargaining session, Trump threw two red Starburst candies on the table as he left. “Here, Angela,” he said. “Don’t say I never gave you anything.” (The White House said that the President was joking.) Hours later, Trump reneged on the deal, tweeting from Air Force One that he would not sign the communiqué after all, saying that he was angry about Justin Trudeau’s post-summit comments.
Trump was still mad at Merkel, too, and a few days later he launched perhaps his most political attack yet, cheering on her right-wing rivals. “The people in Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up,” Trump tweeted, incorrectly. “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”
By mid-July, at the nato summit in Brussels, the President and the Chancellor were working to maintain a façade of personal civility. (When asked about his repeated attacks on Germany, Trump invariably claims that he has a “very good relationship” with Merkel.) But any pretense of substantive agreement had long since disappeared. Before the summit, “Europe’s broad strategy was: don’t give in, but don’t give up,” Kupchan, Obama’s Europe adviser, told me. “They were attempting to find a balance between pushing back against U.S. policy and standing up to Trump, and at the same time working with the Administration whenever possible, with Merkel as kind of bad cop and Macron good cop. That play has run its course.” The nato summit, Daalder argued, was “the punctuation mark” at the end of a year and a half of trying and failing. He said, “I don’t believe there is a single person in Europe who now thinks we can go back with this President.”
As the realities of Trump and Trumpism have settled at last on European leaders, so, too, has a kind of despair. At a debate that I moderated this summer in Estonia, Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German security analyst, compared Trump’s foreign policy to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” with the Europeans as the handmaids. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign-affairs committee, offered a similarly disturbing metaphor for Trump’s attitude toward Europe. “It’s like your parents questioning their love for you,” he told me, in Berlin, a few days later. “It’s already penetrated the subconscious.”
Nowhere in Europe is this more true than in Germany, which overcame the shame of Nazism and defeat in the Second World War by embracing a new postwar order designed by American leaders such as Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall. Working collectively through nato, the E.U., and other institutions is embedded in modern Germany’s political DNA. “It took Germany the longest of all partners to come to terms with someone like Trump becoming President,” another senior German official told me. “We were very emotional, because our relationship with America is so emotional—it’s more of a son-father relationship—and we didn’t recognize our father anymore and realized he might beat us.”
The Trump Administration and its Republican defenders dismiss such thinking as a transatlantic version of “Trump derangement syndrome,” an exaggerated response to Trump that often fails to take into account either the Administration’s actual policies or the long history of previous German-American disputes. After all, even Obama pushed Germany to do more on defense spending and countering Russia, and the Trump Administration, if not Trump himself, is confronting bad actors such as Russia and Iran more forcefully and effectively, they argue. “In Germany, there is an immediate emotional hatred for Trump,” a senior Trump Administration official told me. “I always say, you can not like the President, but look at the policies, and the policies have actually been better, better than under Obama, and more successful.”
In any case, the Administration has chosen not to allay such fears but to exacerbate them. In April, Trump installed Richard Grenell, a conservative Twitter warrior and a former Fox commentator, as his Ambassador to Germany. I happened to be in Berlin in early June, when he alienated his hosts by giving an interview to the alt-right Web site Breitbart. The Breitbart headline said that his role in Germany was to “empower” the European far right’s leaders. (Grenell denied that that was what he meant.) The Ambassador’s undiplomatic language was fit for a “far-right colonial officer,” the German politician Martin Schulz tweeted in response. Grenell has defined his role as “Trump’s man in Europe, not just in Germany,” as Steven Sokol, the president of the American Council on Germany, told me. Steve Bannon praised Grenell in The National Interest as “perfect, perfect, perfect.” The senior Trump Administration official told me, of Grenell, “He loves the fight like Trump. Trump welcomes that, and it is what the Germans hate the most.”
Grenell focusses on the three main irritants in the countries’ troubled relationship: pushing German companies to get out of Iran; agitating for Germany to increase its defense spending; and lobbying against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring Russian gas directly to Germany, and which Trump, at the nato summit, claimed made Germany “totally controlled by Russia.” The senior Trump Administration official told me, “As the Germans have correctly understood, Trump is personally involved. He thinks it’s hypocritical and duplicitous of the Germans. He’s fired up about that.”
Part of the pressure campaign has involved lobbying for Germany to build a new terminal to import liquefied natural gas—a move that could create economic benefits for the United States, which recently became a natural-gas export power. When Merkel announced, in October, that Germany would move forward with the L.N.G. terminal, Grenell and Trump took it as a victory. Another senior Trump Administration official told me, “The U.S. side has raised this issue frequently enough and incessantly enough and insistently enough that Chancellor Merkel heard our concerns.” More brinkmanship, including a threat to impose sanctions on European companies that do work on the pipeline, is possible as Germans weigh whether to finalize Nord Stream 2. “It’s on the table because the President is ready to do it,” the Trump Administration official told me.
Imposing tariffs on European cars—a Trump obsession dating back to the nineteen-eighties—is also still an option, despite a temporary truce called by Trump after he met with Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission. No other European country has as substantial a car industry, and so an automobile tariff would be a direct attack on Merkel, a step so dramatic that a real trade war could ensue.
Trump is also proceeding with plans to withdraw from a crucial Reagan-era arms treaty with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The Obama Administration had first warned that Russia was in violation of the treaty, but Trump’s announcement of a pullout was abrupt and categorical, alienating longtime allies, who felt taken by surprise. Vladimir Putin had already been operating outside the treaty, and now he could make the collapse look like an act of American high-handedness. When, on a Saturday morning in October, Trump told reporters about his decision, Bolton was headed to Moscow, where he was supposed to preview the Administration’s plans. The withdrawal from the I.N.F. treaty is particularly sensitive in Germany, which has renounced nuclear weapons and would be highly vulnerable to the medium-range missiles that Russia could legally deploy after the pact’s collapse. The Administration is likely to proceed regardless, though Trump did accede to Merkel’s request, in their meeting at the G-20 summit earlier this month, to delay the formal announcement and instead give Russia a sixty-day ultimatum endorsed by all the nato allies.
The irony is that, for all of Trump’s bluster and threats, the Trump Administration’s positions on these issues, aside from the Iran nuclear deal, are consistent with his predecessor’s. Obama also pushed for greater European defense spending, set in motion nato troop increases in Eastern Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and objected to Nord Stream 2. Many German leaders oppose the pipeline project, too, and favor more defense spending. Where Trump is different is in how far he is willing to push his allies to accomplish long-standing American priorities, not to mention his public denunciations, abrupt policy shifts, and willingness to insult his allies. This behavior has thoroughly alienated Germans, who are sharply divided on many issues but united in their dislike of Trump and their resistance to just about anything he champions. The Pew Global Attitudes survey this year found that only ten per cent of Germans had a favorable view of Trump. When Trump “tells the German public on television that you owe me, the German public says, ‘We owe this guy? Don’t pay him a dime,’ ” Wolfgang Ischinger, the former Ambassador, told me. “It makes it harder to agree on anything. It is poisonous for the relationship.”
In June, less than a week after Merkel confronted Trump at the G-7 meeting in Canada, Heiko Maas, the new German Foreign Minister, gave a rousing rejoinder to Trump. Speaking to young leaders in Berlin, he bemoaned the “giant vacuum” left by the collapse of American leadership. Between Trump’s “egoistic policy of ‘America First’ ” and threats from Russia and China, Germany needed to lead a forceful European response. “That world order that we once knew, had become accustomed to, and sometimes felt comfortable in—this world order no longer exists,” he said. “Alliances dating back decades are being challenged in the time it takes to write a tweet.”
It was the first major policy address by Maas, who became Foreign Minister when Merkel put together her new coalition, this past March, and his Social Democratic Party was given control of the ministry. But the statement was the product of a Trump-inspired project inside the German Foreign Office to write modern Germany’s first-ever “America Strategy.” A senior German official told me, “Essentially, it’s an overhaul of German foreign policy, since the key assumption being called into question is the total reliance we have on the friendship with the U.S.” The painful realization, he added, was that “we might get to a situation where we see Americans not only as friends and partners but also as competitors and adversaries. We don’t want to do that. That is how we treat other great powers around the globe, like Russia and China.”
But intense debate continues in Berlin over whether Trump’s ascendance reflects a genuine desire on the part of the U.S. to withdraw from the world or is an aberration that will soon be rectified by voters. German officials, like their counterparts in Washington and across Europe, disagree about whether Trumpism will outlive Trump, and whether Germany has a problem with a man or with a country.
Merkel has been more cautious than her Foreign Minister. When Maas followed up his speech with a strongly worded op-ed in the newspaper Handelsblatt in which he proposed that Europe be a “counterweight” in case Trump “crosses the line,” Merkel rejected his most inflammatory proposal—a replacement for the swift financial-transaction system, independent of the U.S., that would allow European companies to keep doing business with Iran, which has been sanctioned by the U.S. “Her strategy is to have a forceful defense,” Stefan Kornelius, Merkel’s biographer, told me. Maas “wants to go on offense.”
In early October, Maas flew to Washington for the German Embassy’s annual party celebrating the anniversary of German reunification, in 1990. While polka bands played and guests visited sausage stands on the grounds of the Ambassador’s hilltop residence, Maas unveiled a strategy of a different sort: a bypass-Trump, make-nice-to-America plan, supported by German companies. The program, called Wunderbar Together, envisages a German feel-good road show around the United States to counteract the poison of Trump’s Washington. Barely a week later, the President let loose on Germany and the E.U. again, telling a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa, “The European Union—sounds so nice, right? They are brutal. . . . They formed in order to take advantage of us.”
In late October, Merkel’s Christian Democrats barely managed to hold on to power in regional elections in Bavaria and Hesse, as the AfD, for the first time, won seats in all of the country’s state parliaments. Facing an internal party coup similar to the one that had brought her to power, Merkel surprised even close advisers with the timing of her announcement, the morning after the elections, that she was stepping down as the party chair and would not seek reëlection as Chancellor when her current term ends, in 2021. The Merkel-dämmerung, as the German newspapers called it, was finally happening. Trump did not bother to call Merkel about a decision that promised to upend European politics, and an anonymous Trump official celebrated, telling the Washington Post, “This is a huge win for Trump.”
The President and his team may have proclaimed victory over Angela Merkel too soon. On December 7th, the Christian Democratic Union selected Merkel’s preferred candidate, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to be the party’s next leader and thus Merkel’s heir apparent. One of the other two candidates, Jens Spahn, who had been a critic of Merkel’s immigration policy and was friendly with Grenell, Trump’s Ambassador to Germany, recently met with Bolton in the White House, a move unusual enough for a German Minister of Health that it was covered in the German media. In the end, Spahn received only a hundred and fifty-seven votes out of the nine hundred and ninety-nine cast. Trumpism is not ascendant in Merkel’s party, at least not yet. “Thanks, boss,” read the placards that greeted Merkel when she gave a valedictory address, fighting back tears.
On November 6th, Trump suffered his own political setback, losing control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats in the midterm elections. Nevertheless, the President and his Administration have shown every sign of escalating the fight with Europe. “We really do need Germany to do more than it has since the end of the Cold War,” one of the senior Trump Administration officials told me in early December. A few days later, Secretary of State Pompeo gave his bellicose speech in Brussels, the heart of European multilateralism, attacking the E.U. and an array of other international organizations. They “must be reformed or eliminated,” he warned.
Such threats from Washington are no longer dismissed in Europe as empty words. America’s closest allies are seriously considering policies that would have been unlikely in the pre-Trump era. On the day of the U.S. midterms, Emmanuel Macron proposed the creation of a new pan-European army to achieve “a Europe that can defend itself on its own, without relying only on the United States.” The move angered Trump Administration officials, who saw it as “particularly poor form” by Macron, as one official put it, and “disingenuous on the part of the Europeans,” given that “we’re responsible for European security that many of our European allies will not pay for themselves.” A week later, Merkel gave a speech to the European Parliament endorsing Macron’s proposal, no matter how unrealistic it seems. The Chancellor’s legendary patience finally seemed to have worn thin. “The days where we can unconditionally rely on others are gone,” she said.
But, no matter how sharp Merkel’s words have become, the idea that she can be Trump’s rival or his sparring partner is not realistic, either. She has no military to counter Putin, no nuclear weapons, and no public support for spending the money required for those things. Europe—with Brexit travails and French protests and angry populists—is still unravelling. “There was this mythology, as if Merkel could save us from ourselves. She would save the European project. She would save the rules-based order. She would save us from Trump,” Julianne Smith, a former senior Pentagon official who is now living in Berlin, said. “There’s just no prospect of that.” Angela Merkel is not the leader of the free world, nor will she be. ♦