A clash of style and substance ensued at the White House Friday morning with the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel, a cautious, reticent, scientist-turned-politician met with her unconventional and brash American counterpart, President Trump.
As de facto leaders of the West and the the international liberal order, there are no two people better positioned to shape the direction of the world than President Trump and Chancellor Merkel. There have been, however, talks of a Germany-U.S. relationship turned sour. With a recent poll showing that only 22% of Germans think the U.S. is a trustworthy ally and the German press’s “it could have been a lot worse” reaction to Merkel’s visit to Washington, the relationship between the U.S. and Germany seems to be faltering.
Russia’s revanchist policies in Ukraine and President Trump’s widely-reported praise for Vladimir Putin have set Europe on edge. Uncertainty about President Trump’s commitment to Europe has allowed once-unthinkable ideas, like a European Union nuclear weapons program that would act as a nuclear deterrent in the case of U.S. withdrawal, to gain momentum.
Although Merkel’s suspicion of the Trump administration was not on display in her characteristically cautious speech, there were a few comic reactions to President Trump that escaped her.
At one moment, Trump double downed on his accusation that President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. After an off-the-cuff remark that attempted to draw a link between the NSA’s surveillance of Merkel and unsubstantiated claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower, Merkel contorted her face to bear a displeased countenance. If nothing more than an amusing display of two very different personalities interacting out of perfunctory obligation, not admiration, then the real news came after the German Chancellor’s stay.
On Saturday morning, President Trump tweeted that “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States.” Although President Trump’s understanding of the NATO alliance has rightfully come under question, the tweet seems to allude to the disparate foreign policies that has kept the U.S. and Germany at odds well before President Trump’s election.
While Germany’s reluctance to use military power seems paradoxical given its well-documented history of militarism, it has been the source of Germany-U.S. tensions before. Germany’s avoiding significant commitments to recent wars is necessarily at odds with President Trump’s desire to “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
As Europe faces potentially destabilizing populist uprisings and President Trump remains more committed to fighting terrorism than confronting Russia, the special relationship between Germany and the United States faces its greatest test.