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Trump, Merkel and the future of the transatlantic relationship

Randall Hansen is Interim Director at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

On May 28, Angela Merkel was in a crowded Munich beer hall, with an unlikely mug of suds in hand. She had just returned from the G7 meeting in Sicily. When she took the podium, the Chancellor spoke of President Donald Trump, the European Union, and the future of transatlantic relations. She referred to her experiences in the previous days, and then said: "We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, naturally in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and – where we can be – as a good neighbour to Russia. … But we must know that we alone have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny."

The speech was extraordinary for two reasons. The first was its content: A hard-core commitment to the transatlantic relationship has been a bedrock of German politics since the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949. Like all relationships, it has had its ups and downs. The Germans' blind adoration of all things American in the 1950s gave way to left-wing anti-Americanism during the Vietnam War, while the centrist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder publicly condemned the coming 2003 Iraq war. But even Mr. Schroeder's move was limited to a criticism of a specific U.S. action rather than a questioning of the transatlantic relationship itself.

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What Ms. Merkel was saying – to play off a grating Canadian phrase – is that the world needs less America.

Chancellor Merkel's entire approach to politics is deliberately low-key. She never delivers soaring, inspirational rhetoric; indeed, she at times seems to make an art of being boring. She never overpromises. As befits her scientific training, she is calm, methodical and cautious. She deals with conflict behind closed doors, where she speaks her mind.

Although she is said to detest him, even her public rhetoric on Vladimir Putin has been carefully crafted. That Ms. Merkel speaks so openly and – however Mr. Trump's spokespeople try to spin it – critically of a U.S. president is extraordinary. The glib explanation of Ms. Merkel's intervention, articulated by The Financial Times among other papers, is that she's playing electoral politics.

No politician is indifferent to the electoral cycle, but the upcoming German vote is at best a minor factor. Ms. Merkel won three elections – one when it was clear what a disaster the Iraq War had become – without feeling the need to criticize the U.S. president or any other foreign leader. Her recent speech, rather, reflected immense exasperation with President Trump and his policies. The Chancellor's words were both an indicator of a deep rift in the transatlantic relationship and a powerful signal that Germany and the EU no longer view American leadership as possible or desirable.

Ms. Merkel is receiving her fair share of criticism over the speech, but fault for the situation that gave rise to it lies squarely with President Trump, a man who is manifestly unfit for the office he holds. Mr. Trump has publicly derided the Chancellor (before and after the U.S. election); treated her with something like contempt on an official visit; and repeatedly accused Germany of currency manipulation and poor trade policies (without apparently knowing that Germany has neither its own currency nor control over trade policy).

Mr. Trump's indulgent behaviour toward Russia has imperilled European security. The President has displayed indifference to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Ukraine, repeatedly hinting that sanctions levied by the administration of Barack Obama might be lifted. At precisely the moment when Europeans are more afraid of Russia than at any time since the Cold War, Mr. Trump pointedly refused to endorse Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (which enshrines collective defence, or the principle that an attack on one member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an attack on all). Indeed, the President has made it clear that a good relationship with Russia, which interfered in both the U.S. and French elections, is more important than a good one with Germany.

Most recently, he has ignored the appeals of his European allies and withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. The U.S. President has not simply offended and turned his back on the German Chancellor; he has repudiated a tradition of American leadership going back to 1945 (or rather, 1941).

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It is for this reason that neoconservatives such as Bill Kristol and now-moderate conservatives such as David Frum view him with as much contempt as does the American left. Against this backdrop, it is little surprise that Chancellor Merkel has turned against Mr. Trump.

There are moderate voices on both sides of the Atlantic that take a positive view of this German-American split. As Doug Saunders argues in this same newspaper, Mr. Trump's crude nativism may, in the end, be good for the European Union. And it is true that the President's anti-European rhetoric has made it clear to Europeans that they need to unite to solve their problems and those – above all, climate change – of the world.

Mr. Trump's assault on so much that Europeans regard as essential has occurred in the context of Britain's exit from the European Union, an exit which Mr. Trump, with typical ignorance, supported. That exit, contrary to what Europhobes such as Nigel Farage had hoped, has increased support for the European Union in the remaining member states. Even the National Front's Marine Le Pen admits that supporting "Frexit" in last month's French presidential elections was a grave error.

The U.K.'s withdrawal has also generated an unusual European unity around the terms of the British exit. What's more, that exit will likely result in a desirable reconfiguration of relations among EU member states. Berlin will have to look to Paris, which has always had a more sympathetic ear for southern European concerns, just as French people, with impeccable timing, have elected a pro-European president who will likely secure a legislative majority this month. The European Union, written off as dead a year ago, is more cohesive and determined than at any time since the heady days of the post-Velvet revolution of the early 1990s. History may view Mr. Trump as an unlikely friend of European integration.

But that is as far as it goes. The fracturing of the transatlantic relationship is otherwise a disaster for Europe and for the world. Since 1945, the United States has been the core of the international global order built from the ashes of the Second World War, a war that left a staggering 50 million people dead. There is much fashionable anti-Americanism on the European left, but the U.S. has, overall, been a force for good.

The postwar decades were, for most of the globe, years of unparalleled prosperity. Free trade, strongly supported by both Democratic and Republican presidents, has lifted one billion people out of poverty (defined as earning less than a dollar a day) in the last 20 years. Since 1945, numerous countries – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China and, of course, Germany – have grown wealthy through integration into the rule-based global trading system. Within the EU, the single market – the largest free trading zone in the world – delivered prosperity to southern Europe, portions of Eastern Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

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The United States' support for this order certainly cost it – above all in the form of outsized military spending – but the country also gained handsomely from it: The U.S. is the world's chief economy, the second-largest market in the world, and it rests at the core of the global trading regime that it created. This system helps to project American power and to give the United States more global influence than any other country in history.

Every president until Mr. Trump recognized this, and they also recognized that insularity does not result in financial savings; rather, it comes with a very heavy price tag. The current Trumpian support for an American withdrawal from global affairs is a rerun of isolationist arguments aired between the two world wars. We all know the price that the world and the U.S. paid for that American withdrawal from world politics: democratic breakdown, fascist triumph, and total war.

It is simply staggering that serious U.S. commentators, casually accepting the terms framed by Mr. Trump, think that all that is at stake is how much the Germans spend on defence relative to the Americans. It is about something much, much greater than that.

Since the 1950s, a strong transatlantic relationship has been an anchor, arguably the anchor, of the United States' support for the liberal international order: rule-based multilateralism, free trade, and strong international institutions. This order is essential to global prosperity and international stability. At precisely the moment when the German relationship, because of Brexit, is more important than ever to the United States, Mr. Trump, with his usual fits of childish pique, has essentially repudiated it.

Now that the president has proved himself hopeless, and the Europeans believe they need to look after themselves, the question is whether Germany and the rest of the EU can step into the void left by America's retreat from the world stage. The evidence is that they cannot. The only country with the wealth and influence to achieve something approaching global reach is Germany, and Germany is one-quarter the size of the United States.

Equally important, Germany remains greatly constrained by its own history: The war – and above all the Holocaust – has left the Germans with both a deep suspicion of nationalism (hence the absence of a serious populist party in Germany) and a great reluctance to pursue anything resembling a great-power foreign policy. The focus of Angela Merkel over the next four years, assuming she is re-elected in the autumn, will be on saving the European Union, not the globe.

Militarily, the only serious armed forces in Europe are those of Britain and France; Britain is on the way out, and France alone cannot come anywhere close to projecting the global power enjoyed by a rich country of 320 million people that devotes 3.5 per cent of its massive GDP to defence. The European Union may well develop something like a European army, but it will remain small and its rules of engagement severe; it will not become a substitute for NATO, and NATO again depends on U.S. support and financing.

As the transatlantic relationship frays, the most powerful liberal-democratic bloc in the world – a remarkable space of wealth, democracy, and human rights – will weaken, and the autocrats will grow in confidence. Under a Trump presidency, it is very likely that we will see an expansion in the power and influence of the three powers most hostile to liberal democracy: China, Russia and Turkey. Mr. Trump barely contains his admiration for the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan; he pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move that only benefited China; and he, in all likelihood, owes his election to the Russian government.

There are thus very few reasons for optimism. The only good news is that the present dangers are contingent rather than structural: They are the direct result of the election of President Trump. The undisguised joy with which Chancellor Merkel and the German public welcomed former president Obama during his recent visit demonstrates the depth of the Germans' desire to have a close relationship with the America that so many of them love. In opposing Mr. Trump, they are not, as David Frum suggested in The Atlantic, showing their true anti-American colours. Similarly, it is inconceivable that Hillary Clinton or any serious Republican presidential candidate except Rand Paul would be taking the United States down this disastrous path.

The U.S. system was designed by its founding fathers, who had an elitist's healthy suspicion of the mob, with the likes of a President Trump – a dangerous and unstable demagogue with authoritarian tendencies – in mind. That system is being currently tested, and, as the founding fathers hoped, the protective checks and balances are kicking in. The courts blocked the – let's call it what it was – Muslim Ban; Mr. Trump's revised health-care reform will almost certainly die in the Senate; and his regressive budget (aimed only at transferring wealth from the poor to the rich) will not pass.

His most notable achievement, beyond insulting most global leaders, has been the appointment of a Supreme Court judge who is a conservative, to be sure, but by no means a fanatic. Added to this are the only two merits to Mr. Trump's personality: his odd tendency to check and balance himself, and his inability to focus on anything for more than four minutes.

That, and above all the American institutions over which he presides, will ensure that the next U.S. president is able to rebuild both the transatlantic relationship and the global liberal order.

Until then, keep that beer mug at the ready. It's going to be a rough ride.

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