USA Foreign Policy First Look

This week at the White House: Angela Merkel and a Saudi prince

Prince Mohammad bin Salman is leading the kingdom's economic overhaul. But all eyes are on whether the German chancellor and President Trump will get along. 

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel briefs the media during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9, 2017. Mrs. Merkel is due in Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet with President Trump.
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir | Caption

President Trump has said German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to accept nearly 1 million asylum seekers in 2015 was a “disaster.” He has openly implied NATO is obsolete, and he celebrated Britain’s "Brexit" vote to leave the European bloc in which Germany is a leader.

Ms. Merkel, for her part, congratulated Mr. Trump on his election win by lecturing him on democratic values, and patiently explained to the new president in January how his travel ban violated the Geneva Conventions.

But officials in both administrations say the two leaders plan to push the past – and their drastically different personalities – to the side when they meet in Washington on Tuesday. In their first face-to-face meeting, they plan to have productive talks about the European Union, trade, and the threat of Russia.

Merkel’s visit will be one of two high-profile meetings this week between the Trump administration and foreign officials. The second-highest member of Saudi Arabia’s royal court is scheduled to arrive in Washington on Thursday to discuss “the strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries and regional issues of mutual interest,” according to a statement from Saudi Arabia’s royal court on Monday.   

While Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in charge of the kingdom’s economic overhaul apart from oil, all eyes are on Merkel and Trump, especially after the two leaders’ rocky start.

For a meeting in which the two leaders aren’t expected to agree on any concrete policies, both administrations have been scrupulously studying the other in efforts to better their understanding, with Merkel and her advisers even unearthing a 1990 cover story on Trump in Playboy magazine. But many analysts say Merkel is especially up to the task of developing a pragmatic relationship with a bold and brazen personality like Trump.

“She has seen European leaders come and go – very charismatic, very dynamic, very boisterous leaders,” Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said during a conference call Friday, according to the Los Angeles Times. “She has this history and this approach to leaders [who] may be in fact very unpredictable.”

“While personal chemistry isn’t the be-all, end-all, it is important. It sets the tone,” said Dr. Conley. “She’s doing the right thing by coming.”

Merkel is bringing with her a trade delegation in an apparent effort to remind Trump how Germany contributes to the American economy. According to a report in the Der Spiegel news magazine, the chief executives of BMW and Siemens will accompany Merkel. Trump and his administration have touted “America First” economic leanings and questioned multilateral trade deals. But BMW and Siemen’s presence could serve as a reminder that Siemens employs 70,000 people in the United States and BMW’s largest factory is in South Carolina, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Merkel is also expected to emphasize for Trump that a strong EU is in Washington’s strategic and economic interests. She alluded to this point in a statement to the German parliament on Thursday.

"Even if in parts of the world we see protectionist and nationalist approaches on the rise, Europe may never isolate, seal itself off or withdraw," she said.

Trump is expected to further discuss his views on NATO, an alliance he has openly suggested is obsolete. He reportedly wants to talk about Germany adhering to a NATO pledge to spend at least 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Merkel has said she plans to raise it from its current 1 percent of GDP to 2 percent by 2024.

But analysts and observers wonder how Merkel and Trump’s personalities will mesh. Trump is a real-estate mogul known for his off-the-cuff comments, while Merkel is a trained physicist known for her reserved style and measured remarks.

But many analysts say Merkel has proven in her 12 years in office that she has an adroitness for managing her male counterparts in Europe and in the United States.

One relevant example, say analysts, is former President George W. Bush. She managed to have a productive relationship with him, even though, like Trump, he was deeply unpopular in Germany at the time.

It’s a tightrope walk,” Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The New York Times. “She needs a strong trans-Atlantic relationship.” But she “doesn’t want to be too close to the U.S. administration.”

Merkel has also had success with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She helped forge a peace treaty in Ukraine.

But Germany, as well as much of Europe, is worried about Russian efforts to destabilize the EU and promote far-right, anti-EU populist parties in the run-up to elections in Germany, France, and the Netherlands this year, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. But Merkel, who has met with Mr. Putin dozens of times in her years in power, knows the Russian president better than any leader in the West, according to the Times. Americans officials said Trump would ask the chancellor for advice on how to deal with Putin.

The Saudi prince’s visit to the White House comes as the kingdom is looking to become less dependent on oil and make major investments in US technology firms. Mr. Salman is expected to discuss global energy prices, as well as the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. 

This story includes material from the Associated Press.

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