The importance of the Trump-Merkel dialogue

As the US seeks to close itself off, German leader Angela Merkel may ask Trump to join her in embracing a kind of openness that blesses people and nations rather than hurts them. She knows what a closed society looks like.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9.

When she meets with President Trump for the first time this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will probably focus on only a few specific questions. Why do Republicans want to impose a tax on imports? Why does the United States want to bar refugees? And why does Mr. Trump support Britain’s exit from the European Union?

Ms. Merkel, who grew up behind the physical and mental walls of the Soviet empire, has become the world’s leading advocate for openness between societies – not a border-less world but one that seeks the benefits of a flow of people, ideas, and goods. She seeks, for example, more transparency of the global financial system to prevent tax evasion. Her country has welcomed nearly a million people fleeing wars in the Middle East. She is the main political force on the Continent against the closure of Europe’s borders. And by one measure known as the Open Markets Index, Germany is the country most open to foreign investment and trade among the Group of 20, a club of wealthy nations.

The Trump-Merkel dialogue over the coming years will be one of the most important for the future of the world. Many people believe openness, or globalization, is the cause of such problems as illegal immigration, cyberattacks, stagnant income, and slow job growth. Among many countries, protectionism is on the rise. From 2009 to 2015, trade barriers worldwide have more than doubled. And countries such as Iran and China have started to close off their digital space and bar civil society groups.

Merkel, on the other hand, prefers to work on the root causes of these problems. Germany is a leader in seeking peace in the Middle East and ending poverty in Africa. Merkel favors global norms that safeguard the Internet, not restrict it, and that help expose fake news that is trying to disrupt democratic elections. Germany does well in aiding its workers hurt by global competition, most notably with its famous apprenticeship programs.

In a speech last month, one of her political allies and the head of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, spoke clearly about the fears that are creating walls between nations: “Whoever champions a closed mind instead of openness to the world, whoever literally walls themselves in, bets on protectionism instead of free trade and preaches isolationism instead of states cooperating, and declares ‘We first’ as a program, should not be surprised if others do the same – with all the fatal side effects for international ties which we know from the 20th century.”

Merkel’s rise as a democratic leader was made possible only after communism collapsed and she enjoyed the freedoms of the West. She knows that the sanctity of borders must be balanced with an openness – even hospitality – to other people and ideas. Peace depends on finding that balance, something the European Union is still trying to get right.

The global forces and trends creating fear in many societies are also creating opportunities for cooperation and mutual problem-solving. If the US and Germany can agree to focus on the opportunities, they will become powerful champions of the kind of openness that blesses rather than abuses.

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