Angela Merkel and overcoming division

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her country overcome deep skepticism to become unified and integrated into Europe. The next step, as she sees it, is for Germany to become a more unifying force globally. 

Michael Kappeler/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets President Trump on the eve of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Thursday.

The predictions are that President Trump is heading for a global clash at this week’s Group of 20 summit of the world’s economic powers in Hamburg, Germany. That it will be 19 to 1 against Mr. Trump on free trade, climate change, and migration – all topics that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit host, wants to address and where she, too, differs with the US president.

But the world would do well to remember the German leader’s own remarkable experience in overcoming division, and the postwar foundations that support the transatlantic relationship when it encounters rough seas, as it is now.

The daughter of a pastor who grew up in the communist half of a divided Germany, Ms. Merkel came of political age as a result of German reunification in 1990. Her tutor was Chancellor Helmut Kohl – the master statesman who forged national reunification with US support even as he faced deep skepticism from London, Paris, and Moscow. He also helped create a far more integrated European Union where Germans could partner ever more closely with their neighbors.

Running for her fourth term this fall, Merkel models many of the qualities of her mentor, who died last month. She’s a staunch defender of democracy, a deep believer in the EU and partnering with other nations, and has a stiff spine – whether she’s standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine or demanding more of debt slackers during the euro crisis. 

As centrifugal forces such as “Brexit” pull at European unity, she’s reaching over to France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, to restart the German-Franco engine that powers Europe. 

Now along comes an unpredictable American president sending tremors through Europe with his “America First” views, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement and rattling cages over trade and immigration. 

Fewer than 3 in 10 people in 37 countries express confidence in Trump to “do the right thing” in international affairs, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. On Thursday, Trump finally stated unequivocally that the United States stands by its Article 5 obligation to defend any NATO member that comes under attack – something he declined to say on his last European visit, to the chagrin of NATO alliance members. 

It’s still very early in Trump’s presidency to say where the transatlantic relationship is going. Is Washington fundamentally veering away, pushing Germany and the EU to forge stronger ties with other partners? Or is Trump just demanding more of the relationship – in military burden sharing, for instance?

“As G20 chairwoman, I have the job of working out ways of reaching agreement and not contributing to an inability to talk,” said Merkel in an interview with the German weekly Die ZeitAt the same time, she reiterated her earlier view that the time to "fully count" on others – meaning the US – is "somewhat over."

Even if Merkel can’t bridge the divide with Washington, it’s important to remember that many factors unite Europe with the United States – indicating an underlying resiliency, says Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. 

Those ties are economic and cultural, as well as institutional. They have survived political turbulence before, such as during the Iraq War under President George W. Bush, who also suffered low global ratings. Despite a lack of confidence in Trump, the prevailing view among those surveyed by Pew is that they don't think their country’s relationship with the US will change in the next few years.

Says Ms. Donfried: “The transatlantic relationship is bigger than our leaders.”

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