Merkel to meet with Trump: It's not just business, it’s personal

In their White House meeting Friday, the two leaders will have plenty of pressing bilateral issues to discuss. But establishing a personal rapport, and an understanding of shared values, may be even more important.

Francois Lenoir via AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, speaks with French President Francois Hollande at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, March 10, 2017. EU leaders are debating the future of their bloc as Britain eyes the exit door and far-right parties look to get strong results in upcoming elections.

What does President Trump really think about the US relationship with Europe?

It’s hard to say, given the president’s all-over-the-map comments about the transatlantic partnership and the European Union – comments that have ranged from dismissal and doubts about their usefulness to rock-solid support.

But some clues should be forthcoming on Friday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Western Europe’s longest-serving leader and unquestionably its strongest, visits the White House.

And although there will be important issues on the two leaders’ agenda – continuation of Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, burden-sharing in NATO defense spending, US-EU trade, and in particular Germany’s perennial trade surplus with the US – the meeting is more likely to be a get-to-know-you session where the two very different leaders start to figure out the way forward in a key relationship, analysts of US-Europe relations say.

“This is not a meeting to go through the list. It’s actually a really important meeting to set up the tone for the relationship in itself,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Instead of sticking to an agenda, she says, Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel need to use this first face-to-face meeting to set in motion a “modus vivendi for these two leaders to create a more stable framework for this critical relationship.”

The German leader seemed to acknowledge this purpose of her trip when she said last week that “talking together rather than talking about one another – that will be my motto of the visit.” Merkel had been scheduled to meet with Trump Tuesday, but a significant late winter storm in Washington prompted the president to call and suggest a slight postponement.

Merkel is accustomed to dealing with presidents cut from very different cloths. She developed a solid working relationship with George W. Bush despite some sharp differences, notably on US Iraq policy. And she adjusted to Barack Obama’s cool demeanor and pragmatic approach to US-Europe relations – even though they, too, had their differences, for example on economic policy in response to the 2008 economic crisis.

But Trump presents a very different challenge to Merkel and to European leaders generally. No American president in the postwar era has publicly suggested the obsolescence of NATO or cheered on the disintegration of the EU, as a pro-Brexit Trump did on several occasions.

Concerns over nationalist populism

Perhaps most disconcerting for Merkel and many Germans generally is the new US president’s inward-focused nationalist populism that they see as a betrayal of the Western values-based system the US has led since World War II.

Indeed Merkel was apparently so distressed by this radical shift in the US worldview that she took the unusual step of alluding to her concerns in her congratulatory letter to then President-elect Trump.

“Germany and America are bound by common values – democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views,” Merkel wrote. “It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”

Translation, according to German officials, including Merkel’s vice-chancellor: We want cooperation, but don’t expect Germany to go along with any retreat from the core Western values our countries have long championed together.

Since taking office, Trump has sounded much more supportive of a strong NATO, even as he has continued to press Alliance partners to demonstrate their commitment to NATO upping defense spending and sharing costs more equitably.

Mixed messages on EU

But his sentiments toward the EU and European integration are less clear. In February Trump dispatched Mike Pence to Europe, where the vice president told EU leaders in Brussels that the purpose of his trip was to demonstrate “the strong commitment of the United States to continued cooperation and partnership with the European Union.”

At the same time, however, Trump has not hidden his preference for working with countries bilaterally, and it is not clear he has modified his campaign stance that large transnational political organizations – whether it’s the EU, the United Nations, or the World Trade Organization – are the enemies of national sovereignty and of a nation’s people.

The hostility to international organizations could start to take form as policy Thursday when the White House is expected to release its top line budget proposal – with up to a one-third reduction in State Department and foreign aid spending. Trump has reportedly instructed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to slash US funding of the United Nations and its related agencies and activities by up to 50 percent.

When British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the White House in late January, Trump enthused about a “fantastic” Brexit and praised Britain for deciding to be “free and independent” of the EU. Reports have seeped out of the White House that Trump is considering a harsh critic of the traditional strong US support for the EU to be Washington’s EU ambassador in Brussels – as have reports that Trump political strategist Steve Bannon continues to recommend that the president double down on a nationalist and anti-integration stance with European leaders.

“The affinity of the president and some in his inner circle for nationalist and populist movements in Europe raises concern among Germans that the US could support the unraveling of Europe, which would have enormous consequences for Germany,” says Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of CSIS’s Europe Program.

During a recent visit to Berlin, Mr. Rathke says he was also struck by deep concerns there over “allegations from the president and some of his economic advisors that Germany uses the European Union and the euro currency to the detriment of the US economy.” Clearly Merkel, he adds, will underscore the more traditional view that strong bilateral and US-EU economic ties are good for both sides of the Atlantic.

Merkel's balancing act

One advantage Trump may have in this first meeting is that while he is just starting his term as president after a surprise win, Merkel faces a very tough reelection campaign back home, with voting set for September.

With Trump extremely unpopular in Germany, Merkel is left to walk a tightrope between maintaining her posture as the values-driven anti-Trump and demonstrating that she can preserve the transatlantic partnership, says Jeffrey Brown, a transatlantic policy specialist at the Bertelsmann Foundation in Washington.

“At the White House, Merkel will not only have to prove that she can toe a tough line on Trump, but also that she can effectively position herself as the arbiter of a trans-Atlantic relationship that could very well become increasingly strained in the years ahead,” Mr. Brown writes in a recent post on the Bertelsmann website.

With 11 years of experience dealing with a wide variety of European leaders and with two different US presidents, Merkel is likely to approach Trump with the same pragmatism backed by firm convictions that have made her Europe’s preeminent leader, says CSIS’s Ms. Conley.

Merkel will visit the White House as the “anchor” and “reminder of our principles and values,” says Conley.

“She does not do this in an arrogant way … wagging a finger if you will,” she adds. Rather, Merkel will be “reaffirming that’s the basis on which this relationship has continued and [that] any movement away from that will reduce the relationship by definition.”

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