The first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, originally scheduled for March 14 but postponed to March 17 due to heavy storms, will be an occasion for pundits to compare their characters, policy choices and weight in world politics. More importantly, it will be watched for clues of western (dis)unity in the face of myriad challenges that the Western alliance has been facing for some time in world politics.
Given the complexity of the relationship between the two countries, Merkel’s first face-to-face conversation with Trump will be crucial on several fronts.
As Merkel is the longest serving Western leader, in office since 2005, she has dealt with numerous challenges and met with world leaders several times on numerous occasions. Her insights will therefore be important in shaping the Trump’s administration’s foreign policy. President Trump will no doubt wish to consult with her on several issues, particularly her advice on dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, it is the divergences between them, revealed by reciprocal strong criticisms reported in media outlets, which make her visit more interesting. They need to talk and seek common ground on a wide range of issues - from the future of transatlantic ties to international security, the Ukrainian conflict, climate change, the refugee issue, and the EU’s prospects after Brexit.
Trump is the third U.S. president that Merkel has worked with so far. Although she was effective in building a strong rapport with his predecessors, it is rumored that she is not leaving anything to a chance and has been effusively preparing for her visit to Washington to build at least a workable relationship with the unpredictable Trump.
On the home front, she is preparing for elections on Sept. 24 amid the uneasy atmosphere across Europe as a result of rising populism and nationalism. Terror attacks across Europe and over a million refugees that Germany has received in last year contributed to the popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, while Merkel’s popularity has sunk to a four-year low.
Besides domestic problems, Merkel has to handle a crisis-laden EU after the Brexit referendum and needs to keep the EU together in the face of Russian probing and challenges.
On the other side of the Atlantic, President Trump complains about free riders in NATO, while his support of the U.K. after looming Brexit undermines Merkel’s efforts to keep the EU together. As only four allies, apart from the U.S., keep their commitments to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defense, Merkel has promised to increase German spending to 2 per cent by 2024 even though the German public totally opposes the idea. To compensate, Germany has been contributing to the anti-ISIL coalition both in Syria and Iraq since December 2015 to fight against terrorism.
The soft belly of the Trump-Merkel meeting will most probably be their differing stances on Russia. Merkel stands with the view that sanctions against Russia should not be abandoned until Russia fully complies with the Minsk Process regarding Ukraine, stressing that NATO should fully reassure its allies in the eastern front by facing aggressive Russian behavior across their borders. Trump, however, has been talking about changing U.S. policy toward Russia, which might eventually create uncertainties across Europe about NATO and the U.S. security umbrella, and thus weaken Western unity.
Despite apparent differences between the two leaders, the partnership between the U.S. and Germany is crucial for the future of Europe and transatlantic ties. One can say with certainty that at least one of the leaders is aware of what is at stake and will try to steer the meeting towards a productive end.