German Chancellor Merkel will enter the lion’s den on Tuesday, March 14, for her first meeting with President Trump. It is difficult to remember such an inauspicious start in the sixty eight year relationship between the United States and a democratic Germany. While there have been quite a few bad personal relationships — between German chancellors and American presidents, including Konrad Adenauer and John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Helmut Schmidt, and more recently the split over the Iraq War between George W Bush and Gerhard Schröder — this meeting is different and more portentous. Donald Trump as a candidate expressed some admiration for Angela Merkel but also accused her of ruining Germany with her open door policy for Syrian refugees. He is posing a direct threat to the two institutions most central to German foreign policy and German identity: NATO and the European Union. This is clearly a first in the German–American relationship.
Merkel for her part has a lot of experience dealing with macho politicians like Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Nikolas Sarkozy and will not be intimidated. She is also at the beginning of what looks to be an unexpectedly closely contested campaign for re-election in a country that is deeply opposed to Trump. Recent polls found that only 22 percent believe the United States is a trustworthy partner, a drop from 59 percent in November and only 1 percent more than the trust level in Russia. Her opponent, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, is playing into this anti-Trump sentiment and the German Chancellor will have to balance her role as head of the German government with her role as a candidate.
Russia will be a key topic in her meeting with the new U.S. president, as she has been the main architect of the Western sanctions regime developed to deal with Russian aggression in Ukraine. Any movement on the U.S. side to weaken sanctions against Russia will undermine her painfully crafted policy with her European partners and will hand Putin a major victory. She will urge the U.S. side to maintain solidarity with the EU on the sanctions policy. She will emphasize to the president her support for increased defense spending and her commitment to reaching the 2 percent of GDP NATO goal and will point out that German troops are now present in Lithuania — a major step up in Germany’s contribution to NATO’s deterrence of possible Russian threats to the Baltics.
Unlike in most German–American summits in the past this one will be dominated by the economic relationship. Given the openly declared economic nationalism of the new administration and the singling out of the growing U.S. trade deficit with Germany, which last year totaled $65 billion, Merkel will face renewed pressure to take steps to address this problem. She will have to try to convince the president to ease off of his proposal for a cross border adjustment tax, which will negatively affect German automobile companies that export from Mexican plants into the United States. She will make the case that German companies and investments create over 600,000 jobs in the United States, especially in some key red states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee. Given the crucial importance of exports to the German economy, these issues are central to Germany’s security and political stability. She will be accompanied by the CEOs of Siemens and BMW who will help her make this case and will be able to speak in a language that the private-sector-oriented Trump administration will understand. She will also make the case that German trade policy is set by the European Commission as its monetary policy is set by the European Central Bank, an argument unlikely to convince a skeptical Trump and his trade representative who as singled out Germany as a major economic threat to the United States. The chancellor is hoping for the best but is prepared for using the EU and the WTO if a trade war with the United States develops despite her best efforts.
The Trump–Merkel meeting will conclude with a joint press conference, which will surely get high ratings on German television. Given all the turmoil in the West following Brexit, the Trump election, and Russian aggression in Ukraine, Germany is suddenly confronting the prospect of shaping a foreign policy with few substantial and reliable partners. In regard to its most important partner, it will now have to adjust rapidly to what is becoming a radically altered transatlantic space — one which may no longer be an alliance, and one without a clear and dedicated leader.