Merkel’s Nostalgia for the Obama Presidency Is Hurting U.S.-German Relations
There is no doubt that U.S.-German relations are currently at a low point, but the blame does not rest solely with the new U.S. president as much of the media would suggest. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently living in a nostalgic alternative universe where former U.S. President Barack Obama is still in office and where she really is, as POLITICO put it in March, “The Leader of the Free World,” even though Germany does not even spend the two percent of GDP on its military as is expected of all NATO members to guard their own security as well as the safety of their fellow allies.
Ahead of Germany’s federal election on September 24, Merkel made international headlines during a campaign rally in Munich on Sunday with her stern declaration, completely divorced from reality, that “The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that’s what I’ve experienced in recent days.” The German Chancellor had already started to make her anger towards her new American counterpart known when she expressed her displeasure at Trump, who has since backed out of the (voluntary, non-binding, poorly negotiated, and absurdly symbolic) Paris Agreement, as being a “six against one” situation (the “six” being the members of the G7 except the U.S.). Ultimately Merkel concluded that, “I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands—of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia.”
When analyzing Merkel’s aforementioned statement, it is deeply ironic that she chose to condemn the U.S. and the U.K. to the point of putting them in the same league as Russia, due to their nationalistic leanings, while still promoting Germany’s national interests, especially economic ones like creating a regional market for German exports in Europe. Berlin simply advances its national interests through the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels rather than just through the Bundestag. As things stand, the EU is essentially an extension of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
To be clear, the European Union is a force for good that has guaranteed peace among its member states since its origins in the European Coal and Steal Community, founded through a treaty in 1952 between Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, France, West Germany, and Italy. Moreover, Germany has been an important member of NATO. When this alliance was founded in 1949, Europe was both rebuilding its great cities from the rubble of World War II and also searching for its soul after the horrors of the Nazi-led Shoah. NATO was critical in getting the U.S. and its European allies on the right foot both militarily and morally as they deterred the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, which preached state supremacy to compensate for man’s fallenness and did not allow those living behind the Iron Curtain to freely seek the grace of God. As a crucial member of both the EU and NATO, Germany has been crucial for the economic and political security of Europe.
Nevertheless, Germany, along with 22 other NATO members, must spend more on security, and Merkel needs to give Trump a chance to be a partner for peace against a belligerent Russia and an enabler for European economic prosperity. It does not help that Merkel chooses to continue meeting with former U.S. President Barack Obama, and thus undermines Trump’s authority and a democracy’s peaceful transfer of power.
Merkel and Obama had a ball as they laughed together on a stage in Berlin last week at a conference for German Protestant youth leadership. The former American president, who was invited to the conference by Merkel, proudly said at the event, “In this new world we live in, we can’t isolate ourselves. We can’t hide behind a wall,” in a not-so-subtle dig at Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico. Oddly though, while she sat next to Obama and seemed to enjoy his company, Merkel has not heeded her favorite former colleague’s advice against isolation. With such rash declarations she has made in the past few days in full view of the international press, Merkel is willingly distancing Germany—and the rest of the European Union—from the U.S. and the U.K., in hopes of guaranteeing a September election victory.
It is also fundamentally baffling why Merkel continues to have such a warm rapport with Obama given that he has largely contributed to many of Germany, and more specifically Merkel’s, troubles. Obama did absolutely nothing with regards to Syrian chemical weapons use after President Bashar al-Assad leaped over his mythical August 2013 red line, which then led to the refugee crisis with 890,000 mostly Iraqi and Syrian refugees pouring into Germany. It is this refugee crisis that complicates Merkel’s reelection campaign.
Merkel made the difficult but ultimately right call as a Christian leader in accepting Syrian refugees into her country, but she has done this without questioning the role her old friend, former President Obama, played in this crisis. Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, it is natural Germany and other European partners are uneasy about how to deal with and what to expect of from President Trump. That being said though, the discontent of European partners does not change the reality that he is the American president.
All NATO members, including Germany, should not spend more on their defense because Trump (rightfully) scolded them, but rather, they should do so for the security of their own people. With regards to the U.K., Merkel must do all she can to facilitate a soft Brexit since it is likely that the British people will regret leaving the EU. Europe must stay united, even if the European Union comes under the pressures of nationalism. While in Brussels, Trump should have strongly stated the United States’ commitment to NATO’s critical Article 5, which embodies the organization’s commitment to collective defense, but this is no excuse for European leaders, especially Merkel, not spending what is needed for their own countries’ security.
The world needs a strong Germany now more than ever, and Merkel should not allow ego or nostalgia get in the way of her country’s important obligations on the world stage.
J.P. Carroll is a freelance national security and foreign affairs reporter and commentator based in Washington D.C. His reporting and commentary tend to focus on U.S. relations with Latin America and Europe. J.P. is a Providence Magazine and Red Alert Politics Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @JPCarrollDC1.
Photo Credit: Angela Merkel and Barack Obama laughing at Kirchentag 2017 Berlin by Nicolas Völcker, via Wikimedia Commons.