Germany is in the news quite a bit lately – more often than not due to the contentious relationship between its government and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
The mismatched pairing of two national leaders such as Trump and Angela Merkel could not be more apparent.
Just watch the cringe-inducing (and alternately amusing) press briefing between Frau Merkel and The Donald back on April 27, when the German Chancellor came to Washington to plead with Trump to uphold U.S. commitment to the Iran nuclear deal and see if you find any natural chemistry between the two:
That Trump arrived in office with no political experience and a lack of diplomatic panache goes without saying. Merkel was well aware of what she would soon be dealing with following the November 2016 election, and congratulations to the new president-elect came across as almost conditional.
But as with all disagreements between nations, this one goes beyond the two executives, regardless of disposition and comportment.
Germany has long struggled in its post-reunification era to reconcile its influence in Europe with its lackluster commitment to the NATO Alliance in real terms. The Bundeswehr has been downsized, restructured, put through a two-decades-long austerity diet, and otherwise seen its capabilities and capacity diminish to the point of near-uselessness by a succession of governments.
Trump’s lack of diplomacy and ham-fisted attempts to bully Alliance members into meeting a symbolic spending metric may be in poor taste, but that is no excuse for Germany to be allowed off the hook for failing to live up to its NATO commitments year after year.
The state of German military capability is porous and getting worse, and yet Merkel’s response to Trump’s broadsides is to advocate for a Europe capable of protecting itself independent of the United States, make rapprochement with Vladimir Putin’s Russia a core policy plank, and to kick the can down the road on defense.
This is political theater being played for home consumption on both sides of the Atlantic.
Merkel knows Trump will not be president forever. Trump hopes to stir up his base by appealing to nationalistic sentiment. Anti-Americanism is hardly new or rare in Germany; an American public concerned more with issues at home than abroad (and growing tired of footing the bill for European security) is a reality.
Trump’s is far from the first U.S. administration to ask more from Germany – and Europe at large – when it comes to defense investment and contributing more to its own security. His will not be the last, either.
But by routinely lambasting Europe as a bunch of security free-riders and singling Germany out in particular he has done little to endear himself to European leaders, much less their publics.
His is, unfortunately, a zero-sum approach that does little to strengthen longstanding partnerships across the Atlantic.
But Merkel, usually one of the shrewdest of European politicians, would be wise to recognize that in order to conduct realpolitik as a leading nation Germany will need both hands – the extended handshake of soft power and the clenched fist of hard power – with which to function effectively.