Merkel was supposed to be the antithesis—a German JFK—to the ultra-nationalist who was occupying the White House and intent on destroying the post-Cold War international order, demolishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and strengthening Russia. Vladimir Putin’s BFF, if not a Russian mole in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who for all practical purposes “has made a war” on Merkel and Europe?
And then there is what has become by now an iconic internet picture, destined to be a museum piece, capturing a scene from the Group of Seven (G-7) meeting in Canada in 2018, which shows Merkel, with both hands down on the table in front of her, leaning and lecturing President Donald Trump, with his arms crossed looking weak and defensive.
It’s as though Merkel, dominating the scene, is towering over Trump, talking him down, like a teacher facing a not-very-smart student, who, after all, refused to sign the joint G-7 communique.
Indeed, anyone who has followed the four years of never-ending tensions between Trump and Merkel would have had no choice but to come to the following conclusion during the Trump presidency: If it wasn’t for the enlightenment values that guided the German chancellor, the savior of the liberal West, and her sharp diplomatic skills, then Putin, applauding the way that his buddy Trump is obliterating NATO and devastating the transatlantic relationship and confident that Russia has a friend in the White House, would have struck directly against the core interests of the Western alliance; who knows, he might have even tried to challenge NATO by, say, invading Ukraine.
And now that Trump, the disrupter of the West, is out and a liberal internationalist who has only nice things to say about America’s European allies is sitting in the Oval Office, we could be certain that Putin would recognize that he was facing a united and strong transatlantic front and would have to think twice before pursuing an aggressive approach against Ukraine or other neighbors.
But then ironically, it was Trump who imposed sanctions on firms building Nord Stream 2, an undersea pipeline that would have allowed Russia to increase gas exports to Germany and finish a pipeline into the European Union (EU), and to continue exporting gas to Europe even if it decided to cut off its supplies to Ukraine.
Trump warned that the 1,225km (760-mile) pipeline, owned by Russia’s Gazprom, could turn Germany into a “hostage of Russia.” But Merkel’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, denounced the American sanctions that, according to him, amounted to “interference in autonomous decisions taken in Europe.” And, hey, what could you expect from the nationalist and anti-European Trump?
In retrospect, one has to ask the following: Who was actually playing the role of the nationalist and who was the internationalist in that case? Merkel, defending the economic interests of Germany, or Trump, cautioning Germany and the EU against becoming dependent on energy supplies controlled by an anti-Western Russian leader?
And by the way, why would Moscow’s mole in Washington insist on sabotaging a major project promoted by Putin that was aimed at strengthening Russia’s strategic and economic power?
And why would President Biden, in one of his first steps in office, decide to waive U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream in the name of mending Europe ties, playing directly into the hands of the authoritarian leader in the Kremlin that he supposedly regards as a dictator and as a major strategic threat?
Moreover, contrary to the narrative advanced by Merkel and her liberal internationalist fans in Washington, Trump’s pressure on Germany and other NATO members to increase their contribution to the military alliance and to spend more on their own defense wasn’t a reflection of the former president’s “nationalist” or “isolationist” orientation.
In fact, any serious strategic thinker, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognized the “growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.” As Gates put it in 2011, “I am the latest in a string of U.S. defense secretaries who have urged allies privately and publicly, often with exasperation, to meet agreed-upon NATO benchmarks for defense spending.”
From that perspective, Trump’s call on Germany and the Europeans to increase their defense spending and to reduce their dependence on Russia’s energy supplies reflected a solid internationalist view. Further, it was meant to strengthen the ability of the Western alliance to contain any potential threat from Russia and to ensure that NATO could defeat the Russian military.
Hence Merkel, not Trump, should be blamed for the precarious position that Germany found itself in when Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine: More dependent than ever on Russian energy resources as well as on trade and investment ties with China, Russia’s partner, and with weak military forces and a lack of any coherent strategy to respond to the Russian aggression.
To put it another way, in response to the war and Ukraine, the policies embraced by Germany and NATO have evolved along the lines the former president has drawn: NATO’s European members are now paying more for their defense and Germany is pursuing a more activist role that reflects a new military doctrine. Nord Stream 2 has been annulled; the Europeans are rescinding their energy deals with Russia and are now more dependent on natural gas supplies from the United States.
Even more significant, when one analyzes the transatlantic relationship since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Realpolitik perspective that guided the Trump administration and the Republican Party, in general, has provided more explanatory power than the idealist and liberal internationalist views of the world that have steered German and European diplomacy.
Indeed, the notions that commercial ties could override core national interests and that diplomacy could rely on the use of “soft power,” on the creative multilateral schemes and on world leaders schmoozing, were buried in the battlefields of Ukraine.
In anything, the war has demonstrated that military power remains central to determining the outcomes of international conflicts, and that the player that has more of it and can apply it effectively is the one who can force others to follow its lead. In this case, it’s the United States.
That explains why the balance of power in the transatlantic alliance has changed since the start of the war, why a Germany that is basically a giant Switzerland cannot lead Europe, and why French president Emmanuel Macron’s Gaullist idea of “strategic independence” proved to be nothing more than delusions of grandeur.
Recognizing that they lack the military power necessary to contain the threat from an aggressive Russia, or for that matter, from a surging China, the Europeans—joined by Sweden and Finland—have accommodated themselves to the geostrategic and geo-economic realities under which they have no choice but to accept U.S. leadership in the Western alliance, and that their ability to resist American pressure, even on issues relating to trade and investment, is now limited.
To argue that on a personal level, Trump wasn’t and isn’t qualified to be president, that his method of disruption and chaos isn’t a substitute for the pursuit of a coherent foreign policy, may be an understatement.
And Trump’s mindless praise of Putin, at a time when he, unlike his predecessor, actually supplied Ukraine with the arms it requested and went on to reassess U.S. nuclear agreements with Russia, helped create his caricature as Putin’s pawn.
But the irony is that two years after leaving office, and with his chances of returning to power getting smaller by the day, the world looks now more like the way Trump—not Merkel—imagined it to be.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).