Analysis

Immature, Impractical and Slightly Threatening: Merkel’s New Message

Even if she can’t stand Trump, German leader should have made things work

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump at a bilateral meeting at the Summit of the Heads of State and of Government of the G7, Sicily, May 26, 2017.
GUIDO BERGMANN/AFP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel ended her trip to the Group of Seven summit disappointed. At a political event in Munich on Sunday, Merkel said, in a declaration that should shake all of us, that Germany can no longer count on its non-European allies.

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“The times when we could fully rely on others are to some extent over – I experienced that in the last few days,” she said at the event. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.” The European Union needs to plan for Britain’s withdrawal, she added. “Of course we need to have friendly relations with the U.S. and with the U.K. and with other neighbors, including Russia,” she said. Even so, Merkel asserted, “We have to fight for our own future ourselves.”

For the international community, old allies and the rest of the world, the message sounds immature, impractical, uninspiring and somewhat threatening – as if Merkel were saying, We’re tired of being the responsible adult and making peace among everyone, manage on your own, you’ve annoyed me.

The simplest, most immediate message in Merkel’s statement is of isolationism. Merkel’s former fellow Western leaders were a bleeding-heart professor who dreamed of peace, and a proper British gentleman. They’ve been replaced by a tactless lawbreaker who disregards the holy ideals of freedom and equality, and a gray Englishwoman with no regard for European unity, and who may be more unforgiving than the chancellor herself.

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You could say that Merkel is being swept along with the isolationist wave sweeping the world. As one who held high the miracle of European unity, opened her country to refugees without quotas, and was a symbol of moderation, Merkel’s new message for her major allies signals a new direction.

You could also interpret her statements as an expression of the German approach led by Merkel herself, one that has intensified since the start of the European debt crisis. Germans – or at least their leaders – want everyone else to behave like them, think like them, and work toward the same goals.

Within Europe, Merkel wants the Greek to be hard-working like the German, and she bit into their flesh with austerity when they didn’t comply. Let other southern European states take note.

Merkel’s inconsistentk, unconstitutional refugee policy brought Britain to its Brexit, as millions of working-class Brits began to fear for their future as waves of immigrants, many of them not even refugees, landed on European shores.

To the northeast, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is threatening Europe with its imperial ambitions, and to the southeast, Turkey is growing more and more theocratic under the increasingly isolated leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This is the worst possible time for Europeans to get a U.S. president who doesn’t play by the rules – not the formalities and manners necessitated by European diplomacy, and not fairness. He is shaking the allies’ feeling of security, the sense that peace in the West is permanent, and, of course, the comfort that comes with economic success, primarily that of the European elites, and specifically the Germans, who are better off than any other nation in the European Union. Merkel simply can’t understand how Trump can do anything except what seems to her as logical.

It’s hard to blame Merkel for her disappointment. The leaders of NATO and the G-7 underwent a bit of trauma, perhaps a bit of hazing, at Trump’s hands. Instead of a leader, they were handed the class troublemaker, and he assaulted them, literally.

And yet, Merkel’s message itself is disappointing. It takes on added meaning because she is the strongest, most important leader in the European Union, and because she aspires to generate a spirit of solidarity and unity. Her words are a rejection of the responsibility, consistency and strength that leaders must show in times of difficulty.

Trump isn’t merely the class troublemaker. He’s the leader of the world’s strongest, richest country. Even if Merkel can’t stand his behavior or his policy, everyone would have been better off had she bitten her tongue and made things work, in view of the troubles with Russia, Turkey and ISIS, and also because Trump has shown he’s not a consistently bad leader, but rather one capable of flexibility and of changing his positions. Despite the good reasons European and American liberals have for disliking Trump, he still hasn’t turned the United States into the dystopian dictatorship liberals fear. You can find a common language even with less than ideal partners, as shown by Theresa May, who didn’t look for a soulmate in Trump, but rather someone who could help her citizens’ economic future.

It’s possible that Merkel’s statements were intended for German ears, as the country prepares for elections in the fall, and weren’t spoken at a Munich beer hall by chance. But she knew they would echo around the world, and if this was election rhetoric, now was not the time for it.