Trump, Merkel, and the end of an era

In the eyes of most Germans (and Europeans for that matter), the American president is a mentally unstable braggart not to be trusted. For the anti-American segment of the German electorate, Trump is a vindication, the living embodiment of every negative stereotype it holds about America and Americans (i.e. that we are militaristic, uncultured, money-obsessed bumpkins). He is also a political liability for any European leader who stands too close to him; see, for instance, Martin Schulz’s attack on Trump in defense of Merkel’s honor. And so it perhaps should not have come as a surprise that the Chancellor, speaking at a campaign rally in Bavaria over the weekend (Germany goes to the polls in federal elections this September), would say the following in reference to both the United States and pro-Brexit Britain: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. That’s what I experienced over the past several days.”

Merkel’s statement took many observers by surprise, as well it should. To varying extents, German leaders have always paid obeisance to the transatlantic relationship, and here is a German leader, and a pro-American one at that, seeming to give it short shrift. At the same time, we should avoid reading too much into these comments. Postwar German-American relations have seen far worse days, like in the run-up to the Second Iraq War when Gerhard Schroeder ran a federal election campaign on anti-American themes. Moreover, the sort of European self-reliance Merkel called for is not mutually exclusive from a positive relationship with the United States. Indeed, Merkel is right to say that Europe should not be so dependent upon America, which is not the same thing as saying it should be completely independent, as some are misinterpreting her comments. As Matthew Karnitsching of Politico writes, Merkel’s remarks were fully “in keeping with her agenda to push European integration forward, a goal she believes the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president has put within reach.”