Was it really just frustration? Angela Merkel’s remarks about Europe being no longer able to rely fully on others (namely the United States) and its need to take control of its own destiny have dominated headlines worldwide. The chancellor’s words have revealed her deep disappointment over failing to find common ground with President Donald Trump on such important issues as NATO, climate protection and trade.
Ms. Merkel is not known for shooting off statements from the hip. But she appears to have come to a sober realization that, from a European perspective, there will be no great rapprochement with Mr. Trump, or much hope for the new US president becoming presidential. The populist Trump is simply too unpredictable to rely on that to happen.
Still, it would be premature to write off the more than 70-year-old trans-Atlantic alliance because of a poltergeist dwelling in the White House for the next four years. The relationship between Europe and the United States has survived many other low points, such as the political ice age during the Iraq war in 2003. Donald Trump is not America. The majority of Americans did not vote for him. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Trump’s brand of impulsive nationalism can’t cause damage. On the contrary, Ms. Merkel’s bitter words revealed that the relationship of mutual trust is already damaged.
If Europe wants to be heard above all the noise, it has to raise its voice and it has to speak with one voice.
Yet Mr. Trump’s rowdy performance during his first international trip could prove to be a therapeutic shock for Europeans. It could drive home an earlier warning from their favorite American president, Barack Obama, that they must take control of their own destiny. And if we look at the rapidly changing world around us, we clearly recognize that need without any coaching from the United States.
The world’s economic and political focus is shifting toward Asia. China is reclaiming its former global role, India has similar ambitions, and Russia is flexing its muscles in neighboring countries. If Europe wants to be heard above all the noise, it has to raise its voice and it has to speak with one voice.
As luck would have it, Ms. Merkel is receiving the prime ministers of India and China in Berlin on Wednesday and Thursday. As important as both Asian powers are economically for Europe and Germany, they cannot replace the Western community of values. China’s one-party domination is in direct competition with Western democracies. While India is the world’s biggest democracy in terms of its population, it pursues nationalist policies on trade and climate protection, which are difficult to reconcile with European ideas of cooperation.
So for the moment anyway, Europeans are left to their own devices and have to take control of their own destiny. This realization has already brought Germany and France closer together. This is not just an important step toward healing the wounds of the euro crisis, which has still not been entirely overcome; it is also a requirement for Europe to come up with a counter proposal to nationalist zeitgeist. That includes hanging on to the Paris Climate Agreement, keeping borders open for goods and people in need and meeting military threats together.
On its own, the last point is not a sufficient reason for Europe to be taken seriously in the world, but it is essential. If Europeans can’t take care of their own security, then the European Union is nothing more than a paper tiger. This doesn’t make NATO obsolete but helps provide the Alliance with a secondary means of support. That is why there is no reason for Europe to submit to Mr. Trump’s arguments for rearmament, as the center-left Social Democratic Party chancellor candidate Martin Schulz fears. Europe can only employ its unchallenged “soft power” credibly if there is “hard power” to back it up.
It is quite possible that Mr. Trump will also be an issue in the federal election campaign, currently underway. This was perhaps another reason for Ms. Merkel’s “frustrated” speech. The Social Democrats among Mr. Schulz would be well-advised not to try and outdo the chancellor in her chiding of Mr. Trump. That would only stir up anti-American sentiments. History sometimes takes one step back, before moving forward again two steps, as the former U.S. President Obama said, referring to his successor, Mr. Trump. For Germany that means: keep cool. Democracy means dominance within a timeframe – for America too.
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