A Tale of Two Americas Comes to Europe

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Say whaaat? Picture source: Reuters.

In a single day, Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with two US presidents who represent starkly different views of America, its place in the world and its relationship with Europe.

Ms. Merkel will start her Thursday by welcoming Barack Obama to Berlin on the former US president’s first public trip abroad since he left office in January. The chancellor and the former president, who are known to hold each other in high regard, will take part in a live panel discussion on democratic engagement in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Around 80,000 people are expected to attend.

After talking democracy with Mr. Obama in Berlin, Ms. Merkel will head to Brussels where she will face a more difficult meeting with his successor, President Donald Trump, who is visiting Europe for the first time since he took office to meet with the leaders of the NATO alliance.

Ms. Merkel’s relationship with Mr. Trump is as tense as her relationship with Mr. Obama is warm. On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump held up the chancellor as target of scorn, slamming her refugee policy as a “disgrace.” And in either a faux pas or a slight, he did not shake Ms. Merkel’s hand in front of cameras during her visit to Washington in March.

Ms. Merkel will have to engage in delicate shuttle diplomacy between the two former presidents, who have made no secret about their strong distaste for one another.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has called Ms. Merkel his “closest international partner” during his presidency, and he made a point of visiting Germany in his last trip abroad before leaving office. During that visit, he publicly endorsed Ms. Merkel for a fourth term, saying he would vote for the incumbent chancellor if he could.

His endorsement is not all that surprising – the worldview of America’s first African-American president closely aligns with the views of Germany’s first female chancellor. Shortly after Mr. Trump’s shock election victory, Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel reaffirmed their commitment to free trade, human rights and the NATO alliance in a joint editorial for Handelsblatt’s sister publication, WirtschaftsWoche. Though they did not mention Mr. Trump by name, the piece was a clear rebuke of his worldview. Mr. Trump has rattled the foundations of US foreign policy, advocating protectionist trade policies and questioning America’s commitment to NATO.

Ms. Merkel, then, will have to engage in delicate shuttle diplomacy between the two former presidents, who have made no secret about their strong distaste for one  another. Mr. Trump made his foray into US national politics by falsely claiming that Mr. Obama was not an American, a claim  latched onto by the far-right. And Mr. Obama, stumping for failed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, said Mr. Trump could not be trusted with America’s nuclear codes.

The two made nice for the cameras during the transition of power, but Mr. Trump has since lashed out at his predecessor, making so far unsubstantiated claims that Mr. Obama wiretapped his phones. In an awkward moment during Ms. Merkel’s visit to Washington in March, Mr. Trump said during a joint press conference that he actually does have something in common with the chancellor – they were both spied on by Mr. Obama, a reference to Ms. Merkel’s cellphone being tapped by the National Security Agency.

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Transatlantic BFFs. Picture source: Reuters.

It is by coincidence, not by design, that Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama are in Europe at the same time for high-profile events. Mr. Obama accepted an invitation from Germany’s Protestant church to attend the panel discussion in Berlin long before Mr. Trump won the US presidential election. The live discussion between Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel is part of four days of festivities to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

Though the schedule overlap was a coincidence, Ms. Merkel was concerned Mr. Trump might take her meeting with Mr. Obama the wrong way. She personally informed the sitting US president weeks ago about the event with Mr. Obama to avoid misunderstandings, according to the German news agency DPA, citing diplomatic sources.

Though Ms. Merkel, ever the pragmatist, has taken pains to avoid hurting Mr. Trump’s ego, it is no secret who the more popular US president is in Europe. Germany, to borrow a phrase from American politics, is a blue state. More than 80 percent of Germans view Mr. Trump as incompetent, according to a January poll by Infratest dimap. And nostalgia for Mr. Obama runs deep. In April 2016, 62 percent of Germans said they wished Mr. Obama could run for a third term, according to an Emnid poll.

Obama nostalgia is not limited to Germany. In France, there was actually a petition to recruit Mr. Obama to run for the French presidency, even though as a non-citizen  he was ineligible. The petition garnered at least 42,000 signatures.

Despite the antipathy toward Mr. Trump in much of Europe, there are ongoing attempts to bridge the growing transatlantic divide. Mr. Trump, perhaps aware of his bad reputation among America’s closest allies, will reportedly soften his rhetoric in Brussels on Thursday and publicly affirm America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies in the event of an attack. And the Europeans, in an olive branch to Mr. Trump, are expected to agree to develop national plans to meet NATO’s defense spending targets.

Ms. Merkel, however, cannot afford to get too close to Mr. Trump. It is an election year in Germany, and the US president is political kryptonite. Indeed, the chancellor’s political opponents, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), are already warning Ms. Merkel to take a hard line: “We expect the chancellor not to give in to President Trump’s demands,” Rolf Mützenich, the Social Democrats’ foreign policy expert, told the weekly Welt am Sonntag.

Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), on the other hand, is hoping that Mr. Trump will surprise Europe and turn out to be a bit more like Mr. Obama: “President Trump should resume his predecessor’s networked approach based in partnership,” said Jürgen Hardt, a foreign policy expert with the CDU. Obama nostalgia in Germany runs deep indeed.

Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author:

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