It could have been less than a diplomatic encounter.
When German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, last met at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels, Mr. Gabriel publicly rebuked the American for suggesting that Germany should increase its defense spending.
So when the two men met Tuesday, with Mr. Gabriel summoned to Washington by Tillerson “at short notice,” it was not surprising that apart from a handshake for the TV cameras, they had nothing to say for the record.
Mr. Tillerson read a statement about the hurricane disaster in Texas, where he has made his home for many years. He waved off a question about the latest missile launch by North Korea, saying they would talk about that more later. However, there was no press conference or State Department briefing scheduled after the meeting.
That may be in part because Gabriel could be out of office following next month’s national elections. As a Social Democrat in the the governing coalition in Germany, Gabriel’s role could disappear if Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union gets a bigger plurality in the next parliament and chooses another party as her coalition partner.
Mr. Gabriel had already issued Berlin’s formal condemnation of the missile launch before the meeting and called upon the world community to “rigorously” implement existing sanctions to convince Pyongyang to halt its “illegal” missile and nuclear program.
Talking to the press afterwards, Mr. Gabriel said he had expressed Berlin’s concerns about US sanctions against Russia that might expose German firms to fines in connection with certain energy projects. Mr. Gabriel said he warned his American counterpart that the sanctions could lead to a new “ice age” in relations with Russia.
It is no doubt useful and important for the two men, backed by their massive diplomatic resources, to air these concerns. Besides North Korea and Russian sanctions, other topics on the agenda included the situation in Afghanistan, the crisis in Qatar, and the Iran nuclear agreement.
According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman in Berlin, the meeting was not aimed at taking any concrete decisions. Rather, according to the spokesman, “an exchange of information and opinions in an open atmosphere of conversation.”
The fact of the matter is, however, that any serious conversations between Germany and the United States will be those between Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel.
By the time they meet again, Ms. Merkel will likely have won her fourth term as chancellor and picked a new coalition partner, who would traditionally get the foreign affairs portfolio. If the Free Democrats make the grade, for instance, the foreign ministry would probably go to party leader Christian Lindner.
Mr. Lindner has already created some controversy by suggesting that Germany and its allies should just accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a “lasting provisional state of affairs” and move on in their relationship with Moscow. It remains to be seen whether he can maintain that stance if he wants to be part of Ms. Merkel’s fourth government.
Mr. Gabriel was a lame duck from the day he took office as foreign minister in January. His shift from the economics ministry came as part of a musical chairs, which saw his Social Democratic colleague Frank-Walter Steinmeier step down from the foreign affairs post to become Germany’s president and Mr. Gabriel step down as party chairman to hand the reins to former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who became the party’s chancellor candidate.
As for Mr. Tillerson, he has shared the fate of virtually all the other cabinet members in the Trump administration of being relegated to the policy sidelines amid the intrigue and internecine warfare in a chaotic White House.
He was notably excluded from some top-level meetings with foreign heads of state, even though Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka did take part. When he does make pronouncements about foreign policy, no one is sure if he is reflecting the president’s thoughts or even if Mr. Trump is aware of what he is saying.
In any case, Mr. Trump’s actions in the international sphere often seem to be undertaken virtually at whim, whether they contradict any earlier statement made by Mr. Tillerson or by the president himself. If Mr. Trump listens to anyone, it might be the generals he has installed in the White House, the National Security Council and the Defense Department – not the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil who he met only shortly before he appointed him.
Columbia University professor Robert Jervis suggested already in March that Mr. Tillerson “might be the weakest secretary of state ever.” Mr. Jervis, who teaches international affairs, went on to suggest in an article in Foreign Policy that his influence would only ebb.
The relationship between the United States and Germany will obviously continue to be important to the global economy and global security.
Once her electoral victory frees Ms. Merkel from the need to grimace at Mr. Trump for the benefit of German photographers, she can, in her pragmatic way, co-opt him step by step to Germany and Europe’s interests. Perhaps Mr. Lindner can be helpful in that regard.
Darrell Delamaide is an editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Washington, DC.