President Donald Trump sat one chair away from German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the British ceremony commemorating D-Day, but the political distance between them is much greater. The question of where Germany fits into the United States’ system of alliances is clearly one that needs the careful attention of both leaders. However, neither one seems eager to resolve the growing list of disagreements between them, a situation that cannot last.
Mr. Trump made an effort when he assumed the presidency. He criticized Germany’s retreat from its NATO responsibilities and its advancing reliance on Russian energy supplies under Ms. Merkel’s leadership, saying both troubling developments undermined the Atlantic alliance. And he rightly complained about Germany’s growing trade surplus and support for the European Union’s protectionist trade policies.
But the response from Ms. Merkel essentially has been to dismiss these concerns. She passed up an opportunity to address them in a speech at Harvard University’s graduation ceremonies May 30, instead delivering a talk many heard as a veiled personal attack on Mr. Trump combined with a defense of free trade and a condemnation of tariffs. Germany, like all of the EU, applies a tariff on American automobiles of 10 percent, four times the U.S. tariff on German cars.
Although she spoke movingly of longing for freedom when trapped behind the Berlin Wall as a resident of East Germany, she reviewed for Harvard students a version of Europe’s history since World War II as though there had been no American role in the defeat of the Nazis, the rebuilding of Europe or the reunification of Germany.
As she recently told German interviewers, she thinks that Europe needs to find its own voice to cope with challenges from the United States, Russia and China, lumping this country in with two autocratic nations challenging the international order. “There is no doubt that Europe needs to re-position itself in a changed world,” she said. “The old certainties of the post-war order no longer apply.”
She also said Europe lacked “power” and should strive to achieve it.
It would be a mistake to ascribe this estrangement from the United States only to her clear antipathy toward President Trump, or to assume that the entire membership of the European Union shares her dislike of American policies. But the official voice of the EU is very much Germany’s voice, and the EU turned down President Barack Obama, who was very popular in Europe, when he asked for a new trade agreement reducing European protectionism. The impression we get is that Europe does not like being challenged to live up to its own free trade rhetoric.
The world has indeed changed, and any international order going forward has to be based on new facts. Among them is the fact that the EU is collectively nearly the equal of the United States in economic output. Protectionist policies adopted when Europe was struggling to emerge from the destruction of World War II have achieved their purpose and must be discarded in trade between equals. Ms. Merkel and Germany, where only 35 percent have a positive view of the United States, are defending an unfair set of trade rules. They are not offering new ideas about how to rebalance markets.
Mr. Trump seems to be biding his time before aggressively taking on Europe’s trade policies. But it is not his style to let a challenge pass without a response. A showdown is coming.