BERLIN — After Donald Trump was elected president on Nov. 8, 2016, his future German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, offered him her “close cooperation,” at least if Trump respected common values such as “democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.”
It appeared to be pure coincidence that less than two weeks later, Merkel also announced that she would run for a fourth term, after thinking about it “for an eternity.”
In interviews at the time, her reasoning behind another run appeared to be mainly associated with the rise of populism in Germany. “Can I do something to facilitate cohesion in our polarized society? I think I can help to tone down the rhetoric: Instead of hating each other, we should debate like democrats.”
While Merkel was referring to populists in Germany, the underlying message may very well also have been directed against Trump, according to a memoir being published next week. In “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House,” Ben Rhodes, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, recalls how Merkel told Obama after Trump’s victory that the election had contributed to her decision to run again, to defend the liberal world order, according to excerpts published by the New York Times on Thursday.
In his book, Rhodes goes on to describe an emotional last goodbye between Merkel and Obama as president, writing that she had a single tear in her eye. “She’s all alone,” Rhodes quoted Obama as noting at the time.
The excerpt does not indicate when the conversation took place, but Rhodes is probably referring to Obama’s visit to Berlin in mid-November, days after Trump’s victory.
As Obama left the world stage, Merkel was almost immediately branded the new “leader of the free world” — a title that she later acknowledged left her uncomfortable.
One of Merkel’s most distinctive character traits has long been caution. For years, it served her well and helped her sideline rivals and other rising stars, but it’s a strategy that appears to be better suited to Germany’s consensus-based political system than to dealing with a U.S. president described by officials here as “erratic” and “unpredictable.”
Even when Trump began to lash out at Germany on Twitter, Merkel’s most aggressive response remained a sober assessment. The days when her continent could rely on others were “over to a certain extent,” she said last May, speaking at a crowded beer hall rally. “This is what I have experienced in the last few days.”
The chancellor was widely applauded for her remarks at the time, but critics say Merkel has not done enough since then to follow up on her words.
After half a year of coalition talks that left her weakened, and amid a rising desire in France to take back a leading role on the world stage, Merkel’s Germany now appears less willing and less likely to defend the liberal world order than it did two years ago.
Few Germans believe their country should assume a more influential role in world affairs anyway, and 52 percent said in a recent survey by the Körber Foundation that more restraint was beneficial. That is one reason the German military remains so chronically underfunded that it is virtually “not deployable for collective defense,” according to an independent commissioner.
Even if Merkel decided to ignore that sentiment, she would have few options to directly confront Trump. As Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and free-trade commitments, top German officials either said there was nothing they could do about it or that they were seeking to de-escalate tensions.
So far, German efforts to uphold the international liberal order have focused on strengthening European institutions and trying to soothe some of the tensions that have arisen over Trump’s policies regarding Iran, Israel and China.
The German government assumed a somewhat tougher stance on Thursday after Trump imposed tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from the European Union, Canada and Mexico. A German government spokesman called the move “unlawful,” saying that “this measure brings the danger of a spiral of escalation, which in the end harms everyone.” Whereas previous U.S. provocations mostly drew a verbal backlash from Europe, the E.U. said Thursday that it also would impose duties on some U.S. products with the backing of Merkel and other European leaders.
One of Merkel’s other confrontational moves has been the construction of North Stream 2, a pipeline that would connect Central Europe with Russian gas supplies. Critics, including the U.S. government, say the pipeline would make Germany too dependent on Russia. The German government has vehemently denied this.
And yet, defending Russian-European projects against U.S. criticism probably was not what anyone had in mind when talking about the defense of the liberal international order.