Why Angela Merkel's Concerns Are So Concerning - Pacific Standard

Why Angela Merkel's Concerns Are So Concerning

If it is politically harmful for America's allies to be seen supporting America's president, those alliances are not long for this world.
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump arrive for the group photo at the G7 Taormina summit on the island of Sicily on May 26th, 2017.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump arrive for the group photo at the G7 Taormina summit on the island of Sicily on May 26th, 2017.

Following President Donald Trump's visit to Europe last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany and other Europeans powers can no longer rely on the United States. I don't claim any special insight into Merkel's perspective or particular expertise in European politics, but there's a logic to Merkel's complaint that's undeniable. And it has more to do with domestic politics in the U.S. than anything Trump did or said in Europe.

To be sure, what Trump did do and say during his visit was not terribly comforting to America's longstanding European allies. In his remarks at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Brussels, he notably failed to reaffirm Article V, signaling that, unlike his predecessors, he would not necessarily view an attack on one NATO member as an attack on all. This undermines the entire purpose of NATO and signals to powers like Russia that incursions into Europe might be less costly than they used to be. He then went on to depict many NATO powers as deadbeats who are not paying their share, displaying not only a hostility to allies but a real unfamiliarity with how the alliance even works.

In other events, he described Germany as "very bad," apparently referring to the country's trade policies and sales of automobiles. He shoved aside Montenegro's prime minister to gain a more prominent camera position. The White House published a photograph of Melania Trump's meeting with the spouses of European leaders and notably failed to list the one gay one. If the White House had set a goal of signaling disregard and disrespect for America's European allies, it would be hard to outdo last week's events.

But that's not all that's going on, and it's not all to which Merkel is reacting. European leaders could simply regard the 2016 American elections as a fluke—there were certainly enough unusual factors in play—and figure that Trump is a temporary aberration and that the U.S. will soon revert to more typical behavior. But evidence for that is scant.

As is quite clear to our allies, the Republican Party, at many different levels, continues to support Trump. He may not have been the first choice of many party leaders, but most rallied behind him last year in the name of party unity. Even those who took principled stances against him, like Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz, ultimately paid homage to the new president, even enduring public humiliation to do so.

Merkel's complaint has more to do with domestic politics in the U.S. than anything Trump did or said in Europe.

He continues to command the support of some 84 percent of people in his party (as is typical for modern presidents). Republican senators have voted almost unanimously for his nominees. Prominent Republican leaders and decorated military officials have defended him repeatedly from criticism and sought to slow and dismiss investigations of his presidency, even when the White House appears to be engaging in obstruction of justice or espionage.

It is entirely possible that Republican leaders are privately horrified by many of Trump's actions and are simply sticking with him because they want certain policy goals or are scared of retribution from primary voters should they attack him. It is also possible that they are enthusiastically supportive of Trump and his actions. To a foreign power, these possibilities are observationally equivalent. And, either way, they suggest the same thing: the Republican Party will stick with him, will support his bid for re-election, and would be comfortable nominating someone like him again. And even a casual observer of American politics would note the pretty regular alternation of power in modern U.S. politics—the parties seem to trade off every eight years.

A U.S. ally might calculate that a long and healthy relationship with the U.S. is important enough to tolerate some short-term problems resulting from a fluke election. But if that election appears to be less of a fluke, if the president that emerged from that fluke appears to be the sort of person that one of America's two major parties is happy to nominate and will likely end up in power again, then yes, it is definitely time to rethink that relationship.

Now, it's also worth noting that Merkel's comments are driven by internal German politics as well—she is up for re-election this year. But that makes her comments all the more damning. If it is politically harmful for America's allies to be seen supporting America's president, those alliances are not long for this world.

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