Merkel’s Struggle to Gain Trump’s Ear Leaves Berlin Sidelined

Updated on
  • U.S. envoy criticizes Germany for not joining military strikes
  • Macron and Merkel both trying to avoid U.S. trade tariffs
Germany Coordinator for Transatlantic Cooperation Peter Beyer discusses EU-U.S. relations.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attempts to engage President Donald Trump just got harder.

Trump lavished praise on the U.K. and France at the weekend “for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military,” after they joined the U.S. in hitting Syrian targets. All Merkel earned was U.S. criticism for not taking part.

“Germany should have joined this P3 group, too,” Richard Grenell, the U.S. nominee to be the next ambassador to Germany, wrote in a tweet on Friday night in Washington.

The U.S. disregard for Germany’s postwar aversion to using military force adds to a sense in Berlin of being sidelined by the Trump administration at a time when global challenges are multiplying. The cooling ties are both a personal snub to Merkel, the longest-serving leader of the Group of Seven and the European Union, and economically alarming, with the threat of U.S. trade tariffs hanging over the EU, and Germany especially.

Where Merkel was feted by President Barack Obama, the Chancellery in Berlin now struggles to even make contact with the White House. A key conduit via Trump’s National Security Adviser HR McMaster closed with his departure.

State Visit

Merkel’s cold shoulder contrasts with Trump’s attitude to French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he has invited to Washington next week for a state visit. Merkel’s team is still trying to finalize the chancellor’s visit to the White House later that same week.

As Trump Weighs Syria Strike, Macron Is His Go-to Guy in Europe

The U.S. tried to shame Merkel’s government into helping in Syria, arguing that Germany of all nations should be appalled by the use of chemical weapons on civilians, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be named discussing strategy.

The French did not hesitate for a moment in supporting the U.S., and Macron was superb, said the official. Macron and Trump have a great relationship, the official added.

Merkel’s stance on military action confirmed the negative view of Germany already held by Trump and his team, said Jan Techau, director of the Europe Program at the German Marshal Fund in Berlin.

“The German chancellor stands for rationality and thoughtfulness: two characteristics which do not impress Trump,” Techau said in an interview. “Merkel knows very well that she needs the U.S. president, but with her style it will be rather difficult to get closer to him and bridge the gap which exists.”

Take Up Golf

There was a time when it looked like the German chancellor could win over Trump. Soon after her first visit to the Trump White House, in March 2017, she invited the president’s daughter Ivanka to Berlin for a conference on women in business, calculating that she might gain access to Trump by winning the confidence of his daughter.

More than a year and multiple Trump tweets critical of Germany later, Merkel realizes that her charm offensive has failed. She is left out of the president’s small circle of favored leaders. Such is the sense of frustration in Berlin that one senior German official quipped perhaps the chancellor should take up golf to get closer to Trump.

The personal dynamics matter more than ever as Trump has given the European Union a May 1 deadline to come up with proposals to avert the imposition of tariffs on aluminum and steel. That common threat will be the focus of Macron’s trip to Berlin this week as he and Merkel coordinate a joint approach to Trump on trade, a French government official said.

While the EU negotiates on trade matters, Germany’s main goal is to eliminate the deadline and start a broader trade discussion with the U.S. Merkel will push her point with Trump in Washington even though she realizes that her visit will be overshadowed by Macron’s.

Merkel and Trump may be able to find common ground on countering China, Peter Beyer, the German government’s new coordinator for transatlantic relations, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. Transatlantic ties “remain one of our cornerstones, one of the main pillars” for Germany, though relations are “obviously very demanding” right now, he said.

Mattis, Kelly

The feeling in the Chancellery is one of growing skepticism that Trump will accept any such deal, however, and there’s a fear that Germany could be crushed between the U.S. and China in the event of a trade war. Those worries add to Trump’s apparent obsession with Germany’s car industry and its success at America’s expense, plus his criticism of what he sees as Germany’s unwillingness to raise its defense budget.

There is also concern in the Chancellery that Trump surrounds himself with people who will not or cannot urge caution: Defense Secretary James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are seen in Berlin as among the last two exceptions.

A further flashpoint is coming in May with Trump’s decision on whether to certify the Iran deal. Grenell, whose nomination as German envoy has awaited a Senate vote for months now, has ties to John Bolton, who succeeded McMaster in the post and is a vocal critic of the Iran deal, which Germany helped negotiated and continues to support.

U.S.-German ties are not entirely frayed, however. Mattis informed German Defense Minster Ursula von der Leyen of the Syrian action before it took place. And an adviser downplayed the idea that the U.S. had ever expected Germany to join in the strike on Syria, saying the U.S. was appreciative of its political support.

The threat of a genuine rift is still very real in the minds of hardliners in the Trump administration, for both “legitimate and wildly illegitimate reasons,” said Constanze Stelzenmuelller, Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

“Connecting with the president is a matter of luck as much as skill, although it can be done, and some people are clearly better at it than others,” said Stelzenmueller. “But the reality is that the German position is vulnerable.”

— With assistance by Helene Fouquet, Toluse Olorunnipa, Margaret Talev, Patrick Donahue, and Matthew Miller

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