When Merkel Met Trump.
It was never going to be the same. After eight years of a somewhat complicated but ultimately close relationship between Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, the German chancellor made her way to a White House changed, where hand shakes are hard to come by and the current resident cares little for the norms of international relations. Many pages have been written over the weekend highlighting the differences in the two leaders styles, where Merkel operates a policy of pragmatic, but not always popular decision making, Donald Trump’s regime is one of tumult, Twitter storms and tactical chaos.
The contrasting cultures of Merkel and Trump could not have been more stark if she had worn a Dirndl and he an Uncle Sam outfit, replete with top hat, sparklers and an oversized neck tie. Merkel was not the first world leader to meet Trump, with Japan’s Shinzō Abe and the UK’s Theresa May coming before her, but it was the first time that Trump was faced with a combative world leader of the German chancellors' stature. In an election year, Merkel was not there to play nice. This was not a photo opportunity and it was clear from the beginning that Trump felt the strain.
Merkel appeared relaxed and so she should have been, this was not her first rodeo. She was clearly aware there was a fine line that had to be walked. America is still a vital ally, both for trade and, with the increasing boldness of Russia, defence. Yet she could not simply allow the fledgling American president to run roughshod over proceedings. Since last November, Merkel has produced clear but subtle criticisms of the Trump administration, but in a way that has boosted her reputation at home and abroad and taken her from a central position in European politics, to some lauding her as the last hope of global liberal democracy.
It would be nice to think that those criticisms flew over the head of the American president, who is frequently likened to an angry toddler or spoiled child, but it was clear from his actions that Trump had taken those criticisms to heart. The frosty nature of the relationship was obvious from every second that he and Merkel spent standing or sitting next to each other. Yet, personal relationships are not always a guarantee of successful relations between countries.
Trump spent much of his campaign prior to the November election last year, touting his business credentials. He was going to turn America around using the skills he had used in business, he was going to bring the jobs back, he was going to show the world what the ‘Art of the Deal’ really meant. One part of that appears to be attacking Germany’s trade surplus. Trump has in the last two months railed against the systems that he believes have given America’s competitors an unfair advantage. Germany, in Trump’s opinion, has been keeping the euro artificially low, with Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro claiming America was being exploited via currency manipulation.
Trump has also suggested a 35% tariff on BMWs, a story that gained more than a little traction in the German press. It is hard, however, to ascertain exactly which parts of Trump’s statements are factual and which are simply hyperbolic posturing. This will be a continual problem for the German press, who culturally are more used to uncovering the lies than having them spoon fed in a giant receptacle marked ‘bullshit’ with flashing lights and speakers squealing “fake news!”.
Perhaps it was the continual lying or the knowledge that Merkel must play the long game with Trump, that motivated the German press pack to go on the attack. I say the attack, it was obvious from Merkel’s relaxed demeanour that what she was witnessing was the German journalists on their best behaviour. Even still, polite Germans have the uncanny ability to ask the most brutal of questions as if they were simply enquiring into the health of an uncle or absent mindedly pondering the time. The super power Germans possess is the ability to be terrifyingly direct and not bat an eyelid. They subjected Trump to the average German press grilling and in turn were rewarded with plaudits from their American colleagues.
If Trump has been suspect with the truth, then over the weekend he was also found wanting with regard to his supposed business prowess. It is clear from Trump’s attitude, especially during the debates with Hilliary Clinton, that he regards physical dominance to be a winning tactic. His stalking of Clinton and more recently his much discussed handshake method have revealed a desire to show his strength in some kind of power play. His subordinates have been subjected to the curious grabbing and pulling action that Trump prefers, but it was notable that the visit of Shinzō Abe elicited a compliment, when Trump talked about Abe having “strong hands”. What mind games Trump was working is best understood by himself, but it was clear when Justin Trudeau arrived at the White House he had been given some sensible advice on how to counter the hand shake strategy.
The major problem with mind games is that they can easily backfire. Merkel was not even offered a chance to show her mastery of handshake kung-fu when she was bizarrely snubbed during the photo op with Trump. This blatant attempt by Trump to show relationship dominance was easily disarmed with a “whatever you werido” look from Merkel. It could be speculated that Trump had accidentally let his disdain for powerful women seep through his orange veneer, but it is more than likely that he was worried his small hands would be enveloped by the pan like grip of the German chancellor.
If Trump was projecting an external confidence, it was quite clear he was worried about how the meeting would be seen by his audience. Trump sees himself as a strong man, in the mould of Vladimir Putin, the media spectacle must be controlled and when it differs from the official narrative, it must be attacked. Yet, in Merkel he is facing the unknown, both personally and culturally. Throughout the press conference with Merkel, the cable to his translation ear piece could clearly be seen, the very same ear piece that he had rejected on the visit from Abe earlier in the year. Trump needed to know what Merkel was saying, just in case it was his turn to go on the defensive. Trump is learning that he might be able to manipulate some things, but Germany’s bullshit meter is not one of them.