Isolating Trump Merkel's G-20 Climate Alliance Is Crumbling

The German chancellor had been hoping to isolate Donald Trump on climate issues at the upcoming G-20 summit in Hamburg. But Merkel's hoped-for alliance is crumbling, underscoring Germany's relative political weakness globally. Many countries are wary of angering the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel


German Chancellor Angela Merkel had actually thought that Canada's young, charismatic prime minister, Justin Trudeau, could be counted among her reliable partners. Particularly when it came to climate policy. Just two weeks ago, at the G-7 summit in Sicily, he had thrown his support behind Germany. When Merkel took a confrontational approach to U.S. President Donald Trump , Trudeau was at her side.

But by Tuesday evening, things had changed. At 8 p.m., Merkel called Trudeau to talk about how to proceed following Trump's announced withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement . To her surprise, the Canadian prime minister was no longer on the attack. He had switched to appeasement instead.

What would be wrong with simply striking all mentions of the Paris Agreement from the planned G-20 statement on climate, Trudeau asked. He suggested simply limiting the statement to energy issues, something that Trump would likely support as well. Trudeau had apparently changed his approach to Trump and seemed concerned about further provoking his powerful neighbor to the south.

The telephone call made it clear to Merkel that her strategy for the G-20 summit in early July might fail. The chancellor had intended to clearly isolate  the United States. at the Hamburg meeting, hoping that 19 G-20 countries would underline their commitment to the Paris Agreement and make Trump a bogeyman of world history. A score of 19:1.

If even Trudeau is having doubts, though, then unity among those 19 is looking increasingly unlikely. Since then, the new formula has been to bring as many countries as possible together against one.

The first cracks began appearing on the Thursday before last. After returning from the G-7 summit in the Sicilian town of Taormina, Merkel had sent a clear signal to her team: "We have to stay together, we have to close ranks."

From the G-6 to the G-3

But even before Trump announced the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement that evening in the White House Rose Garden, it had become clear in Berlin that they would miss their first target. Led by the Italian G-7 presidency, the plan had been for a joint reaction to Trump's withdrawal, an affirmation from the remaining six leading industrial nations: We remain loyal to Paris.

Suddenly, though, Britain and Japan no longer wanted to be part of it. British Prime Minister Theresa May didn't want to damage relations with Trump, since she would need him in the event of a hard Brexit, the Chancellery surmised last week. And given the tensions with North Korea, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe couldn't put his country's alliance with the U.S. at risk. In other words: Climate policy is great, but when it comes to national interests, it is secondary.

In the end, the Germans, French and Italians were on their own. The G-6 had become the G-3.

It is a defeat for Merkel, and not just when it comes to climate policy. It is also a setback for her claim to leadership on the global stage. Germany's geopolitical influence, the incident shows, remains limited. When it comes to power, security and interests, Germany is a not a global player, but a mid-sized power that isn't even able to keep Europe together.

The German chancellor may have become the hero of liberals and democrats around the globe, but she is unable to fulfill the expectations placed on her as the putative "leader of the free world," at least not when it comes to power politics. Even Merkel's psychological deftness in dealing with the posturing potentates of the world isn't enough to make up for the fact that Germany is not a global power when it comes to foreign and security policy.

America, it seems, will remain the world's power broker for the time being.

Unpredictable Variables

When the most powerful heads of state and government gather in Hamburg in less than a month, that fact could make things difficult for the event's German hosts, and not just when it comes to climate policy. The international situation hasn't been this unclear in a very long time and it is impossible to predict how the meeting participants will act and how the summit will unfold. There are "so many fault lines," says a source in the Chancellery: The battle for free trade and protectionism, the war in Syria, the Qatar crisis and the ongoing fighting in Ukraine all pose a threat to summit bonhomie.

In internal discussions, a list of unpredictable variables has been drawn up. At the very top is Donald Trump.

Indeed, the U.S. president's first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens to overshadow the entire summit. Merkel had hoped that the two would organize a meeting prior to the Hamburg summit so that their encounter would not become a central issue. But now, all eyes are likely to be on the face-to-face meeting between the leaders of America and Russia, particularly given that the investigation into the Trump campaign's possible ties to Moscow is gaining steam in Washington.

In Berlin, preparations for the summit are continuing full speed ahead, with the Chancellery focusing primarily on the preparation of two documents. One is the summit's official closing communiqué, which all 20 heads of state and government are to sign. The document is to reflect Merkel's stamp on the summit, and it focuses on a broad array of issues from trade to Africa to women's rights.

Several drafts have circulated among the G-20 members in recent weeks. Of particular note: There isn't a single mention of the climate in the document. There is a decent possibility that, if the U.S. is to sign it, the closing document will remain completely silent on climate issues.

Hope Fades

In parallel, though, Merkel's advisers are working on an "Action Plan on Climate, Energy and Growth," a document that had initially been planned for the 19 in Merkel's original 19:1 calculation. But hope is fading that enough heads of state and government can be found to sign the document. Thirteen pages long, the paper asks signatories to commit themselves to "the restructuring of energy systems consistent with Paris" and to their "nationally determined contributions" to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

For the Americans, the document is an imposition. It includes a number of items in which the Paris Agreement is expressly affirmed and substantiated - the pact that Trump has just withdrawn from. "Our actions are guided by the Paris Agreement," the document states, the goal of which is that of "holding global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees." The paper also discusses the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and the $50 billion that industrialized nations have pledged to make available to help developing nations reach their targets. An array of items that, as has recently become apparent, Trump has little use for.

Officials in Brussels are cautiously optimistic. "We expect that the document will be signed by the 19 countries," says one diplomat involved in G-20 preparations. Nobody at EU headquarters, though, has any hope that the U.S. will join them.

In Berlin, the mood is less confident. There are widespread concerns that a whole list of countries might pull back out of fear of the consequences for their relations with Trump - something they aren't willing to risk over the question as to how hot it might be on the planet in 100 years. Indeed, the Chancellery has begun recalibrating its view of success, now content to settle for a situation in which no other country joins the U.S. in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

German officials believe there are several countries whose signatures to the document are by no means certain. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, could be on the search for revenge following the dispute over German parliamentarians' rights to visit German troops stationed in Incirlik . The Saudis, meanwhile, might jump ship because of the multibillion-dollar defense deal they just signed with Trump.

A Lesson from China

Moscow, meanwhile, has signaled to the Chancellery that Russian President Vladimir Putin stands behind Paris and would sign the document. But can he really be trusted? Merkel has spent a lot of time on the phone in recent days and has also been traveling. This week, she visited Argentina and Mexico, both of which are allies when it comes to climate issues.

Just how difficult it is to keep partners together on climate protection issues was on full display to Merkel last Friday in Brussels. Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was in the EU capital and was eating dinner with European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Juncker just as Trump announced his withdrawal from Paris. The trio didn't bother to turn on the television since they already knew what the U.S. president was going to announce.

Indeed, they had planned to issue a joint response the next day at the EU-China summit. They had negotiated a summit declaration in which both sides would call for a significant intensification of the fight against climate change. High-ranking EU officials had already begun crowing that the statement was the response from China and Europe to Trump's effrontery.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 24/2017 (June 10, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

But it never happened. It wasn't because the two sides disagreed on climate issues, but there was discord surrounding a different part of the statement dealing with trade policy. Ultimately, the disagreement could not be resolved and Juncker, Tusk and Li appeared before the press after a three-hour delay - and without a joint statement on the climate.

Indeed, trade policy is likely to be another significant sticking point at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. The Europeans got an indication of what is likely in store for them on Wednesday and Thursday of this week at the ministerial meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The U.S. declined even to support sentences that merely repeated the minimal compromise that Trump had grudgingly agreed to in Sicily. The G-7 had only been able to find common ground on a few thin statements criticizing predatory pricing or condemning overcapacity in steel production. In the closing document of the OECD meeting on globalization, there is now no mention at all of trade or climate.

The Role of Mediator

As such, the G-20 could result in something that hosts of the event normally do all they can to avoid: open discord. On the issue of climate, the decisive question will be whether the Germans are willing to seek conflict with Trump. But it currently doesn't look as though they are, with government officials eager to avoid turning the climate statement into an instrument of power politics. Instead, Merkel is likely to retreat to a role that suits her better anyway: that of mediator. As the host, officials say, Germany will focus on playing intermediary at the summit.

On the other hand, though, Merkel also isn't interested in the type of compromise proposed by Trudeau. After the G-7, she said that climate protection was too important to her to engage in compromise.

Ultimately, the end result could be that the issue is largely ignored. The G-20 isn't a climate conference, officials are saying, and the conflicts might be better suited for the next global climate summit, scheduled to take place in Bonn at the end of the year.

The German population, of course, would almost certainly prefer to see the chancellor stand up to Trump. If Merkel, who has staked a significant portion of her political legacy  on climate change, were to exclude climate from the G-20 summit, she could face accusations of caving in to the U.S. president. And in a campaign year, that's not a good look. Indeed, the center-left Social Democrats are already positioning themselves to benefit. "It would of course be good if as many participants of the G-20 summit as possible were to reconfirm their adherence to the Paris climate deal," says Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel  of the SPD. "Silent consent in opposition to the climate deal cannot be the message sent by the G-20."

Editor's note: Following the publication of this story on Friday, a spokesperson for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contacted DER SPIEGEL and requested that we publish a response from the prime minister's office. It follows, along with our own reply:

The Prime Minister remains fully committed to fulfilling Canada's commitments in the Paris Agreement, and we remain steadfast in our approach. In his discussion with the Chancellor, the Prime Minister specifically emphasised our shared commitment to fighting climate change, strengthening environmental protection, and pursuing clean energy and sustainable development. And he looks forward to furthering the discussion about the Paris Agreement alongside our partners at the G-20 Summit in Germany in July. The suggestion that our approach has changed or that the Prime Minister was in favour of removing the Paris Agreement from the G-20 Action Plan is incorrect. -- Cameron Ahmad, press secretary, Prime Minister's Office, Canada

DER SPIEGEL would like to stress that the article did not claim Prime Minster Justin Trudeau told chancellor Angela Merkel that he would call his commitment to the Paris Agreement into question. However, sources within the government in Berlin told DER SPIEGEL that the prime minister suggested to Angela Merkel to keep references to the Paris treaty out of the G-20 declaration in Hamburg. This would allow U.S. President Donald Trump to sign the planned declaration on energy.