The hour-long video didn't exactly put the German chancellor in a cheerful mood. The footage was from Donald Trump's recent appearance in Pennsylvania during his so-called Thank You Tour and Angela Merkel, as she told the national executive committee of her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), watched the rally in its entirety. She recommended that her fellow party members do the same. "It is interesting to see the thought environment he inhabits," she said.
During his speech, Trump celebrated a landslide victory that was anything but; he blasted the press ("the world's most dishonest people") and in no way left the impression that he has matured into a statesman following his election win. But one passage really stood out in Merkel's memory and she quoted it verbatim: "There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, a global flag. We salute one flag, and that is the American flag."
Merkel described Trump's speech as "culturally interesting," saying that it indicated the political direction the president-elect might take. Trump, she said, has announced plans for massive tax cuts and added that his primary focus is America first. Merkel made her comments in a calm tone of voice, but the extent of her concern was clear to all who attended the pre-Christmas meeting: She is preparing for the worst.
Merkel Critical of Trump
Merkel largely refrained from public comment during the US election campaign and she considered it a mistake when Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier publicly described the Republican candidate as a "hate preacher." That doesn't, however, mean that she doesn't share his opinion.
Internally, she makes no secret of what she thinks about Trump's campaign. No other presidential candidate in the history of the United States has ever violated the rules of decency to the degree that Trump has. That's how Merkel sees it. That helps explain why, in a brief statement given to the press following his Nov. 9 election, she held the kind of moral sermon that no previous German chancellor had ever delivered to a US president.
She said that "Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom and respect for law." She then offered close cooperation with the next president on the "basis of these values." It was the language of a parole officer trying to get her charge back on the right track. Merkel didn't just say this publicly -- she also repeated it during an hour-long telephone conversation with Trump on Nov. 11. The future president remained friendly, but was apparently thoroughly unimpressed.
Trump Is No Second Coming of Ronald Reagan
The more optimistic minds in the Chancellery still held the view in the days following Trump's election that the real estate tycoon could become a second Ronald Reagan. Reagan too showed a weakness for crudity. The moment in August 1984 remains memorable -- when, during a sound check prior to his weekly radio address, he jokingly said: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." The recording was eventually leaked. By the end of his two terms in office in January 1989, however, Reagan had come to be seen as a leader who had led the US to several years of prosperity.
More recently, though, Merkel's Chancellery staff is coming to the realization that comparisons between Reagan and Trump aren't entirely accurate. Reagan didn't chart a collision course with his own party. And before entering the White House, he had spent eight years as the governor of California, a state that is larger than Germany and has a population of around 40 million people.
Every American presidential candidate must pursue methods during the election campaign that aren't ethically immaculate. But no one has stretched them as far as Donald Trump, and he is showing no intention of changing the style that resulted in him winning the Republican nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.
Merkel and her advisors were shocked that Trump refused to abandon his Twitter account, even after his Nov. 9 victory. How he, in all seriousness, suggested to British Prime Minister Theresa May that she should appoint Brexit populist Nigel Farage, one of her worst political adversaries, as her country's ambassador to Washington. Before then turning his attention to late-night television, issuing grades to actors who spoofed him on "Saturday Night Live." ("Not funny ... Sad.")
It's not Trump's ideology that worries Merkel most. His opinions, after all, morph quickly, something that Merkel has experienced personally. As recently as August 2015, he said the German chancellor was "probably the greatest leader in the world today." Then the refugee crisis came and Trump said, "What she's done in Germany is insane. It's insane."
It's Trump's character that worries Merkel most, his craving to be loved and admired and his fury against all those who refuse to do so. Merkel has been in office for 11 years and she knows very well just how unstable the world order has become. "Many have the feeling that the world has been turned upside down," she said at the CDU's annual party conference at the beginning of December. It was a tone that one seldom hears from Angela Merkel.
A New Berlusconi?
There is, of course, an element of self-interest in her words given that Merkel stands to profit during her re-election campaign this year if Germans see her as the last bastion of stability in a world gone mad. But there was more to it than that.
It was only with considerable effort that the international community managed to persuade China to sign the global climate agreement. How is that agreement going to take root in an environment where the U.S. president considers global warming to be the invention of a few crazed environmentalists?
The nuclear deal with Iran was one of the few diplomatic successes seen in recent years. Now Trump is pining for the days when Iran's economy was "choked" by sanctions, as he puts it. And what will happen with Ukraine if Trump sees sanctions merely as an unnecessary provocation of Russian leader Vladimir Putin?
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 52/2016 (December 23, 2016) of DER SPIEGEL.
Merkel is no amateur when it comes to dealing with difficult men. In 2002, Edmund Stoiber, who at the time was head of the powerful Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU, snatched the chancellor candidacy away from her. In 2007, Vladimir Putin took great pleasure in Merkel's angst-ridden face when his Labrador crept up to the dog-shy chancellor's feet. Sources in the Chancellery say the most accurate Trump comparison is former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- a man who, even at his advanced age, tolerates no doubts about his virility and, like Trump, doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about manners.
At a 2009 NATO summit in the city of Kehl, Germany, Berlusconi made hostess Merkel wait on the red carpet as he took his sweet time to finish a call on his mobile phone. That same year, a phone conversation conducted by Berlusconi was leaked in which he made extremely impolite comments about Merkel's figure.
But Merkel has a knack for dealing with a somewhat cocky charm. Within her party, people like to share an anecdote about how Berlusconi actually did fall into line in crunch time, as he did during climate negotiations. "Angela," he then asked, "is today the day I have to give in?"
Merkel Knows Little About Trump Administration
Will Trump ultimately fall into line? Merkel's problem is that she knows very little about the real estate mogul and his new administration. During the election campaign, there was only sporadic contact between the German government and Trump's people, which was also a product of the fact that few in Berlin believed the Republican candidate would actually win.
In April, Steinmeier's state secretary Markus Ederer met with former Air Force colonel Sam Clovis. The Iowa Republican sought to ease the German's concern about a possible Trump victory. But whenever Ederer probed deeper, Clovis was unable to provide satisfactory answers. Germany's Ambassador to Washington, Peter Wittig, had a similar experience when he met with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner in spring 2016. Steinmeier even made several telephone calls to former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "but even he couldn't help us," the foreign minister told the German parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee the day after the election.
Since then, the German government has sought to intensify its contacts with the Trump camp. In early December, Andreas Michaelis, the director of the Foreign Ministry, and Thomas Bagger, the head of the ministry's Planning Staff, traveled to the United States. And in mid-December, the chancellor dispatched her foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, to New York.
It's Merkel's belief that Trump is only impressed by strength. She found it appalling to watch former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney beg Trump for the secretary of state as though he were a candidate on some TV talent show even though, during the campaign, he had described Trump as a "phony" and "fraud" whose "promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University." In the end, Romney lost more than just the casting show -- he also lost his dignity.
Merkel also had trouble understanding why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was unable to wait to set up an appointment with Trump, instead flying to New York only nine days after his election in order to ensure his good graces.
The End of the World Order as We Know It?
The chancellor is fully aware of what is at stake. If Trump carries out even part of what he promised during his campaign, then the world order as Merkel knows it would be relegated to the dustbin of history. The messages that Merkel's emissaries have been given by Trump's people so far haven't been particularly encouraging. They have reported that the new president will make his decisions based solely on domestic policy considerations. His foreign policy will be dictated by how his decisions will be seen by voters at home.
Trump also has a penchant for dismissing the warnings of his advisers and allies. This creates the additional problem that efforts to coax or even pressure the new president may have the opposite of the intended effect. "To Trump, what matters is not if his decisions are coherent, but how they are perceived," says one diplomat who represented the German government in Washington.
Those in German foreign policy circles are currently examining developments in the Middle East with particular concern. The situation there is already complicated enough: Syria is embroiled in a civil war and the Israeli government has more or less abandoned the two-state solution aimed at creating real peace with the Palestinians. The only ray of light has been the nuclear deal with Iran that was reached in July 2015, to which Steinmeier contributed.
Tying Hands over Tehran
Trump wants to dismantle this deal. Back in March, Trump said he considered the treaty to be a mistake. "My No. 1 priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran," Trump said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group.
Dismantling is precisely what Trump has in mind. Trump's advisers in New York have said that the new president will not formally revoke the agreement. But he will do everything he can to ensure that the deal does not result in the resumption of normalized relations. Even without those moves, plans to resume trade between Europe and Iran aren't going as quickly as hoped out of fear of possible reprisals from the United States.
Many European banks have refused to provide financing for deals with Iran out of fears for their US operations. All observers are united in their belief that Trump will increase this pressure. One possible outcome is that the Iranian government could nullify the nuclear deal on its own because it finds itself in the position of no longer being able to justify itself to opposition hardliners.
This, in turn, could spark another arms race in the Middle East. This wouldn't just entail Iran resuming its nuclear efforts, but it could also prompt Saudi Arabia to pursue its own atomic bomb. At that point, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could pull his plans for a preemptive strike back out of the drawer. That's why, Berlin government sources say, even Israeli diplomats are praising the advantages of the nuclear deal with Trump's people behind closed doors.
Difficult Years in Trans-Atlantic Relations
"We have to brace for difficult years in trans-Atlantic relations," says one high-ranking German diplomat. Even during his presidency, Barack Obama shifted much of the US focus to China and the Pacific region, largely leaving it to Merkel and the Europeans to deal with the Ukraine crisis. What assistance he did provide came in the form of supporting sanctions against Russia and preventing Congressional hawks from further heating up the conflict by providing U.S. weapons deliveries to Kiev.
Trump has since announced that he wants to remove the tension in U.S. relations with Putin. During the campaign, Trump indicated that he no longer felt obliged to NATO's mutual defense clause. When asked by the New York Times whether the Baltic states would be defended against a Russian attack, the then-presidential candidate said in July it would depend on whether they had fulfilled their obligations to the United States.
In both the Chancellery and the Defense Ministry there is hope that not even Trump would dare to shake the pillars of the postwar order. This optimism is based largely on Trump's decision to appoint General James Mattis as head of the Pentagon. A number of high-level German officers got to know Mattis in Afghanistan, where he served as brigadier general. They describe him as a straightforward officer not easily intimidated. Mattis is a champion of the trans-Atlantic alliance, having spent two years as the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, one of NATO's highest posts. Sources in the German Defense Ministry say they believe that Mattis will make clear to the president the importance of Europe and the Western alliance.
Alarm Over Other Appointments
Still, the government in Berlin is less hopeful when it comes to other appointments Trump has made. A number of German military personnel also got to know Trump's designated national security adviser, Michael Flynn, during the time he served as a senior staffer for American ISAF Commander Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan. The verdict among German military officials is as unanimous as it is scathing. "At best, he is useful as a locomotive fire tender and not as a strategist," says one German military officer who has since retired.
In Kabul, Flynn was thought to care little about collateral damage. Whereas his boss McChrystal always took pains to avoid civilian losses, Flynn seemed less concerned about killing innocent Afghans. One German officer says it is little wonder that Flynn never succeeded in getting promoted from a three-star to a four-star general. Soon, though, he will be sitting in the White House, where he will be tasked with coordinating U.S. security policy. Officials in Berlin are certain that those policies will not be overly friendly toward the trans-Atlantic alliance.
So, what can be done? The recognition is slowly sinking in across the continent that Europe in the past relied too heavily on the Americans and their military strength. At the EU summit in Brussels on Dec. 15, Merkel and her colleagues agreed to transfer a bit of sovereignty in defense matters that they had spent decades guarding zealously.
More joint military operations are planned, more civilian interventions and possibly even a joint headquarters: Concerns about America's possible pull-back have hastened things that for years had seemed implausible. "I have to say," Merkel announced after the meeting, "within only a few months, a considerable amount of cooperation has taken shape."
EU member states currently spend around 230 billion euros a year on defense, about one-third of the United States' military budget. But that figure is misleading. "We have 154 different types of weapons in Europe," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is fond of saying. "That figure is 24 in the USA. That shows that we are spending our money on defense poorly." The Commission recently estimated that member states waste between 25 billion and 100 billion euros a year by not working together more closely. They now want to change that.
If Europe were to close ranks, then Trump's election would have at least one positive effect. During his time as secretary of state, Henry Kissinger once famously quipped, "Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?" It's possible that the EU may soon finally have such a number -- thanks to Donald Trump.