Trump and the Paris Agreement A Turning Point in History

U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord marks an epochal shift. With the America no longer reliable, it is time for Chancellor Angela Merkel to look for new partners.
A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia

A coal-fired power plant in West Virginia

Foto: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change marks a historical turning point. Despite all the warnings from his closest advisers, Donald Trump on Thursday turned his back on the consensus of our world's largest nations and essentially declared the battle against climate change to be over.

For Angela Merkel, who has placed climate issues at the center of her tenure as German chancellor, it isn't just an affront, it is also a personal defeat. No other international project has been as important to her as that of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. At the G-7 summit in Taormina last week, Trump had already dropped dark hints about his upcoming statement on the Paris Agreement. Only with great effort were Merkel and the other heads of state and government able to avoid a public embarrassment .

And only afterwards, in a Munich beer tent last Sunday, did the chancellor indicate what she really thought  of Trump's performance. "The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent," she said.

Merkel's speech was essentially a preliminary commentary on Trump's climate decision. In both Europe and the U.S., her sentence about America's limited reliability was interpreted as the end of an era: Since 1949, all German chancellors have placed their faith in the alliance with Washington. For 68 years, the U.S. was seen as a reliable partner to (West) Germany.

A More Pugnacious Tone

In truth, though, the chancellor has only lost faith in one person, in Donald Trump. And rightly so. Just because the U.S. is currently being led by an inadequate president  shouldn't mean an end to the trans-Atlantic alliance. The relationship between Germany and America is so tight that not even someone like Donald Trump can -- or should be allowed to -- ruin it.

Merkel could have said as much herself, but with the German campaign heating up, she too prefers a more pugnacious tone. Such comments may not be as abrasive as those consistently emanating from the White House, but they are undiplomatic. She is clearly willing to risk a bit of scandal to win over a few more votes from the steadily growing number of America-skeptics in Germany, particularly because it helps her withstand the Trump bashing coming from her political adversaries on the center-left. But Trump, too, profits from such conflicts -- strife is his preferred political method. His withdrawal from the climate agreement provides an example: The more the world criticizes Trump for his climate change denials, the more his supporters worship him -- as the great, courageous warrior against the political elite on both sides of the Atlantic.

He likely knows himself that the coal mines still don't have a future in the U.S. But he has, for the time being, served his clientele. And the president likely didn't believe his own announcement on Thursday that a new climate agreement would be negotiated. Why should the rest of the world be interested in spending years negotiating a climate deal that is even weaker than the Paris Agreement already is?


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2017 (June 03, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

The rift with Trump is just the latest in a long string of foreign policy failures that Merkel has suffered during the 12 years of her tenure. Putin's Russia is once again seen as an adversarial power, civil war continues in Ukraine, Turkey is on the path to a dictatorship, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, Hungary and Poland are taking a step back, Greece is endangering the euro -- and now even the U.S. is turning into a problem child. Germany is running out of partners. The chancellor should treat the ones that remain with care.

A Merkel-Macron Axis

In contrast to her predecessors in the Chancellery, who tended to seek out contemporaries with whom to tackle the political problems of the day, Merkel is skeptical of political friendships. Helmut Schmidt partnered with Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Helmut Kohl with François Mitterrand and Gerhard Schröder with Tony Blair. Merkel, though, has never constructed such an axis, and doing so with Trump is an impossibility.

In her speech last Sunday in Munich, Merkel at least drew the correct consequences: "We Europeans," she said, "must really take our fate into our own hands." Perhaps she was referring to Trump's demand that Germany boost defense spending. But the European project won't be saved with tanks and warships.

If Angela Merkel really wants to do something to stop the erosion of the EU and to save the Paris Agreement, she must form an axis with French President Emmanuel Macron -- one that is based on personal trust. Macron's proposals for united European financial policy might be ambitious, and they might cost the Germans a lot of money. But the chancellor should embrace them nonetheless. Helmut Kohl invested billions in European unity -- and it has been nothing but beneficial to us Germans.