Friendly Fire Trump Takes Aim at Germany and NATO
Germany used to be one of Washington's closest allies. But Donald Trump has singled the country out as his favorite target for criticism. The U.S. president continued to pursue that obsession this week, and came close to destroying NATO in the process. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
On Wednesday afternoon at 3:15 p.m., Angela Merkel and Donald Trump sat down together as if nothing had happened. As if Trump hadn't started the day with a hate-filled tirade against Germany. As if he hadn't just lambasted the country as being a "captive of Russia" or said that "Germany is totally controlled by Russia." As if he hadn't spent days volleying salvoes at Germany on Twitter because the country still isn't doing what Trump, as the American president, wants it to be doing. As if he hasn't described the whole situation as being "not acceptable."
There was nary a mention of these things in the meeting. It turns out that the façade can still hold even in the midst of serious conflicts. They smiled, they shook hands, they greeted each other by first name. They have a "very, very good relationship," Trump said. By the time the two had sat down in their white armchairs, it was no longer about NATO or about the 2-percent defense spending target the White House has been insisting on by the alliance's "delinquent" members. Nope, now, it was about Ivanka.
Trump wanted to send greetings from his daughter to the German chancellor. Ivanka is very impressed with you, he said, likely intending it as a compliment.
For the moment, all that was left of the trans-Atlantic relationship were greetings from Ivanka.
A Showdown Against Germany
Trump turned this week's NATO summit into a showdown with Germany and its chancellor -- Trump against Merkel, Trump against Germany. At the peak of the crisis, Trump even threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the alliance. For two entire days, he allowed doubts to persist about NATO's very survival.
Since his election as the 45th U.S. president, Trump has shown that he has no use for either allies or partners. He's waging a trade war against China; he caused the collapse of the G7 summit in June; and he disparaged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as "very dishonest" and "weak."
But Trump has attacked no other country to the degree he has Germany. Germany of all countries, for decades one of America's closest allies. The country that stood on the front lines of the Cold War, it seems, has now become Trump's Enemy No. 1.
Trump rages about the German cars being driven on American roads, he harbors illusions about some horrendous uptick in crime in Germany and is pleased about how allegedly dissatisfied the German people are with their government. The Germans, Trump recently blustered, are "turning against their leadership."
The U.S. president seems to view Germany with a mixture of jealousy, admiration and anger. Trump is convinced that Germany's economic success is in large part attributable to what he perceives as the Germans' highly adept ability in the past at exploiting the Americans. Trump's line seems to be that his predecessors may have let the cunning German chancellor get away with pulling one over on them in the past, but those days are over now.
Trump mixes everything together -- trade with defense; the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Iran. But it's German defense spending that is the focus of the current attacks. In Trump's mind, the Germans are freeloaders whose security is guaranteed by the Americans, who get very little back in return.
'We Are Not Prisoners'
Discontent has been stewing in Berlin for weeks over the U.S. president's shortcomings. Trump's tone along with the constant rebukes and insults are infuriating even the staunchest supporters of trans-Atlantic relations.
"We are not prisoners -- neither of Russia nor of the U.S.," says German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. "We make decisions about our budget, our energy supply and our trade relations freely, sovereignly and on the basis of facts."
So why does Trump have it out for Germany, of all countries? Perhaps it's the mixture of economic strength, military restraint and moral hubris in Germany that makes Berlin the subject of Trump's loathing.
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What is certain is that there is no other country he is attacking as persistently. Even back in spring 2017, the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank concluded: "Germany, not China, will be Trump's enemy No. 1."
"Germany may be a target for Trump because he sees it as a rich nation that profited from the Marshall Plan after World War II, that rose to economic power and now isn't paying its dues," says Jim Townsend of the Center for a New American Security.
British historian Timothy Garton Ash suggests we should be asking Sigmund Freud for answers to Trump. In an interview in this week's issue of DER SPIEGEL, he argues that rational explanations will do little to help on that front. The psychological explanations run the gamut from Trump's German roots to his aversion to strong women like Angela Merkel.
Looking at it from Trump's possible point of view, a number of factors come together that could inspire his apparent contempt for Merkel: her close relationship with Barack Obama, the predecessor Trump hates or, perhaps, her notoriously unshakeable calm, which has already raised the ire of numerous irascible men both at home and abroad.
'Attacking Her Is Almost a Natural Reaction'
The fact that the liberal American press that Trump so despises has championed Merkel as its heroine may also be contributing to his aversion to her. "Merkel defends certain liberal values like multiculturalism and open borders in Europe, making her in some ways the political antidote to Trump," says Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard. "Attacking her is almost a natural reaction."
Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, won't even rule out the possibility that Trump may be seeking to topple the German leader. "I can come to no other conclusion but that he is trying to weaken her," says Burns. He says Trump judges Germany solely on the size of its trade surplus with the U.S. "He is so focused on that, so consumed by it, that he can't see all the benefits that we get from our alliance with Germany," Burns says. He describes Trump's attacks on Merkel as "embarrassing to our country."
To be sure, Merkel and Trump have already clashed several times in the past. But the conflict has never been as tense as it was this week.
The showdown between the chancellor and the president took place behind closed doors on the second day of the NATO summit in Brussels. The actual agenda for the summit itself didn't provide any real causes for dispute. It covered routine matters like the relationship with Georgia and the Western alliance's ties with Ukraine -- all points upon which the Germans and Americans should be able to readily agree.
But Trump doesn't want to play along. He seeks conflict rather than peace. First, he arrived late for the meeting, and then he unleashed his standard litany of complaints. How the Germans cheat the Americans in trade, the many BMWs driving on American roads, the gas from Russia and Berlin's refusal to spend more money on its armed forces, the Bundeswehr.
Trump Threatens to 'Go His Own Way'
It was the standard animosity which has become the norm and which Merkel has been forced to get used to. This time around, though, Trump didn't turn to Twitter as his weapon of choice. Instead, he attacked the Germans in front of all the allies at a meeting of NATO's most important body, the North Atlantic Council. It was an unprecedented move.
Trump talked himself into a fury and then began issuing threats. He said every NATO country, including Germany, should reach the 2-percent target by next year. That, though, contradicts everything that the allies agreed to at the 2014 summit in Wales. Back then, the partners agreed to "aim" to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Now it's supposed to happen by next year? Otherwise, Trump raged, he would "go his own way."
An American president placing a question mark over NATO's future? It's outrageous. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg then interrupted the meeting -- the representatives of Georgia and Ukraine had to leave the chamber because their countries are not part of NATO. It was clear to everyone at that point that it would not be possible to go back to the set agenda after Trump's tirade.
Don't Mention the 'W' Word
America's allies were appalled, and even Trump's own advisers appeared uneasy. Putting pressure on the Germans is one thing, but blowing up NATO altogether? No, that's not what Trump's people want. They advised their colleagues from the other member states not to discuss the summit declaration, which reaffirms the 2-percent pledge made in Wales.
Merkel had planned to appear before the press at around 10 a.m., but now she had to postpone the appointment. Instead, NATO leaders held a crisis meeting. All staff were asked to leave the room, with only the leaders and one other member of each government allowed to remain in the room. For Merkel, that person was Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. But as with his ice cream portions, Trump got extra scoops. Joining him were Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton and White House Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Merkel and Trump sat far apart at the oval table, with the seating order determined by the alphabet -- from "A" for Albania to "U" for United States. Stoltenberg began. We have to talk about burden-sharing, he said. The aim, he said, was to leave the summit with a clear commitment to NATO.
Then Trump began to speak. The others already had a clue of what would come now. More venom against Germany. "So, we're supposed to protect Germany, but they're getting their energy from Russia," he said. "Explain that. And it can't be explained." It's "unfair," he said.
The first to respond was Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait. She's a trained karate fighter, and in this fight, she positioned herself to protect the Germans. Grybauskait proposed agreeing on certain steps to increase spending. Like the others in the room, she also didn't want to utter the "W" word. "W" for Wales.
The reason is clear: The Wales agreement had been signed by Barack Obama and is thus a toxic document for Trump. When the president hears the word "Wales," it apparently makes him think of Obama and causes him to throw a tantrum. French President Emmanuel Macron also dodged the "W" word, instead referring to the efforts European members are making within the NATO alliance. He also noted that the U.S. defense industry benefits from the fact that Europeans are already now spending so much more money on defense.
'We Know We Have To Do More'
Then it was Merkel's turn. The Germans, she said, are already spending much more on defense than in the past. She can rattle off the list almost by memory these days. It includes the proposed new NATO logistics command center in Ulm, the Bundeswehr deployment in Afghanistan, the 17 years spent at the side of the United States there, the fact that Berlin is NATO's second-largest supplier of troops as well as the already approved decision to increase the military's budget to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. "Our hands are completely full just implementing that," she said.
But an increase in defense spending to reach 2 percent by next year? Totally impossible. "We know we have to do more," she would later tell the press. But she didn't add more. "We're going to have to talk about the extent to which we will increase spending on equipment," she said, "and by that I clearly mean equipment and not arms." She kept things vague and didn't make any promises.
After Merkel, the British spoke, followed by the Dutch. But Trump couldn't hold back. He attacked the Germans again. Only 1.2 percent for defense, he asked? That's impossible. He then addressed Merkel directly: "Angela." Once again, he complained about Germany's gas deals with Russia.
The chancellor countered that Germany gets less than 40 percent of its natural gas supplies from Russia. But Trump wouldn't let it go. In the U.S. it looks as though the country is getting ripped off here, he scolded.
By then, it was almost noon, and it was time for the smaller NATO countries to have their say. They sided with Merkel. During a break, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama went up to the German chancellor. His country had been the only one singled out for praise by Trump, but he didn't want to create the impression that Albania had somehow become Trump's model pupil.
Finally, Stoltenberg moved to end the meeting. The secretary general had been determined to rescue the summit. He suggested that NATO leaders leave the meeting with the message that, despite the differences, they had committed themselves to NATO and to higher defense spending. Next year, on the occasion of NATO's 70th birthday, it will be possible to measure the progress that has been made. It's a meaningless formulation -- everyone is aware of that -- but perhaps it somehow helps them.
After the meeting, Trump stated publicly that Germany had committed itself to a further increase in defense spending. But that's fake news, sources close to Merkel said. The chancellor's position, they noted, is precisely the one she shared with the press -- namely that the idea that the Germans are somehow unfairly exploiting the Americans is a fixation Trump has harbored for decades. In his now infamous 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump complained of how so-called "allies," a word he placed in quotation marks for emphasis, are "screwing us." Although he also spoke of other countries, those remarks were primarily directed at West Germany.
When asked what he would do first if he were president, Trump replied: "I'd throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and we'd have wonderful allies again."
'German Blood ... Great Stuff'
There has been repeated speculation over whether Trump's own heritage may influence his fury toward Germany. The fact that his ancestors emigrated from the town of Kallstadt in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate certainly doesn't seem to have fostered any kind of affinity in Trump for his ancestral home.
At best, Trump has an ambivalent relationship with his German roots. The family didn't show much pride about its origins. On the contrary: During the Nazi period, Trump's father Fred began claiming the family had emigrated from Sweden to the U.S.
Fred Trump had justifiable reasons for concealing his true origins. During the mid-20th century in the U.S., identifying yourself as German wasn't exactly something that would provide a boost to business, and this was particularly true in a city like New York, with its large Jewish population.
That's apparently why Trump repeated the claim in his book "The Art of the Deal," published in 1987, that the family came from Sweden. The New York Times has reported that Trump asked his father prior to publication why they still "had to do this Swedish thing?" It is unknown how his father answered.
By the 1990s, that concern seemed to have significantly diminished. When asked by Vanity Fair magazine in a 1990 interview whether he was not in fact of German origin, he answered: "Actually, it was very difficult. My father was not German; my father's parents were German ... Swedish, and really sort of all over Europe."
In 1999, Trump led New York's Steuben Parade, an event held by the German-American community, as its grand marshal. In a video message to the event, he said: "We passed Trump Tower, 69 stories. I looked up and I said, 'This is a long way from Kallstadt.' I'm a proud German-American."
In the 2015 documentary "Kings of Kallstadt," Trump reaffirmed his family roots. "I have great German heritage, I am very proud of it, great place." He also added, "I'm proud to have that German blood. There's no question about it -- great stuff." He then ticked down the list of his typical German characteristics. "I'm strong and I'm very reliable. I'm on time, I get things done -- and that's basically the whole German culture."
Nevertheless, it doesn't appear that Trump's commitment to his German roots has done much to ease his relationship with Germany. Nor does his view of the world seem to have changed much since the Playboy interview. He has repeated many of the passages featured in it in some way or other since his election. Like when he said Americans are laughed at for defending wealthy nations and getting nothing in return. "Our allies make billions by ripping us off."
Over the years, Trump has remained fixated on Germany as the alleged primary beneficiary of American largesse. "Probably the greatest leader in the world," Trump said in praise of Merkel in 2015. But when Time magazine named the chancellor its "Person of the Year" four months later, Trump sent out a furious tweet. "I told you @TIME Magazine would never pick me as person of the year despite being the big favorite They picked person who is ruining Germany."
A Fateful Vote for Merkel?
The odd thing is that it's possible Merkel would not still be chancellor today were it not for Trump. His election in November 2016 came during a time in which Merkel was mulling whether to run for another term or not. People close to Merkel say she was seriously wrestling with the question at the time and that if Hillary Clinton had won the election, the chancellor probably would have stepped down.
As we know today, things turned out differently. When Trump was elected president on Nov. 8, 2016, the chancellor sent her congratulations, but her choice of wording marked a first in German-American postwar history. Her statement contained the usual polite formulations, but ended by admonishing that the U.S. and Germany are united by values such as democracy and respect for human dignity. "I offer the next president of the United States close cooperation on the basis of those values," Merkel said.
It was an affront to say the very least. A German chancellor reminding the American president that he must respect his own, 200-year-old Constitution? When the chancellor visited Trump in Washington for the first time in March 2017, the frosty climate was attributed to Merkel's rather unorthodox congratulatory message.
The chancellor herself viewed the situation differently. In the final days of his presidency, she held a long conversation with Barack Obama during a lengthy dinner at Berlin's Hotel Adlon as part of his last official visit to Berlin in mid-November 2016. From Merkel's perspective, Trump is driven largely by his rejection of the Obama era. As a person considered to be a very close ally of Obama, she is thus a target of the same hostilities.
An Ahistorical President
Initially, many in the German government thought Trump, like so many presidents before him, would eventually be tamed once he was in the White House. But Merkel herself never counted as one of the proponents of that theory. She said early on that Trump would implement his agenda point by point, and she was right.
In Merkel's eyes, Trump is an ahistorical president, meaning that nothing that happened before his term in office holds any relevance to him. That in part explains why he is just as rude in his dealings with the United Nations and NATO as he is with the G7 states. This is further complicated by Trump's tendency to lump problems together.
And it's not as if Merkel hasn't made any effort. During her last visit to Washington at the end of April, she gave Trump an etching dating back to 1705 that includes an image of Palatinate and Kallstadt. Merkel also invited the president to visit the small town.
The chancellor can even see what she views as a very friendly side of Trump. At the same time, she doesn't believe that flattery will work in steering him away from his plans. Merkel followed with a certain amount satisfaction how Emmanuel Macron initially made a major effort to court Trump, one that produced little by way of results.
- Part 1: Trump Takes Aim at Germany and NATO
- Part 2: A Grossly Misleading Economic View