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Thanks to Trump, Germany says it can’t rely on the United States. What does that mean?

- May 28, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a crowd Sunday in southern Germany that Europe can no longer rely on foreign partners.

Merkel on Sunday declared a new chapter in U.S.-European relations after contentious meetings with President Trump last week, saying that Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands.”

Offering a tough review in the wake of Trump’s trip to visit E.U., NATO and Group of Seven leaders last week, Merkel told a packed Bavarian beer hall rally that the days when Europe could rely on others was “over to a certain extent. This is what I have experienced in the last few days.”

This is an enormous change in political rhetoric. While the public is more familiar with the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, the German-U.S. relationship has arguably been more important. One of the key purposes of NATO was to embed Germany in an international framework that would prevent it from becoming a threat to European peace as it had been in World War I and World War II. In the words of NATO’s first secretary general, NATO was supposed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Now, Merkel is suggesting that the Americans aren’t really in, and, by extension, Germany and Europe are likely to take on a much more substantial and independent role than they have in the past 70 years.

This is thanks to Trump

Merkel’s comment about what she has experienced in the past few days is a clear reference to President Trump’s disastrous European tour. Her belief that the United States is no longer a reliable partner is a direct result of Trump’s words and actions. The keystone of NATO is Article 5, which has typically been read as a commitment that in the event that one member of the alliance is attacked, all other members will come to its aid. When Trump visited NATO, he dedicated a plaque to the one time that Article 5 has been invoked — when all members of NATO promised to come to the United States’ support after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. However, Trump did not express his commitment to Article 5 in his speech to NATO, instead lambasting other NATO members for not spending enough money on their militaries. When Trump went on to the Group of Seven meeting in Italy, he declined to recommit to the Paris agreement on climate change, leaving the other six nations to issue a separate statement.

This cements the impression of the United States as an unreliable partner. Trump has ostentatiously refused to express his commitment to an agreement that has been the bulwark of Europe-U.S. security relations over the past three generations. He also has declined to say that the United States will work within the previously agreed framework on global warming. While many authoritarian states are cheered by Trump’s election and actions, since he is unlikely to press them on human rights and other sore points, traditional U.S. allies are enormously disheartened.

This may lead to a stronger Europe

Merkel’s rhetoric is clearly intended to imply that as the transatlantic relationship grows weaker, the European Union will grow stronger. When she links Britain’s departure from the European Union with U.S. unreliability, she suggests that now that Britain is leaving, it will be possible for the E.U. to concentrate on getting its own affairs in order, propelled by a stronger relationship between Germany and France. Britain always wanted to keep transatlantic security institutions, such as NATO, strong, which sometimes meant pushing back against giving the E.U. a new security role. Now that Britain is no longer going to be part of the E.U., it will no longer have veto power.

However, Merkel will face her own challenges in building a stronger Europe. Europe faces several internal disagreements. States such as Poland and Hungary agree more with Trump than with Germany on many issues. Southern European countries still resent Germany’s support of painful and (for them) damaging austerity policies. If Germany wants to cooperate with France on security, France is likely to look to Germany to make concessions on economic governance and spending. Although Merkel has recently hinted that such concessions might be possible, they will be controversial with other German politicians (including senior members of her party) and perhaps with the German public. Finally, the criticisms offered by Trump (and many U.S. leaders before him) are not entirely wrong — European states spend much less on their militaries than the United States does on its military and have effectively outsourced much of their defense to U.S. armed forces.

Still, it is important to note that Merkel’s temperament is the polar opposite of Trump’s. She is highly cautious. This speech is not an impulsive move. Instead, Merkel is starting to make the case for a different E.U., one that is stronger, more self-reliant and disinclined to look to the United States for leadership. If she wins the upcoming German election decisively and is able to secure enough agreement from other European states to isolate the naysayers, she may set in motion a substantial long-term shift in the E.U.-U.S. relationship.

Trump’s election may have long-term global consequences

People have not seriously begun to think through the consequences of Trump’s election for global politics. In some parts of the world, it is creating great opportunities. States whose interests clash with the United States may have opportunities to win gains while the United States, the global hegemon, is distracted with its internal crises. In other parts of the world, allies are likely to recalibrate their behavior, and in particular their dependence on the United States. They will not want their security to rely entirely on a country that can elect a president as erratic as Trump is and hence will start to hedge their bets. If the current U.S. administration has decided that it no longer needs to rely on allies as much as in the past, those allies are deciding that they cannot rely on the United States anymore and are starting to forge their own arrangements, which will diminish the U.S. ability to influence their actions and decisions.