For Trump, the Macron party is over; Merkel's visit will be all business

For Trump, the Macron party is over; Merkel's visit will be all business
© Getty Images

The party’s over. After days of pageantry, democratic ritual and glamour, French President Macron has left Washington with few policy breakthroughs to speak of beyond a clarion rebuke of "Trumpism" on Capitol Hill.

Enter German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her first trip to Washington following reelection, this low-key, down-to-business visit suits the fourth-term chancellor. The timing of this tandem visit couldn’t be more acute.

ADVERTISEMENT

Macron and Merkel are in lockstep on Iran, trade, climate change, support for the U.N. and Syria. The two also want to convince the administration to grant Europe exemptions from high tariffs before the May 1 deadline and package a deal that will keep the U.S. in the Iran deal beyond May 12.

 

In Germany’s eyes, the United States has gone from being the primary underwriter of the liberal world order to one of the world’s chief revisionist powers. As arguably the main beneficiary of that order and the status quo power "par excellence," Germany feels a little unmoored. And it has not yet found its footing with the Trump administration.

That bilateral drift has not helped in two key structural sticking points. In the two issues that vexed Washington from Bush to Obama to Trump, the situation remains stagnant and may even be getting more difficult.

The first is trade. The German export juggernaut has a 7.8-percent current account surplus globally. The U.S. trade imbalance with Germany remains stubbornly high, on track to hit $64 billion again in 2018. This is approximately the same level as in 2017 and 2016, almost double what it was in 2010.

Germany has shown no inclination to address it by increasing domestic consumption. It is eyeing several measures that would hurt the American tech industry in Europe, a major corrective for American trade deficits with Germany.

On another potential bright spot in American trade — energy — Germany has failed to answer the administration’s push for more diversity of fuel type, countries of origin and delivery routes.

Nord Stream 2, Russia’s pet gas pipeline project to Germany, does not work toward these goals, because it would make Germany and Europe more vulnerable to Russian blackmail. But increased U.S. liquified natural gas export and distribution to Europe would bolster European energy security and help to even out the trade deficit.

While Brussels and Central Europe hail this nod of potential cooperation, Germany has remained silent. What's more, Both sides have allowed other economic dialogues on China and regulatory alignment to become neglected.

The second issue is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Merkel’s fourth government has agreed to raise defense spending from $45 billion to $52.8 in 2021. That may sound nice, but the German economy is growing at a brisk clip — 2.2 percent in 2017.

This modest increase barely moves the needle on Germany’s anemic 1.2-percent defense spending, meaning Germany will be less likely to meet the NATO spending commitment it made at the 2014 Wales Summit. In fact, defense spending could actually decrease as a proportion of GDP.

That combined with systems — Tornado fighter jets, Eurofighters, transport helicopters and cyber capabilities — are of limited usability. As the July NATO Brussels Summit approaches, Germany has not indicated that it’s righting the ship.

For all the talk about renewal, Merkel's latest administration still looks like an exercise in complacency. Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen — in an interview focused on Germany’s bid for a U.N. security council seat — stated that recent attacks by the U.S., U.K. and France on Syrian chemical facilitates were justified.

Von der Leyen then added that Germany would have taken part had it only been asked. If true, it reflects an atrophy in the relationship and a lack of initiative on both sides. Both seem true. Merkel and Trump did not speak to each other once for five months, a stark contrast from Merkel’s almost weekly check-ins with Obama.

Perhaps the confirmation of Richard Grenell — Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Germany — will help. But it's going to require creativity, elbow grease and a bit of luck.

Tyson Barker is the program director for the Aspen Institute Germany, a partner of the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute, a public policy think tank.