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The art of dealing with Trump

02 May 2018 - 11:56
Source: NATO/flickr

President Trump’s initial refusal to publicly back up NATO’s article 5 collective defence provision has left European allies in the dark what to expect from Washington. His “America first” foreign policy, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, praises for Brexit, and contempt for the Iran-deal reflect badly on US-European relations. In May 2017, after “very unsatisfying” talks with Trump on NATO, trade, and climate change, Merkel argued that Europe must take its fate into its own hands. Nevertheless, although the electoral victories of Macron and Merkel provide a powerful engine for European cooperation, Europe continues to need its American allies in matters of global security, trade, and diplomacy. The transatlantic relationship remains extremely important for Europe. As such, European leaders will have to find a way to negotiate with Trump. The examples of Merkel and Macron shed a light on how to deal with Trump.

Trump sees the world in Real-politik terms. He has argued in favour of US leadership and protectionism, and against Allies whom he accuses of “abusing the goodwill of the US.” As such, Trump’s foreign policy strategy has been one of renegotiation. For example, he questioned US guaranteed support for Article 5 as leverage to force Allies to spend more on defence. This “renegotiation” further materialised in March 2018, when EU member states faced a potential trade war with the US, as Trump threatened to increase the tariffs on steel imports. The new National Security Strategy highlights how the Trump administration sees the world: as an arena in which states – allied or not -- are engaged in constant competition. As such, each nation seeks to guarantee its own interests, while the US will no longer serve as the guardian of peace and democracy in the world.

This worldview of the new US administration has affected the relationship between the German Chancellor and the American President. Where Obama and Merkel formed a strong partnership, Merkel and Trump often find themselves on opposite sides. Chancellor Merkel initially reached out to Trump, hoping to continue the relationship on the basis of shared values. Instead, Trump presented Germany a bill for its lack of defence spending, while criticising the country’s trade surplus with the US. Although Merkel’s recent working visit went better than her first one, it remained practical and impersonal and stood in sharp contrast with the visit of France’s president Macron earlier that week. Furthermore, between 28 September 2017 until 2 March 2018, there was little direct contact between Merkel and Trump in contrast to Trump’s predecessors, whom Merkel spoke to often on a weekly basis.1 This shift in relations can partially be explained by their differences in views and backgrounds. Merkel’s history as part of the “establishment,” her decision to welcome refugees during the 2015 crisis as well as Germany’s reluctance to contribute sufficiently to defence, all run contradictory to Trump’s national and foreign policy goals. Germany’s refusal to join in the recent missile strike on Syria also did not bode well with Trump. Finally, for President Trump, who focusses on the material benefits of bilateral relations, Germany’s trade surplus with the US is inexcusable.

The situation is different for Emmanuel Macron. During their first meeting, Macron and Trump were captured in a fierce handshake stand-off with each trying to gain a literal upper hand. However, the “never-back-down” machismo of Macron has seemed to earn him the approval of the US President. Macron has become Trump’s guest of honour to the White House, as Trump organises his own military parade “like the one in France.” Furthermore, during his recent state-visit to the White House, the fierce handshakes had been replaced by more affectionate pats, hugs, and proclamations on how much both leaders “liked each other.” Macron has played into Trump’s competitiveness, and in a game of constant competition, this behaviour has made him one of Trump’s closest international frenemies. Additionally, there are some similarities between Macron and Trump. Both men are newcomers coming from outside of the political establishment, they share the same objectives in regard to security and counter-terrorism. Both are trying to change their national status quo. Macron has constantly attempted to find common ground and interests with Trump, while simultaneously clarifying red lines, such as on the Iran-deal. In an interview with the BBC, Macron admitted he called Trump often to discuss policy issues, where “sometimes he is successful and sometimes he fails.”2 This pragmatism has allowed Macron to become Trump’s key interlocutor to Europe. This became evident, when after the recent chemical attack in Douma (Syria) Macron was the first European leader that Trump called in order to coordinate a response.

The differences between Merkel and Macron vis-à-vis Trump show four key trends in the art of dealing with Trump:
1. The transatlantic partnership is no longer self-evident and instead will be susceptible to renegotiation. Within this renegotiation there is a constant focus on transactions. The fact that the partnership is grounded in history, is no longer sufficient to account for any imbalances that Trump might believe to exist in the relationship.
2. Diplomatic engagements with Trump require a careful balancing between pleasing Trump and not appearing weak. Dealing with Trump is also a contest of dominance. When you view the world as an international arena, hierarchies become important and hence displays of power are necessary to gain respect. 3. Adhering to the old argument of shared liberal values, culture, and history has become less important under Trump. Although this argument accounted for the connection between Merkel and Obama, Trump focuses more on tangible, material results from bilateral relations.
4. Security issues and the willingness to act are important to Trump. Macron’s decision to join in the Syrian missile strikes and the fact that France is getting close to the two percent norm arguably has improved his relations with Trump, while Merkel’s refusal to join has made the gap bigger between the US and Germany. 

Transatlantic relations have always been characterised by tensions, but never have the nature and the validity of the partnership been questioned to such an extent as under Trump. Understanding how to deal with Trump is going to play a major factor in the functionality of this partnership. Current transatlantic relations revolve around pragmatism, transactionalism, and (displays of) power. European leaders would do good to remember this.

  • 1. Noah Barkin, “After Months Without Contact, Merkel ‘Eyes’ Reset with Trump,” Reuters, 2 Mar. 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-germany/after-months-without-contact-merkel-eyes-reset-with-trump-idUSKCN1GE2PR
  • 2. BBC, “President Macron on Trump, Brexit, and Frexit,” BBC, 21 Jan. 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-42768466/president-macron-on-trump-brexit-and-frexit