Merkel’s statement took many observers by surprise, as well it should. To varying extents, German leaders have always paid obeisance to the transatlantic relationship, and here is a German leader, and a pro-American one at that, seeming to give it short shrift. At the same time, we should avoid reading too much into these comments. Postwar German-American relations have seen far worse days, like in the run-up to the Second Iraq War when Gerhard Schroeder ran a federal election campaign on anti-American themes. Moreover, the sort of European self-reliance Merkel called for is not mutually exclusive from a positive relationship with the United States. Indeed, Merkel is right to say that Europe should not be so dependent upon America, which is not the same thing as saying it should be completely independent, as some are misinterpreting her comments. As Matthew Karnitsching of Politico writes, Merkel’s remarks were fully “in keeping with her agenda to push European integration forward, a goal she believes the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president has put within reach.”
Trump is destabilizing Europe from within and without
Still, Merkel’s comments are not what we would have expected her to make had Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or any other mainstream candidate won the presidency. Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and purely transactional view of NATO are utterly new, and highly disturbing, components of an American presidential administration. For the past 70 years, no matter who occupied the Oval Office, Europeans could generally be assured that he would be suspicious of Russian motives and a steadfast believer in the purpose of the Atlantic Alliance. Not Trump. As I foretold three months ago, Trump’s election is “destabilizing Europe from within and without,” putting into question long-held assumptions about the continent’s postwar security architecture, a fundamental component of which is the American commitment to Europe and Germany in particular. Even Edward Snowden recognized the gravity of Merkel’s remarks, noting them as an “era-defining moment” (whether the Russian-sheltered defector was being ironic or is entirely oblivious to his own role in helping to bring about that moment is unclear.)
Of course, Germany still needs America for its security and economic prosperity, and that will continue regardless of who is in the White House. But Angela Merkel’s distancing of her nation from America is only the natural, and tragic, response to an historically illiterate, amoral president unable to distinguish ally from an adversary.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative, correspondent for The Daily Beast and contributor to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He is author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and he Coming Dark Age, Yale University Press 2017.