Trump and Merkel Need to Find a Way to Work Together

One of the most important meetings of Donald Trump’s young presidency will take place on Tuesday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to Washington. Europe is America’s most important partner and Germany guides Europe. This meeting of the top two leaders of the free world will help determine whether the West survives the next four years.

So far, Trump has been on a collision course with Merkel, breaking with her on a range of core issues — the European Union, NATO, immigration, trade, Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and climate change. The sources of this divergence run deep. Trump aims to shake up the establishment and undermine the center as he delivers on promises to his populist base. Merkel aims to reassure the establishment and consolidate the center in order to neutralize the populists. Trump is noisy and impulsive. Merkel is quiet and steady.

But find common ground they must. The future of the West hangs in the balance. During his meeting with Merkel, Trump should demonstrate his professed mastery of the “art of the deal.” With German elections coming in September, Merkel wants to demonstrate that she can tame Trump and preserve the close ties with Washington forged during the Barack Obama presidency. It will take some hard swallowing, but the terms of a compromise between these two leaders are within reach.

For starters, Trump needs to lose his hostility toward the EU. He has denigrated the union, welcomed Britain’s plan to leave it, and said he expects other members to head for the exits. Trashing the EU runs counter to U.S. interests — an integrated and peaceful Europe has long been a bipartisan U.S. priority — and is anathema to Merkel. The project of European integration has anchored German identity and politics since the end of World War II. Trump’s support for this project is a must-have if Washington and Berlin are to remain partners.

Merkel can reciprocate by agreeing to a substantial increase in German defense spending. After earlier calling NATO “obsolete,” Trump clarified in his address to Congress on March 1 that he strongly supports the alliance. But Trump continues to hammer allies, justifiably, for failing to shoulder their fair share of the costs of security. With the German economy in reasonably good shape, Merkel should now deliver on one of Trump’s top priorities.

Common ground on immigration will be hard to come by. Merkel has opened Germany’s doors to well over a million migrants since 2015, a move that Trump has called “catastrophic,” hitting her on her most vulnerable political flank. Merkel has struck back, publicly criticizing Trump for his travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries.

But a deal can be had. Merkel has already backed away from her open door policy, and the EU, like the United States, needs to better manage migration. Effective border control, comprehensive vetting, seamless sharing of intelligence within Europe and across the Atlantic — Berlin and Washington can work together on these goals. To facilitate this cooperation, Trump should ideally echo Merkel’s recognition of the humanitarian and pluralistic values at stake. If that is a bridge too far, he at least he should agree with Merkel that immigration can have clear economic benefits.

On economic issues, Merkel has for way too long clung to austerity and fiscal discipline, contributing to sluggish growth and unemployment across the eurozone. By opting instead for increased spending on security, infrastructure, and investment, Berlin can stimulate demand, import more goods, and help rectify the imbalances in trade about which Trump rightfully complains. Merkel would also benefit — boosting growth would help undercut the populist wave that is threatening Europe’s political center.

In return, Trump needs to ease off his protectionist mantra. Merkel is hosting the G20 Summit in July. Her nightmare would be to preside over the dismantling of an open trading order triggered by Washington’s imposition of protective tariffs. At a minimum, Trump needs to reassure her that he intends to play by existing World Trade Organization rules on this front. Even better, he could reopen the U.S.-EU free trade negotiations that began under the previous president, and thereby demonstrate that he is the deft dealmaker he claims to be. After all, an agreement between Washington and Brussels would constitute just the kind of clean “bilateral” deal that Trump says he prefers.

Finally, Trump needs to make clear that he is ready to align himself with Europe on several additional issues. He needs to join Merkel in confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine and its ongoing interference in elections in Western democracies. Merkel has been the EU’s backbone in standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. She will likely falter if Washington cozies up to the Kremlin, which would only intensify concern about the nature of Trump’s own relationship with Putin. Even if Trump is not enamored of either the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate agreement, he should make clear that he does not intend to pull these pacts down. Were he to dismantle them, the public outcry across Europe would compel Merkel and most other European leaders to keep their distance from Washington.

Trump and Merkel are oil and water; they are unlikely to forge a friendship or enduring bond. But for the sake of both countries and the future of the West, they must seize the opportunity to compromise their way to a working relationship.

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 2014 to 2017.

Versions of this article are set to appear in Le Monde, La Stampa, and Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Photo credits: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images, RONNY HARTMANN/AFP/Getty Images

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