Reaching out to “America First”

There are no grand deals on trade or security issues on the horizon in international politics at the moment. It is more about managing the status quo and solving acute crises. This was precisely the task of the German chancellor Angela Merkel when she visited US president Donald Trump in Washington last week. 

The challenges were clear: avoiding a trade war between the EU and the US, promoting the importance of the international agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and explaining Germany’s commitment towards NATO’s policy that member states should use two percent of their budget for its military spending. 

The last week saw two European attempts to change the US position on imposing import duties on European goods and on ending the agreement with Iran. First came the approach of the French president Emmanuel Macron, who enjoyed the red carpet treatment of an official state visit, whereas Mrs. Merkel tried a much more modest working approach. The only difference was between the warm, friendly atmosphere between Trump and Macron and the business-like atmosphere between Trump and Merkel. 

The results were the same. It seems that president Trump and his advisors prefer their own interests over the concerns of allies or friends. At least at the official level, no problems were solved. The themes of Mr. Macron’s speech before Congress – the errors of multipolarity, an end to the Iran nuclear deal and protectionism, versus the benefits of multilateralism, political talks and a global market – were echoed by Mrs. Merkel. 

One special German topic for the US is the trade deficit with the EU in the amount of 151 billion US dollars, one third in the automotive sector. So far the Trump administration has refused to take into consideration the fact that Germany sells more German cars built in the US than exported to the US from Germany. Not to mention the employment of US workers building those cars. 

Another consideration is the enormous amount the US is borrowing from other countries, which is not very healthy for the American economy. It is a known fact that the average US household is in debt. Why? From buying goods produced in other countries, for reasons of either quality or price. 

The EU is still trying to understand its relationship with the Trump administration. It is increasingly coming to the conclusion that the seemingly new policy is not that new after all but rather the latest expression of a long-term framework of US foreign policy. The slogan “America first” has been used in variations before. Even Barack Obama was not amused about the lack of commitment of EU member states towards defense spending. Clearly, the tone has become more aggressive now. 

These challenges should not give the impression that the EU in general or Germany in particular are changing their foreign policy orientation away from the US. The country is still a very important trading partner. And, even more importantly, the US is a guarantor of security. In other words, Germany is deeply anchored in the West. But at the same time “the somewhat reluctant hegemon” (The Economist) is beginning to become more ambitious. Germany wants to think bigger, even though still cautiously. 

In these turbulent times Germany is always looking towards solutions that take into consideration her own interests, which are bound up with those of the EU. And this means making clear to any US administration that a norm-based international order, a multilateral order, is the foundation for tackling almost any challenge. The difference between the EU and the US are enormous. Brussels, Paris Berlin and other EU capitals are not used to this interest orientated policy of Washington. A multipolar world cannot provide the solutions that are required; the cooperation envisioned by the EU is the only way forward. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.