Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A German leader in a beer tent announces a new indifference to the United Kingdom and America and a new determination to lead Europe into a glorious future, possibly delighting the expansionist strongman leading Russia. The result, a little over seventy years ago, was a calamity for civilization, before Germany was brought to repent of its ambition. In 2017, the replay was far less threatening, and the German leader in question began issuing comedowns and take-backs in about 72 hours. The only casualties were the excited opinion columns about Europe stepping forward to lead the world Trump’s America had abandoned.
But it was a mysterious statement. “The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days,” Merkel lamented. “We Europeans must really take our destiny in our own hands. Of course we need to have friendly relations with the U.S. and with the U.K. and with other neighbors, including Russia. But we have to fight for our own future ourselves” Of course, she had electoral politics on mind. But something deeper is at work.
In poker, a player who has lost control of her emotions and the realistic assessment of the stakes at play is said to have gone on tilt. Donald Trump seems to put all of his opponents and some of his friends on tilt. The Democrats, the media, and foreign leaders often have good reasons to dislike Donald Trump’s leadership of the United States. Don’t we all? But what so often happens is that Trump’s opponents are goaded by the passions of their constituents, or their wounded sense of pride, or even deluded by their conviction that others must come to realize Trump’s presidency is some kind of cosmic mistake. And then they run out ahead of the evidence, or their own better judgment.
In global opinion-setting press clippings, German chancellor Angela Merkel and her new friend, French president Emmanuel Macron, outclass everyone on planet Earth. But in the real world, the thing that keeps cartographers sitting on their hands and reprinting the same European border maps year after year since the dissolution of the Soviet empire is the U.S. military, the one parked in Germany since 1945.
As one of her own party members said in an off-the-record comment to the Financial Times, “For Merkel, that was an unusually strong statement, Trump’s only been president for four months.” Perhaps a strategic partnership that has endured for the better part of a century isn’t so vulnerable to one tough speech by an American president, or so easy to change that the aspiration of a German chancellor remakes the world order.
Perhaps a strategic partnership that has endured for the better part of a century isn’t so vulnerable to one tough speech by an American president.
But that didn’t stop the gusher of enthusiasm for Merkel’s comments. The Europhilic Irish Times purred that Merkel was stating the obvious: “Faced with an erratic and unpredictable White House, with its purely transactional view of global alliances, and a United Kingdom rapidly turning inward, the EU can only achieve its goals by pulling closer together.” American opinion writers were not much more sober, declaring it the practical end of Atlantic alliance.
How many aircraft carriers, nuclear subs, and fighter jets has Germany christened in these four months? How much closer has Germany come to military parity with Russia? What do you think Poland or Latvia thinks of trusting Germany for political and military protection, absent the United States? C’mon, everyone. Get a grip.
European leaders, contemplating the last 15 years of American leadership, are asking themselves if the problem is one with the American public, who keep electing unserious presidents who make foreign-policy mistakes. Are Europeans immune from bad foreign-policy leadership? Ask the French about Mali or Libya. Ask Germans on the street about Merkel’s open migration policy, or the deal with Turkey meant to stanch the flow. Does the American public sometimes question the utility of NATO? Of course. But European publics are less committed to NATO’s mutual-defense pact than Americans.
Germany is hardly more prepared to lead Europe away from the United States than Spain or Bulgaria would be. Germany’s overt leadership would divide Europe even more into competing Western and Eastern blocs. It was the non-idealistic leadership of European institutions heavily tilted toward German bondholders that led to further disaffection in the currency union. It was the idealistic leadership of Germany in the refugee crisis that led to Brexit. Questioning the Atlantic alliance in a fit of pique could look stupidly short-sighted. Donald Trump’s presidency could be over before Germany or any other European country could even rouse its public for the massive public spending that being a real-world power would require.
“Europe is a union of peace and freedom and it is worth fighting for,” Merkel said, to a great surge of applause. Who could argue otherwise? But the rejoinder suggests itself: Is it worth 2 percent of GDP? Someone, maybe even an oafish American president, might ask. And when he does, it’s best to try not to lose the run of yourself.