The German chancellor seems to be leaning over the American president, poised in rightful indignation. Trump looks up in a mixture of nonchalance and distraction. The photo immediately became a powerful symbol of the ghosts haunting the trans-Atlantic relationship since Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton on that extraordinary night in November 2016.
Other photos taken at the same time but from different angles told a different story, and photos of this kind are always misleading. They suffer from a surplus of what Walter Benjamin called aura. Banal moments for those sitting in the room acquire deep historical meaning. In this case, Merkel was hardly leading the group of European leaders trying to confront Trump. Macron had the floor, so to speak, and he was trying to convince a skeptical — or confused, if you prefer — American president to accept a reference in the final G-7 communiqué to the “rules-based international order,” an academic term that has acquired enormous power in European public discourse.
And yet, for all that, the photo captured something important. Merkel was standing up for the idea that rules matter in international affairs. Trump resisted because he believes, not without reason, that the great advantage of being strong is the ability to break the rules. The compromise rehearsed in Quebec — after Trump proclaimed that he wants to change, not to affirm, the rules — was to speak of “a rules-based order,” rather than “the rules-based order.” The differences were down to a grammatical nicety and an agreement was tantalizingly close, but Trump wanted the change to be presented as his personal victory, and that the Europeans and Canadians could not quite accept.
At the NATO summit this week, Trump made it personal. Interestingly, he attacked Germany for the very sin German politicians used to blame Greece for during the eurozone crisis: moral hazard. If Germany had to pay for its own defense, the Germans would be more careful about boosting the Russian defense budget with revenue from its oil and gas imports. But since they don’t pay enough, they behave recklessly.
It is a dangerous game, because the only way for the American president to show that he is serious about his threat to change NATO is to bring it to the brink of an existential crisis. Used to many similar moments of tension in the past, Europeans might not take the possibility seriously until it is too late.
The only way for the American president to show that he is serious about his threat to change NATO is to bring it to the brink of an existential crisis.
As for Merkel, she too is captured by her own instincts. Many times during the euro-zone crisis I could see how — when pressed hard in private meetings — she would inevitably return to a binary opposition between following the rules and sliding into barbarism. But rules-idolatry did not serve her well then and will not serve her well with Trump. Germany today has direct economic relations with Russia and China, so it makes little sense that it continues to delegate its defense to Washington — defense against, oddly, the same countries it does business with. Nor can it expect the United States to be more generous than any other bloc on trade, when it is precisely Germany — with a current-account surplus amounting to 8 percent of GDP — that is most in need of an open trade system.
For Germany, much more important than deciding which rules are responsible for sustaining the global order is the basic need to have a system of rules. Merkel finds herself in exactly the same position as Prince Don Fabrizio Salina in Lampedusa’s The Leopard. When in doubt, he reminds himself that it matters little who the monarch is, provided there is a monarch rather than a republic. It matters little what the rules are, provided there are rules. Or as Salina eventually puts it, if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.
Perhaps we can all agree that the world needs “a” rules-based order, but that “the” rules based-order as it now exists needs to be reformed. Europe needs to chart a more independent path because the global chessboard is now vastly more complex, with many different centers of power and direct relations among them. We cannot expect Americans and Europeans to have the same views about Russia, China, or Iran.
None of this means that having strong allies in Europe will stop being important for the United States. If Europeans become increasingly responsible for their own defense, Washington will be able to redefine the potential for a new transatlantic alliance, including Turkey: a forward presence, able to quickly project force eastwards across the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and Central Asia — Europe as a Eurasian peninsula.
Trump could be convinced that a new framework of rules and institutions is the best way to preserve his legacy, but Merkel needs to make the first move. The alternative is a world without rules. And that scenario is entirely possible. We cannot afford to dismiss it, given the tensions in the global situation.