What’s Behind Angela Merkel’s Disillusionment With the US?

Published May 30th, 2017 - 04:00 GMT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AFP/File)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (AFP/File)

Angela Merkel often repeats the story of how, back in her days in communist East Germany, she dreamed of retirement. Then she could finally travel to the West - and first and foremost, to the United States.

To her, the US meant freedom - of opinion, religion, the press, travel. Everything. It turned out that her dream came true much more quickly.

In 1989 the Wall came down and Merkel's rise from obscurity to become the most powerful woman in the political world would begin. She did visit the US, but as leader of Germany, Washington's most important ally in Europe.

But now she sees a different path ahead.

"The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that's what I've experienced in recent days," Merkel said at a political rally in Munich on Sunday, having just returned from a divided Group of Seven summit in Sicily.

She made no effort to hide her disillusionment, but sought to frame it properly: Not with the United States, but with President Donald Trump. Her disillusionment was also somewhat directed at Britain, which has turned its back on the European Union (EU), though its presence is so badly needed.

Merkel is aware of the many voices in the US who, after Trump's election victory last November, saw in her the last hope for rescuing liberal Western values. She scoffed at such talk at the time as "completely absurd," but now, whether intentional or not, she is polishing this image.

In the past there had been issues and differences, but she never questioned that the US was the most important partner, because Germany as well shared the same values of freedom, equality, human rights and justice.

She was also well aware that Germany is dependent on the US in such areas as security, defence, and intelligence work. Merkel does not want to change any of this, and as her spokesman Steffen Seibert stressed on Monday, she is a "staunch trans-Atlanticist."

Merkel's remarks in Munich spread in the US and British media however. She was aware of the explosiveness of her words, coming as they did at a political rally in the run-up to the next national elections on September 24, when she will run against veteran European parliamentarian Martin Schulz.

"This becomes an interesting game of who is a better match for Trump," commented Kristine Berzina, a trans-Atlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund.

"It looks like it’s becoming a campaign issue. Is a new face the best way to match President Trump and the commitment not to match what Trump wants? Or is a trusted and experienced face, including in relations with Trump, the right way to go?"

For example, Merkel backs the call for Germany to spend 2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence - a key Trump demand to NATO members - which Schulz opposes.

"Not being able to rely on the States in general is a good argument for the 2 per cent. It is a way of illustrating for Germany to be more dependent," said Berzina.

"The fight with Trump allows her to explain to Germans why they need to have more funding. It really puts the onus on Germany to really act, but again as a European."

So now the focus is Europe. Merkel's message, though not entirely new but all the more urgent, is that Europe - already suffering the departure of Britain as an EU member - must take responsibility for its own destiny. A huge challenge, especially in such areas as security, defence and intelligence work.

The Germans must now reckon with greatly upgrading its armed forces and sending their soldiers more often off to war.

These are things that people, with their historical memory of two disastrous World Wars, don't like to consider, and which the main opposition Social Democratic Party will surely be holding against Merkel in the election campaign.

By Kristina Dunz

© 2021 dpa GmbH

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