The transatlantic democracies are an alliance in search of a mission. The European powers have differing views about what that mission should be in the age of Trump. On the other side of the Atlantic, more than a year into office, it remains unclear whether the Trump administration has a contribution to the debate.
These facts were on full display last week with the visits of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Washington. The receptions each received were a study in contrast. Macron was welcomed with the honors of a full state visit, including President Trump’s first state dinner. The two leaders almost reveled in their physical embrace of each other. The Merkel-Trump interaction, on the other hand, was short and to the point, warm but business-like.
Looming over both visits was the question of shared priorities. President Macron attempted to tackle this in his address to Congress, outlining a host of issues facing the West, from climate change, to terrorism, to the fate of the global order. Some of this was clearly intended to present a contrast to Trump, yet in a non-confrontational manner. Yet even Macron has little to show for his coziness with Trump other than the bonhomie.
Unlike Macron, Merkel has struggled to connect with President Trump. Seemingly incapable of adapting her style to Trump’s, Merkel has instead become the personification of German discomfort and angst about the new American reality. Much of this is driven by unresolved insecurities of Germany’s strategic perceptions of itself. In many respects, this is the new variation of the old “German problem,” yet now the question is, where is German leadership?
What Macron appears to realize is that after at least twelve years of being governed by Presidents Obama and Trump, the America that emerges will not be the same. It will be an America less willing to lead assertively on the world stage and one that often elevates its narrow national interests above those of its collective alliances. US allies that are willing to take action on their own when necessary, and who can overlook or at least grit their teeth and endure, will do the best in this emerging global order.
France, with its longstanding arm’s-length approach to NATO and its low expectations for the United States even in the best of times, is well suited to thrive in this new era. Allies like Germany, however, will struggle. Some redemption may be found in efforts to deepen European cooperation, including on defense, but the burgeoning transatlantic rift will only be resolved if German policymakers can think strategically about what they have to offer an American public skeptical of allies not perceived as pulling their weight.
Beyond finally getting German defense spending on track towards its NATO commitments, one major opportunity exists thousands of miles away in Asia. President Macron has placed strategic emphasis on the region, essentially advancing his own version of the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. A week after visiting with Trump at the White House, Macron was in Australia, having already visited India in March and with a meeting with Prime Minister Abe of Japan on the books. US officials are beginning to take note of France’s strategic leadership in the Indo-Pacific as the region’s democracies grapple with the rise of China.
A similar shift in strategic thinking regarding China is underway in Berlin, but Chancellor Merkel has yet to embrace it. In the German mindset, it is China’s economic threats, rather than island building or military buildup, that provoke. Given the dilapidated state of the German armed forces and Germany’s strategic limitations in Asia, as well as the fact that transatlantic economic cooperation is one of the most politically perilous areas in the transatlantic relationship right now, the options for Berlin to work with the Trump administration on China are more limited. This does not mean that both sides should not try.
The transatlantic relationship will survive the Trump presidency. Rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Yet whether it is China or another issue, the allies need to unite behind a common purpose. Framing the relationship purely in terms of support for a liberal order that is increasingly doubted by many citizens on both sides of the Atlantic is not sustainable. Not embracing a broader construct is dangerous as well given disagreements on Iran, climate and trade that are unlikely to disappear.
President Macron has shown the way for at least limited cooperation with an erratic American President. What remains to be seen is whether any of his fellow European leaders will be able to follow his lead and what, if anything, the Trump administration wants to ask of Europe.
* Photo from the White House Archive
Jamie Fly is a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and former Foreign Policy Advisor to U.S. Senator Marco Rubio.