Donald Trump has not tried to be helpful to Angela Merkel. He kickstarted his visit to Europe by suggesting Germany was a captive of Russia.
The US president’s outburst fitted the dominant narrative in the English language media, which assumes that the German Chancellor is past her political sell-by date and that Trump is adding to her woes by uttering undiplomatic remarks. These assumptions are generally misguided.
Merkel has broadly maintained her support from about half of the German population. The popularity of her nemesis, the anti-immigration Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, has actually dropped in recent German opinion polls, according to polling conducted for the German newspaper Die Welt.
Trump’s main criticism has been that Germany pays too little to the Nato coffers. At the moment, Europe’s largest and strongest economy spends 1.2 per cent of its GDP on defence, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). By contrast Britain spends 1.8 per cent. Yet, these figures, need to be put into perspective. Germany’s defence expenditure is $44bn, only slightly below Britain’s $47bn. And, Germany increased its spending on defence by 30 per cent in the past two years.
That Trump is singling out Merkel has more to do with ideology and personal dislike than with policymaking. The US president has often let it be known that he does not like Angela Merkel and that he predicts her downfall.
So far, this prediction has not come true. In fact, Merkel’s demise has often been foretold but has never materialised. The economic crisis in 2008, the Greek debt crisis, the refugee crisis in 2015, and the general election in 2018, were all touted as her political Waterloo.
Merkel is still in power, and if anything, Trump’s attacks will strengthen her position vis-à-vis the 45th President of the United States.
The German Chancellor – who, perhaps surprisingly, is a keen reader of opinion polls – made a point of responding to the attack by using facts. “We are the second largest contributor troops”, she said before talking about her personal gratitude to Nato, as someone who once lived in a Communist state dominated by the Soviet Union (Merkel grew up in East Germany).
It was vintage Merkel, and it was clearly aimed at the domestic audience.
A very large majority of the Germans are opposed to any increased defence spending: of those polled by the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, 60 per cent oppose the idea. This is in part due to the country’s troubled history.
Trump, meanwhile, is not popular in Germany, and attacks have not enamoured him to the Germans. Paradoxically, his attacks on Merkel has served to divert attention away from the debate over immigration and refugees. The US president has, if anything, inadvertently strengthened his opposite number. Not a sign of a man who has mastered “the art of the deal”.
The other problem for Trump is that his argument does not add up – at least not to German ears. On the one hand he advocates increased defence spending, but he also meets up with Vladimir Putin and stresses his friendship with the Russian strongman.
Merkel was the politician who was able to block Putin, when the Russian president was waging war by proxy in Eastern Ukraine. The French, the Americans – and the British – were not able to do so. Merkel did. Her job is not a simple one. But she is far more skilled and successful than her American opposite number.
Matt Qvortrup is the author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader.