Following yesterday's openly confrontational, deliberately protectionist presidential address by president Trump, which in various circles has been dubbed the "American carnage" speech for obvious reasons, some of Obama's closest foreign friends are scrambling to find a role in a world that has drastically changed in less than 24 hours. One of them is the foreign leader whom Obama spoke to last before vacating the White House, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who vowed on Saturday to seek compromises on issues like trade and military spending with Trump, adding she would work on preserving the important relationship between Europe and the United States.
"He made his convictions clear in his inauguration speech," Merkel said in remarks broadcast live, a day after Trump vowed to put 'America first'.
Speaking at a news conference in the south-western town of Schoental, Merkel - and finding herself in a world where many of her "established" friends have been swept away by the tide of "populist anger" - suddenly struck a more conciliatory tone toward Trump than Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who on Friday said Germany should prepare for a rough ride under the new U.S. president.
"I say two things with regards to this (speech): first, I believe firmly that it is best for all of us if we work together based on rules, common values and joint action in the international economic system, in the international trade system, and make our contributions to the military alliances," Merkel said. Judging by Trump's fiery sermon, he disagrees.
"And second, the trans-Atlantic relationship will not be less important in the coming years than it was in past years. And I will work on that. Even when there are different opinions, compromises and solutions can be best found when we exchange ideas with respect," added Merkel.
The conservative German leader, who is seeking a fourth term and enjoyed a close relationship with former president Barack Obama, is seen by liberals across the Atlantic as a voice of reason that counterbalances rising populist parties in Europe. That voice, however, has rising problems at home, where her approval rating has tumbled over the past year due to her immigration policies, where "radical" views such as those espoused by Trump are gaining traction.
As Reuters notes, relations with the United States, Germany's biggest trading partner, are likely to be a hot topic in electioneering in coming months leading to a general election in September. And in the aftermath of the Trump speech, which defined Trump's "negotiating baseline", Merkel will have no choice but admit weakness in accepting compromises with a man who has criticized her decision in 2015 to throw open Germany's borders to asylum seekers fleeing wars and conflicts, and has said he believes other countries will leave the EU after Britain and that the NATO military alliance was obsolete.
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Yet while Merkel may be hoping for a fresh start with the new US president, her domestic institutions and media will be far less forgiving to any indication of weakness from the chancellor.
The best example of this, so far, is an article penned this morning by Gabor Steingart, chief in chief of Handelsblatt, Germany's leading economic newspaper, who burned all compromise bridges when he said that "that was no presidential speech; that was a veritable declaration of war."
The savage criticism continued:"Threatening in tone. Cold and calculating in logic. Change minus the hope. Donald Trump used the traditional Inauguration Day address to settle a score with the U.S. political establishment going back decades. With four ex-presidents sitting a few feet behind him, the 45th president delivered a populist manifesto."
He notes than any attempts at compromise will fail because "the new president loves a good fight, not consensus. He doesn’t want to hug, but to smother, to overwhelm" and add that "in domestic policy, the Trump agenda sounds like a blueprint for civil war; in foreign policy, it sounds like the dawn of a new ice age."
Hardly an amicable setting for Merkel to be demand compromises.
For the German press what hope there is that the Trump phenomenon will be promptly overthrown lies in the face of three opponents: "Opponent No. 1: The other America. Across the country, an anti-Trump movement is growing"... "Opponent No. 2: The Media. Among publishers, producers, filmmakers and journalists, Trump has hardly any friends. CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Hollywood couldn’t warm to the volcanic personality of the new president."... "Opponent No. 3: The Political Party System. Washington is having an allergic reaction to Trump. Democrats and even Republicans are cooperating on Capitol Hill to investigate the Trump team’s contacts to Russia in a special committee."
It is clear on whose side the German economic press is; the bigger question for Merkel is whether in the aftermath of this "war" by Trump, the German people will side with her, and distance themselves from the "American populist", or whether the backlash against the establishment will reverberate further, leading to even more pain for Merkel in the upcoming polls.
Finally, should Merkel's "compromise" approach fail, will Germany respond to Trump's "declaration of war" in kind, and will it be simply trade, or conventional?
The Demons Have Been Unchained
That was no presidential speech; that was a veritable declaration of war. Threatening in tone. Cold and calculating in logic. Change minus the hope. Donald Trump used the traditional Inauguration Day address to settle a score with the U.S. political establishment going back decades. With four ex-presidents sitting a few feet behind him, the 45th president delivered a populist manifesto.
Until his victory, the nation’s political elite used days like these, he told America, to celebrate amongst themselves. Their triumph was not your triumph. Their well-being was not your well-being. But this time, power would transfer not just from one party to the other, but from Washington back to the people. In the people’s name, he will put America “first.” In their name, he will “take back” America’s factories. In their name, he will “exterminate” Islamic terrorism, end inner-city drug gang “bloodbaths” and get NATO partners like Germany to pay more for Europe’s security. In domestic policy, the Trump agenda sounds like a blueprint for civil war; in foreign policy, it sounds like the dawn of a new ice age. Not that he’s cold-bloodedly planning either one, but he knows where his fiery rhetoric will lead him. The new president loves a good fight, not consensus. He doesn’t want to hug, but to smother, to overwhelm.
Yesterday was his day, but the days that follow may belong to his opponents. There are three main opponents that could bring him down politically.
Opponent No. 1: The other America. Across the country, an anti-Trump movement is growing. While only 10,000 people came to an open-air concert in Washington celebrating his victory on the night before the inauguration, 20,000 people took to the streets in New York to protest his elevation. Their signs shouted: Not My President. The security and surveillance costs around Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, at the corner of 56th Street, is costing taxpayers about a half million dollars – each day.
Opponent No. 2: The Media. Among publishers, producers, filmmakers and journalists, Trump has hardly any friends. CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Hollywood couldn’t warm to the volcanic personality of the new president. Even an unbroken Twitter assault has no chance against such a monolithic wall of media rejection. He hates them, and they hate him right back. He pushes forward his agenda, and they push back unabashedly with theirs. Trump enters The White House with the lowest approval rating ever of an elected president.
Opponent No. 3: The Political Party System. Washington is having an allergic reaction to Trump. Democrats and even Republicans are cooperating on Capitol Hill to investigate the Trump team’s contacts to Russia in a special committee. House Speaker Paul Ryan doesn’t see himself as a Trump follower but as a Trump successor. He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing, biding his time, waiting for an opening. Put another way: Not only Democrats are hoping for an impeachment proceeding.
America is now on the brink of a new period of polarization. The demons in this fraternal battle have been unchained. The greatness that Trump seeks will not be borne under these conditions. An icy wind is blowing across the land.