Probably, the hangover of his brash, overbearing “You are fired” corporate demeanour characteristically seen in the television show The Apprentice seemed to get the better of United States President Donald Trump, as he appeared with his guest, Chancellor Angela Merkel, before the hordes of journalists and photographers on Friday in Washington.
True, he is the chief executive-cum-commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful nation, but the US is not a corporation. It is — still — the world’s only superpower with complex global responsibilities, and Trump needs to talk and act in a “presidential” manner.
Images of Trump’s body language vis-à-vis Merkel during the photo opportunity with press photographers and also at the press conference in Washington, sent all the wrong signals about the relations between Germany and the US, which have been staunch North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) allies since World War 2.
The transatlantic military alliance not only provided a strong deterrence against the aggressive designs of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War but also contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the reunification of the once-divided German nation.
Germany happens to be, by far, the strongest nation in Europe, thanks to its sheer economic strength and, increasingly, political power. Trump cannot simply ignore or show disrespect to the German leader, whose country has stood by America in major crises around the world, including in Afghanistan where German soldiers sacrificed their lives serving Nato.
While it is one thing to be abrasively critical during his election campaign against Merkel’s decision to admit more than a million — mostly Muslim — refugees into Germany, and call the decision a “catastrophic mistake”, Trump should have repaired relations by being more statesmanlike in his interaction with Merkel who had come to Washington, after all, to get to know the new US President and remove any misunderstandings.
After the two leaders met privately in the Oval Office, press photographers and videographers were allowed to enter, and they captured an awkward interaction between the two.
In one clip, photographers were heard asking both the leaders to shake hands. Trump not only ignored them, but also ignored Merkel when she leaned over to ask him if he wanted to shake hands; however, it is unclear whether he heard her at all.
The handshake snub to Merkel at the Oval Office before press photographers contrasted sharply with Trump’s long and vigorous handshakes with other world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House or with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a photo op. Indeed, the Trump-Abe handshake lasted 19 seconds!
But that was not all. At the infamous press conference, Trump made the out-of-place and unproven allegation that, like Merkel, he, too, had been wiretapped by the Obama administration. Merkel’s face showed utter bewilderment, with Trump citing this as “something in common (with Merkel) perhaps”.
No matter how hard they tried to play down their differences on trade, Russia, immigration, etc, the body language between Trump and Merkel lacked warmth.
However, Merkel did not shy away from taking a gentle swipe at Trump when she said it was better to speak to each other than about each other, referring, apparently, to Trump’s criticism of her immigration policy during the election campaign.
During the press conference, Trump also called on Merkel to meet Nato’s military spending target, and Merkel reiterated her country's commitment to the goal of allocating two per cent of gross domestic product on defence. Trump had called on Nato allies to pay their “fair share” of the defence costs, adding that many owed “vast sums” of money from past years and this was “very unfair” to the US.
Only five Nato nations currently meet the goal of two per cent of GDP: the US, Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia. Facing increasing US pressure, the alliance finally increased its overall budget for the first time in two decades.
Twenty-two Nato members earmarked more money for military costs last year. But members Canada, Slovenia, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg still spend less than one per cent of their GDP on defence.
Trump, taking aim at Merkel’s “open-door” policy to refugees entering Germany, said at the press conference that immigration was a privilege, not a right. He has sought through executive orders to temporarily ban people from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, causing an uproar domestically and internationally among critics. Merkel has also emerged as one of the leading voices in Europe opposing Trump’s travel ban.
Nevertheless, Merkel, who had close relations with Trump’s predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, also seeks a strong working relationship with Trump, despite major policy differences and wariness in Germany about the former New York businessman.
While Merkel would like to see the US and the European Union resume discussions on a trade agreement — the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — Trump stressed he did not believe in isolationism but that trade policy should be fairer.
Be that as it may, it is now important for Trump to avoid damaging relations, particularly with friends and allies. Relationships are as fragile as a vase; once broken, the vase can be glued together but it is unlikely that the cracks will completely disappear.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist with extensive writing
experience on foreign affairs,
diplomacy global economics and