The Trump-Merkel Summit: After the Storm, a Vital Trans-Atlantic Agenda
Dr. Ariel Cohen, Atlantic Council US, consider the massive snowstorm that postponed Angela Merkel's visit to the White House as symbolic of the chill in the US-German relations: President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized Frau Merkel's open borders policy, which has brought over 1,250,000 refugees to Germany since 2015. Merkel has responded with a strong defense of freedom of movement, refugee rights, and freedom of the press.
The challenge for President Trump and Chancellor Merkel is to get over the icy rhetorical storm and get down to business. There are major issues on the U.S.-German agenda waiting to be addressed, most of them less divisive than immigration and borders, which caused the flare-up. For starters, these are the massive German trade surplus in trade with the world —and particularly with the U.S.; the imbalance in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) burden sharing; how to handle Russia and Ukraine; and what to do about the multiple Middle Eastern meltdowns .
Germany's trade surplus rose to 250.9 billion Euros ($270 billion) in 2016, of which the U.S.-German trade deficit was $65 billion in Germany's favor; one of the highest imbalances at 40% of trade that totaled $164 billion.
President Trump will certainly bring this up in his talks with Merkel, as well as what he considers to be the artificially high Euro/dollar exchange rate. The independent, but German-dominated, European Central Bank in Frankfurt sets the Euro rate in the interests of all Eurozone members, not just Berlin.
Germany could expand its purchases in the U.S., work with its representatives in the European Central Bank to weaken the Euro, and buy American Treasuries for its massive currency reserves. These goodwill gestures would go a long way toward pleasing Mr. Trump.
And then there is the NATO budget deficit. Germany spends only 1.2 percent of its GDP on defense. The European allies have outsourced their defense costs to America for decades, boosting their social safety nets, including early retirement, lush healthcare expenditures, free education, and long vacations. Trump will undoubtedly address this in talks with Merkel. Germany has been slow to increase its defense spending, and needs to wake up to threats east and south.
The German military budget is $37 billion a year – less than the recent 10%, $54 billion increase in U.S. military budget announced by the Trump Administration. Consider this: the Bundeswehr (the German military) has only about 300 battle-ready tanks, whereas Russia has over 600 in Ukraine alone, and over 20,000 in service and in reserve.
The German Air Force and Navy are in pitiful shape, according to German media reports. In 2015, there were barely three squadrons of deployable German fighters – about 60 altogether. These included Tornados built in the 1970s. The German Navy has no aircraft carriers, though it does have four types of missile cruisers. Last but not least, while Germany builds diesel-electric submarines for Israel, it only has about the same number of these vessels as the much smaller Jewish state.
Ms. Merkel will buy a great deal of American good will if she announces a plan to increase German military expenditure to 2% of GDP within five years, as members pledged at the NATO 2014 Wales summit, and also declares a program to purchase dozens of modern U.S. military aircraft, which the Luftwaffe badly needs.
The lack of German military preparedness is also weakening both Germany's and NATO's hands in dealings with Russia – something Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel should discuss. The German Chancellor has had years of parlaying with Vladimir Putin (and was intimidated by his black Labrador retriever, Connie, and possibly also by her master).
Hailing from East Germany, Ms. Merkel has an uncanny understanding of the Soviet/Russian mindset and FSB (today's KGB) methods of operation. She has repeatedly called the Russian invasion of Ukraine unacceptable, a violation of territorial integrity and of the Budapest Memorandum, which guaranteed Ukrainian security in exchange for its nuclear disarmament. (Of note, the U.S. and the U.K. are signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, together with Russia.)
Russian sanctions remain the centerpiece of the U.S.-EU joint policy on Ukraine. While sanctions failed to force Russia to relinquish the Crimea, which it occupied and annexed, or to stop hostilities in the Donbass region, they did prevent the war from expanding further into Ukraine. Merkel and Trump should discuss steps that would restore Ukrainian territorial integrity and peace between the two Slavic countries without handing Moscow far-reaching concessions. For example, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area should remain on track, and future NATO membership should not be ruled out.
In the Middle East, greater German involvement, both civilian and military, is necessary. Without it, Germany will only remain on the receiving end of the huge refugee flows being generated by the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
The deployment of Russian special forces in Egypt to support a Libyan warlord are yet another sign that simply standing by will not work for Berlin. The U.S. can also play a moderating role in the escalating row between Turkey and EU members Germany and the Netherlands. The NATO allies should keep their eyes on the prize and stop fighting.
For the past seventy years, U.S.-German relations have been a cornerstone of Trans-Atlantic security and stability. Both countries champion democracy, peace and human rights. While addressing the necessary trade and security imbalances, the Trump-Merkel summit should strengthen this friendship, which is vital to 21st century peace and prosperity.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Director, Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. He visited Berlin last month.