The Trump administration manages to turn Germans into Gaullists, ready to flirt with Russia and contemplate strategic independence.
By Roger Cohen – Opinion Columnist – The New York Times
MUNICH — A French ambassador observed to me that, “The Trump Administration has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning the Germans into Gaullists.”
Once the most devoted member of the Atlantic alliance, an insulted Germany has stiffened, discovering its inner Russian flirt and a touch of De Gaulle’s strategic independence.
Donald Trump has made Angela Merkel mad. I got to know her during my assignment in Berlin two decades ago and have never seen her as animated as during her speech here at the Munich Security Conference. The shackles were off. She was not above wagging a Gaullist finger at Washington.
Eyes glittering with impish mockery, she asked whether withdrawing American troops from Syria was really the best way to confront Iran; whether containing Iran was really served by trashing “the only existing agreement” — the European-supported nuclear deal abandoned by Trump; and how German cars are really a threat to American national security, as Trump’s Commerce Department has suggested, when the BMW plant in South Carolina is the company’s biggest.
“Going on one’s own,” Merkel suggested, makes no sense in a world demanding multilateral solutions. In strategic terms, she said, “Europe cannot have an interest in breaking our relationship with Russia,” even if her outrage at Russia’s annexation of Crimea (“a violation of international law”) and fomenting of violence in eastern Ukraine was clear. Some polls have suggested that more Germans trust Vladimir Putin’s Russia than Trump’s United States.
Trump did not figure in her speech but plenty of Trump choreography surrounded it. Ivanka Trump sat below the podium. As the crowd rose in unison to give Merkel a standing ovation, the president’s daughter remained seated. She was on her feet, however, to greet Vice President Mike Pence, who followed Merkel, giving him a little kiss on his cheek. I wondered how Pence would do penance for this.
As it was, Pence went on the attack. He inflicted on the audience an extraordinary exercise in obsequiousness, arrogance and mawkishness: obsequiousness toward President Trump, whose name seemed to appear in every other sentence as some God-given fount of wisdom; arrogance toward the Europeans who were admonished, as vassals, to tear up the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which is enshrined through a United Nations resolution in international law; and mawkishness over a visit to Auschwitz last week that was used to convey a message to Europeans that if they did not obey American orders on Iran they are de facto anti-Semites.
The overall effect was B-movie bizarre and offensive, a careful-what-you-wish-for warning to any Democrat tempted by impeachment of Trump. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, sat in the front row with a Delphic smile. Pence did acknowledge her, but only just.
The vice president’s big line — “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal” — met hostility. His speech ended not with a bang but a whimper. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, leapt to their feet in the near silence. Pence had two fans in Europe. He did not take questions, unlike Merkel and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.
The Munich Security Conference is rowing against the tide. Its raison d’être is trans-Atlantic cooperation, albeit with some post-Cold War add-ons like China’s presence. To sense animus to America’s vice president in this temple to Western unity is to measure how effectively Trump has taken a sledgehammer to America’s European alliances — abandoning shared strategy (on Iran, climate change, trade, Israel-Palestine, etc.), and making a mockery of shared values through his embrace of autocrats from Pyongyang to Riyadh. Words like “dialogue” and “cooperation” are not part of Trump’s conception of alliances. The alliances therefore erode.
Europeans are not where Lavrov and Russia want them to be — thirsting to build a “shared European house” from Lisbon to Vladivostok, to the exclusion of NATO. They are, however, wondering how best to project the free world’s values now that its leader has gone AWOL; thinking hard about how to reinforce European defense (as the United States exits the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in response to Russia’s breaches of it but with no alternative plan discussed with those most vulnerable to Russian attack — European allies); and concluding that, whatever happens, America will not be back in the same form.
There is a strategic vacuum. Vacuums are dangerous. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Politburo, extolled the virtues of multilateralism, coordination, cooperation and the rule of law while telling America to give “fewer lectures.” This might have comforted Europeans if he had not also extolled China’s human rights record and the way ethnic groups in China work together in “beautiful harmony” (I’m awaiting the Uighur response.)
This is not the new Chinese world Europeans want to embrace. Nor is the world of Lavrov’s cynicism attractive; nor Trump’s diktats. It’s not 1945 again but it is the moment for Europe to reassert itself in the name of values it knows are not abstract, but the guarantors of human dignity and freedom.
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Roger Cohen has been a columnist for The Times since 2009. His columns appear Wednesday and Saturday. He joined The Times in 1990, and has served as a foreign correspondent and foreign editor. @NYTimesCohen