German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House Friday for a somewhat puzzling meeting with President Donald Trump.
Ms. Merkel is arguably the most important leader of Europe, after, perhaps for the United States, only British Prime Minister Theresa May. Mr. Trump had every reason to get along with her, but, nonetheless, it appears from their public performances together that he couldn’t resist poking Germany and her on some sensitive topics.
One of these was the unfavorable, from the point of view of the United States, trade balance between the two countries. Germany exported some $486 billion to the United States last year; U.S. exports to Germany amounted to $114 billion. This prompts Mr. Trump to conclude that Germany is taking advantage of the United States. Ms. Merkel points out that there are many German firms in the United States, employing millions of people, and, in fact, exporting from America to overseas countries. She also noted that it was difficult to disaggregate German trade from trade with other European Union nations.
Another jab that Mr. Trump delivered to Ms. Merkel was on the fact that Germany does not spend enough on NATO defense, as is considered the goal of all 28 NATO members. He suggested that Germany and most other NATO nations “owe” money to the organization, although there is no book of debts to NATO. Members agreed in 2014 to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense within a decade, and Germany is among the 23 nations that have not reached that goal, although it fully acknowledges its validity.
Germany also hosts some 50,000 U.S. troops and dozens of U.S. bases on its soil.
It appears that Mr. Trump declined a handshake offer by Ms. Merkel during their joint appearance before media in the Oval Office, although it is not clear that it was a deliberate snub. Spokesman Sean Spicer said that Mr. Trump did not hear the request, and, given the gravity of issues on their plate, it’s a minor matter.
But if Mr. Trump was distancing himself from Ms. Merkel on purpose, his timing was curious. She faces elections Sept. 24, for her fourth term in office, so is already in campaign mode. Her primary rival, Social Democrat Party head Martin Schulz, was unanimously nominated by his party on Sunday in advance of the elections. He is 61, an ex-bookseller, and served as president of the European Parliament from 2012 to this year.
Mr. Schulz is, thus, pro-EU, which Mr. Trump is not. Mr. Schulz opposes further German arms purchases from the United States, which Mr. Trump undoubtedly favors. In spite of her independence, based on Germany’s own economic strength and her own political firepower, Ms. Merkel is known for having made a mighty effort to get along with both of Mr. Trump’s rather different predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Perhaps Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel quarreled over immigration, although the issue is different for the two nations.
So, unless Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel had concluded that she would do better without his support, or, unless he was acting on a bet that she is going to lose in September, his attitude toward her was a bit hard to understand. So far, the polls show her winning, albeit by a fairly narrow margin. The overall U.S.-German relationship is not under any particular strain.