Little is more unsettling to a nation than an ally who becomes skeptical of cooperation. Many allies of the United States are now navigating the uncertain terrain of a new, unpredictable U.S. president who is questioning their value. U.S. President Donald Trump’s transactional view of “America First” politics paired with general unpredictability have left allies scrambling. The leaders of Japan and the United Kingdom chose speed and cordiality, rushing to be the first post-election and post-inauguration visitors, respectively. Canada’s Prime Minister, too, took a friendly tone in his early visit. But in contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a less convivial approach and will make her first visit to Washington on March 14.
Four experts evaluate the style and success of the leaders from Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and Japan who have been the first to approach the relationship with the new administration.
Rachel Tausendfreund, Editorial Director
Berlin is Both Hopeful and Critical
During the campaign a Trump-induced paralysis seemed to be hanging over the German political establishment. Chancellor Merkel’s pointed and immediate response to Trump’s victory sent a clear message to Washington that the relationship between Germany and the United States was expected to rest on the president’s ability to respect democratic values and the rule of law, thereby underlying the country’s understanding of the danger of strongman. At the same time Merkel offered the president close cooperation on the basis of these values, noting that the partnership with the United States is and will remain essential for German foreign policy.
This dual-track approach rests on the assumption that Germany, though being the current political and economic powerhouse in Europe, will not become a strategic counterweight in the short and medium term and therefore needs the U.S. security guarantee. On the other hand, though, Germany unwilling to betray Europe’s core values for the sake of any bilateral deals with the new administration, following the president’s logic of the EU as “vehicle of Germany” and a future world modeled after the 19th century conception of great powers balancing each other. In other words, Merkel demonstrated that Berlin will engage the new administration as closely as possible but at the same time assert itself economically as well as militarily, convinced that, as Merkel has said “Europe’s fate is in our hands” and that the EU has never been a means to an end but a community of fate which can only destroy itself. Her position was quickly supported by other senior members of the current government.
Following this approach, Merkel has criticized Trump’s attacks on the media, stating that the freedom of press has been an essential element of the nation’s revival of democracy under U.S.-led tutelage since World War II. She has also indicated that Berlin is ready to draw up contingency plans to protect German/European interests on security and trade, if the administration proves to be destabilizing. By doing so, Merkel underlines that her main concern is not just about the value of the NATO alliance, but the White House’s apparent desire to reverse more than seven decades of U.S. policy of fostering a strong and united Europe in order to also bolster U.S. security. That is why Berlin denied Trump’s accusation of its alleged euro manipulation (which is not technically possible) or any threats to slap tariffs on German industries, which would violate WTO rules, raising the possibility of retaliation.
By doing so, Merkel underlines that her main concern is not just about the value of the NATO alliance, but the White House’s apparent desire to reverse more than seven decades of U.S. policy of fostering the liberal order and a strong and united Europe in order to also bolster U.S. security. Berlin is still expecting Washington’s message to eventually become more coherent, perhaps once there is a clearer picture of future counterparts on both the political elite and the working level. At the same time, however, the Chancellery seems convinced that a strong commitment to speak out against the illiberal tendencies of the presidency is worth potentially alienating the White House a bit — if it can help prevent the erosion of Germany's main foundation of its prosperity, the EU. At the moment, there looks to be no alternative to Berlin’s dual-track approach.
Stefan Fröhlich, Transatlantic Academy Senior Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Theresa May’s Friendly Approach Alienates
British Prime Minister Theresa May's efforts to engage with President Donald Trump are part of her campaign to persuade the British people that she has a vision for the country's future after Brexit. The vision is called "global Britain." It is based on free trade agreements with countries around the world, notably the United States, Commonwealth countries, and emerging markets. She seeks to revive the "special relationship" with the United States that has long faded, with the exception of security and defense and intelligence-sharing.
During her visit to Washington in January after the president's inauguration, she also sought to bring the relationship back to official channels after efforts to hijack it by Nigel Farage, erstwhile and perhaps future leader of the anti-immigration, anti-EU, United Kingdom Independence Party, and an apparent confidant of the president and his family. The visit provided an occasion for her to reaffirm visibly her confidence in Sir Kim Darroch, Britain's ambassador in Washington, whom the president had suggested could be replaced by Farage.
The prime minister returned from Washington with affirmations that President Trump, unlike his predecessor, would be ready to negotiate an FTA with the U.K., as soon as it had exited the EU. She also said that the president had reaffirmed both publicly and privately his commitment to the “special relationship” and to NATO. The visit provided photo opportunities, including the president rather awkwardly leading the prime minister by the hand through the White House grounds.
However any euphoria was short lived as President Trump signed his ill-fated ban on travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries immediately after the PM's departure. The prime minister initially shrugged it off until a revolt by her own party members, as well as protests and demonstrations, convinced her to condemn the travel ban as “divisive and wrong.” Nonetheless, the prime minister’s hesitation on the issue and her invitation to the president to make a state visit to the United Kingdom provoked widespread criticism.
May’s approach is unlikely to translate to real gains for her or for the U.K. Though she did receive apparent NATO and “special relationship” assurances, Trump has not shown a tendency to stand by his words. Despite President Trump’s assurances, many fundamental obstacles must be overcome before an FTA with the U.K. could become a reality, including extracting itself from EU structures and convincing 164 World Trade Organization members to accept its trade commitments. Furthermore, given Trump’s “America First” posture, any future agreement is unlikely to be generous to British exporters. The United States would probably insist on dispute settlement procedures and recognition of U.S. procedures, such as the chemical cleaning of chicken, in much the same way as in the defunct TTIP, which is loathed by many whose referendum vote brought May to power.
The Prime Minister may need NATO but she also depends on the good will of her European negotiating partners to obtain the kind of Brexit agreement she is seeking. Many will look askance at too close a U.K.–U.S. rapprochement, at a time when the new president regularly directs harsh criticism as some European leaders. She must avoid giving pretexts to the British press to caricature her as Trump’s poodle and balance carefully her transatlantic and her European aspirations if she is to avoid alienating those at home and abroad on whom she depends to achieve her political goals.
Sir Michael Leigh, Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Canada’s Trudeau Makes Connections
Canadians were as shocked as anyone when Trump won the election. But their strategic approach to the new administration seems to be paying dividends.
Most obviously, Canada made some preparations for a Trump victory rather than dismissing the possibility. Canadian officials visited the Republican National Convention last July and received assurances that Trump could evolve on his “more controversial positions.”
Once Trump was elected, Canada took an active approach to dealing with the new administration. Canadian officials concluded “that the two kinds of people these guys rely on are billionaires and generals.” Trudeau sought to find these types of people and build connections below the level of the president. Conservative former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is leveraging his personal friendship with the nominee for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross. Trudeau also promoted retired Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie to the cabinet committee on Canada–U.S. relations; Leslie has a long-standing working relationship with Defense Secretary General James Mattis.
Canada has also taken a specific rhetorical approach. Trudeau has studiously avoided criticizing the United States, preferring instead to emphasize positive Canadian values like diversity. “The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose to govern,” said Trudeau when he visited the White House in early February. This approach has avoided the Trump administration’s ire. One aide to the Trump transition team said in early February (after Trudeau’s reactions to the executive order on travel) that he understood Trudeau’s rhetoric, even if he disagreed. In contrast, German leaders’ more confrontational rhetoric raised his heckles.
Canada has a lot to lose. It only spends 1 percent of its GDP on defense. 75 percent of Canada’s exports go to the United States and NAFTA is a cornerstone of Canada’s economic prosperity. Canada is also well aware that it alone cannot sustain the international order. That awareness makes the country more creative within its limited room for maneuver.
Finally, Canada has experienced decades of dealing with a U.S. president whose politics are radically different from the Canadian government. In one of the infamous White House tapings that became public property after his impeachment, Richard Nixon called the then Canadian prime minister “that bastard Trudeau.” Pierre Elliott Trudeau was unfazed. “I’ve been called worse things by better people,” he noted languidly. His son, Justin, has inherited the challenge of dealing with a U.S. president whose views and approach to politics are radically different. As far as we know, Trump has not called Justin names yet.
Heidi Tworek, Transatlantic Academy Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Japan’s Abe Wins over Trump
In terms of dealing with the new U.S. president, one world leader clearly stands above the rest: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Despite displeasure with Trump’s campaign rhetoric against Japan, Abe was the first world leader to visit the then president-elect at Trump Towers, bearing a golden golf club as his gift. This in turn earned him a recent White House visit and more importantly a private weekend tee time at the president’s favorite Florida retreat at Mar-A-Lago — the “winter White House,” as he has already begun to label it.
There seems to be genuine chemistry between the two, which is good news because Trump or no Trump, Japan is a natural ally for the United States and is eager to share more of the global burden for preserving the U.S.-led world order. Abe’s success should be seen as a success by all given that Trump needs a world leader buddy. The Japanese prime minister has not traditionally been the obvious choice as America’s best friend, coveted spots usually occupied by England and Israel. However, Abe’s own personal diplomacy and effort has made it fit today.
Abe is the second longest serving and domestically most secure leader among the G7 powers and is considered a pragmatic elder statesman. In Trump’s terms, Abe is a winner, and he is respected around the globe, which Trump values. As evidenced on the night of North Korea’s missile launch, Trump summoned the press to Mar-A-Lago to hold an impromptu press conference where he let Prime Minister Abe speak first and then re-affirmed, “America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
Abe seems to understand the real-estate mogul president’s focus on deal-making and is already finding ways of delivering him with a win by helping put together a big Japanese investment package supported by the private sector that promises to create U.S. jobs.
Unlike European allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has made clear her personal distaste for Trump, or the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May who faced major opposition at home for her embrace of Trump, Abe is being congratulated as a pragmatic leader who can help either calm the waters or have Trump’s back in a crisis. While Abe is no doubt hedging his bets through closer alliances with Australia, England, France, India, and Russia — to name but a few — he also shows an amazing ability to agree to disagree with the new leader of the free world. If Trump’s policy is “America First,” Abe seems to have skillfully maneuvered his way to a close second.
Joshua Walker, Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at The German Marshall Fund of the United States
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.