Angela Merkel’s black limousine cruised to a stop here outside the Hotel Adlon, a storied building near the path of the wall that kept her locked in the East for the first 35 years of her life. The wall – and all the bitter political divisions it represented – has been gone for almost 30 years. But she was suddenly contemplating the prospect of working with a new American president hell-bent on building a wall of his own.
Merkel strode into the hotel for a farewell dinner with Barack Obama shortly after the American election that shocked the world. This was his last trip here as president and held special meaning. Obama became an international symbol of the future when he spoke nearby during the 2008 US presidential campaign (Merkel famously blocked the upstart candidate from using the iconic Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop). Now he was arriving from Greece, where he toured the Parthenon and the Acropolis – relics of ancient western civilization.
Both leaders were determined not to let their vision of the West – battered by rising populism and nationalism – fall to the same fate.
This was supposed to be a cheery, celebratory evening as the leaders toasted the close – and unlikely – friendship that developed between them during Obama’s eight years in office. But now, according to US and German sources, Obama came with an urgent agenda: Convince Merkel to run for re-election when Germans head to the polls on September 24.
Over the course of three hours, Obama and Merkel sat at a round table covered with white linen as they spoke in English – a noteworthy gesture by a German leader who mostly uses her own tongue in public – about a world order they feared might slip away.
“I don’t know that the President for an entire eight years ever spent that much time alone with anybody other than his wife,” a senior Obama administration official told me.
Merkel was emerging from one of the rockiest periods of her political career, under intense criticism for allowing a surge of refugees into Germany. The United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union followed by Donald Trump’s election in the United States left her as the most prominent defender of globalist western values. Looming elections in France, the Netherlands and Austria offered new opportunities for far-right, populist parties.
“The Germans were still digesting the results of the election and she was still trying to make a determination about whether or not she would seek another term,” the senior Obama administration official told me. “At that point in November, she was in some ways isolated as the leader of the traditional liberal order.”
The official continued: “My sense was that she viewed the context of her decision as related to the need to provide leadership for liberal values.”
Obama and Merkel declined to comment on the private meeting. But the day after their dinner, the typically stoic Merkel was unusually emotional as she faced the prospect of squaring off with the incoming US president. “Taking leave of my partner and friend, well, yes it is hard,” Merkel said during a news conference.
She announced her plans to seek a fourth term a few days later. Her worst fears – that Europe would become overrun with far-right nationalists – haven’t come to pass. France would go on to reject a populist candidate championed by Trump. Nationalist firebrands placed a distant second in the Dutch election, though the right wing Freedom Party in Austria could do well in a vote next month.
But the political scene here in Germany has settled to the point that many analysts see the election as Merkel’s to lose.
Obama’s pleas alone likely didn’t persuade the 63-year-old Merkel to seek re-election. After all, she doesn’t have a natural like-minded successor waiting in the wings.
The dinner did, however, mark the beginning of Merkel’s positioning as the calm foil to erratic, inward-looking Trumpism. This is perhaps the ultimate irony of the post-war era. More than 70 years after Americans helped destroy the Nazis, a German chancellor is poised to become the new moral leader of the West. The President of the United States, meanwhile, faces a leadership crisis of his own making after a bungled response to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marching through a Virginia college town this summer chanting hateful sentiments that, until recently, seemed relegated to history.
Trump is everything Merkel is not. His wild gesticulations contrast with her studied habit of resting her hands at her waist with fingertips touching. His rapid-fire communications style reflects a President often focused on the moment. Merkel is known for her caution and long-term strategic thinking. It wouldn’t occur to her to broadcast her gripes on Twitter.
Macho men in power are nothing new for Merkel. Russian President Vladimir Putin is virtually the only major world leader who has held office longer than she has. He famously tried to intimidate the canine-shy chancellor by bringing his dog into a meeting.
But when it comes to Trump, Merkel’s reservations aren’t just about style. They’re about an American president whose admiration of strongmen is deeply unnerving to Germans who spent decades learning the lessons of their authoritarian past and building a prosperous democracy.
“He is questioning the traditional West, both in rhetoric, in his concept of ‘America First,’ introducing a new nationalism and explicitly economic nationalism,” Norbert Roettgen, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in Germany’s parliament, told me recently.
Tension has consumed the Trump-Merkel relationship from the start. Well before he became president, Trump blasted the German chancellor for allowing 1 million refugees – largely Muslims from war-torn regions – into the country.
“The German people are going to riot,” he said in Iowa in January 2016. “The German people are going to end up overthrowing this woman. I don’t know what the hell she is thinking.”
On the night of his election victory, Merkel issued a thinly-veiled congratulatory message outlining the terms of their relationship.
“Germany and America are bound by common values -- democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views”
“Germany and America are bound by common values – democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” Merkel said. “It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
Merkel drew an even sharper line after Trump capped a frenzied first week in office by issuing a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. “The necessary and decisive battle against terrorism does not in any way justify putting groups of certain people under general suspicion, in this case people of Muslim belief or of a certain origin,” she said.
(Federal courts blocked the ban and a subsequent draft. In June, the Supreme Court allowed parts of the ban to go into effect for foreign nationals who lack any “bona fide relationship with any person or entity in the United States.” The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the case this fall.)
You couldn’t escape the awkward dynamic by the time she visited the White House in March for the first time in the Trump era. In the Oval Office with a wall of flashing cameras before them, Trump declined to shake Merkel’s hand. The White House insists Trump didn’t hear her invitation for a handshake amid all the noise but the image of a jilted Merkel stuck.
Later in the day, Trump seemed to needle her further by joking during a news conference about Merkel’s phone being tapped, a reference to a National Security Agency program that intercepted Merkel’s cell phone communications. The 2013 revelation of the program, which was included in files leaked by Edward Snowden, marked the lowest moment in Obama’s relationship with Merkel and was a deeply humiliating episode for the chancellor.
If there was ever a day that solidified Merkel’s central role in the battle for the future of the West, it was May 25, 2017. She began her morning in Berlin, where Obama had returned to speak at a festival with Merkel at his side. On a beautiful spring morning, tens of thousands of young people greeted Obama with the same enthusiasm he enjoyed during his 2008 visit. He soaked up the moment and largely steered clear of politics. But he couldn’t resist a swipe at his successor – an unusual move for an ex-president, especially overseas.
“We can’t hide behind a wall,” Obama said without ever mentioning Trump’s name.
The moment dripped with symbolism because of Merkel’s plans later in the day. After spending the morning with Obama, she would come face to face with Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels.
During a speech before Trump and other NATO leaders, Merkel unveiled a chunk of the Berlin Wall, in homage to NATO’s greatest achievement: The West’s victory in the Cold War. It was a deeply personal moment that revealed how the Wall shapes her politics and influences her attitude toward Trump.
“It is not isolation, the building of walls that make us successful, but open societies that share the same values”
“This wall also symbolizes something that has been a determinant factor in my life for many years, because I lived on the eastern side of the Wall, that is the division of Berlin,” Merkel told her fellow world leaders. “It is not isolation, the building of walls that make us successful, but open societies that share the same values.”
The ceremony was intended to highlight alliance unity. However, Trump spoke moments later and launched a rhetorical assault against NATO leaders who had yet to reach their individual defense budget commitments. He knew full well that Germany was the most prominent holdout. And without naming her, he seemed to jab Merkel’s refugee policy.
“You have thousands and thousands of people pouring into our various countries and spreading throughout, and in many cases, we have no idea who they are”
“You have thousands and thousands of people pouring into our various countries and spreading throughout, and in many cases, we have no idea who they are,” Trump said.
Some world leaders looked puzzled as Trump spoke. Emmanuel Macron, France’s new president, who was fresh from his victory over Trump-style populism, appeared amused. Merkel looked on stony-faced, visibly sighing several times.
Trump countered Merkel with a historical artifact of his own – a twisted piece of steel from the World Trade Center. He noted how NATO had for the first time in its history invoked the Article 5 principle of mutual self-defense in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. But he astonished virtually everyone in the room – including some on his own staff – by not re-affirming his commitment to that very principle.
In the United States, questions about the West’s place in the world – and whether Americans should police it – often seem distant and theoretical. To understand why Trump’s dismissals of alliances shook Merkel and other Europeans, you have to spend time on the continent where places such as Ypres, Normandy and Bastogne still echo with the great battles that shape its psyche and politics today.
When the Soviet Union finally fell in 1991 and the Cold War ended, it became vogue to talk of the end of history, to suggest that centuries of political tumult in Europe were over and a utopian period of peace, brotherhood and prosperity were about to unfold.
History never ends. The concept of the West is once again up for grabs as Trump tries to redefine its meaning.
But history never ends. And nearly 30 years later, the concept of the West is once again up for grabs as Trump tries to redefine its meaning.
I was reminded of this when I visited Europe during the spring and was immediately struck by the visceral politics rocking the continent and a deep sense of uncertainty about whether America would remain a stabilizing force.
The best way to see how the searing events of the 20th century and Europe’s compact geography delivered us to where we are today is to take a train. Climb aboard a Eurostar under the steel arches of St. Pancras station in London and history spools before your eyes like a movie.
Cutting south through the county of Kent, you race under blue skies where Royal Air Force and Luftwaffe pilots jousted in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, which changed the course of the war.
Soon, the train slopes into the Channel Tunnel, which will remain open after the UK leaves the European Union – a monument to a time when an island nation wanted to physically tie itself to the continent.
After zipping into the French sunshine, the train scuds across the battlefields of two World Wars. Now and then, an allied war cemetery flashes past, its white headstones arranged in neat rows. If you’re headed for Paris, you’ll cross lands fought over at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, which cost nearly 60,000 allied casualties on its first day alone. Head east and change trains in Brussels for Germany and you’ll go through Aachen, the first German city seized by allied troops in World War II after a battle that cost both American and German forces more than 5,000 casualties.
The carnage was so appalling that post-war leaders vowed the continent would never again be allowed to tear itself apart and plunge the world into war. That resolve led to the rise of institutions including NATO and the European Union. The US effort to rebuild Europe in its own democratic image, known as the Marshall Plan, will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year.
Nowhere is this history more resonant than in Berlin, a city divided in 1961 when the Communist East erected a wall that carved neighborhoods in two and imprisoned its own population.
Today, Berlin is a cosmopolitan capital still reveling in the freedom it was denied for so long. Most sections of the wall are long gone. Here and there though, pieces survive, daubed in colorful graffiti. An East German watchtower still stands on one side street, surveying explosive redevelopment where communism once reigned.
Berlin hasn’t forgotten the days when freedoms were stifled. In a drawer in my room near Potsdamer Platz, a kind of Times Square of Berlin, I found a thin blue pamphlet. It’s the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sitting in the drawer where the Gideon’s Bible would be found in an American hotel.
For an American president to sow doubt about the sustainability of the institutions that hold Europe together after so many bloody conflicts is deeply unnerving here. After all, the US-enforced international order of the last 70 years gave Europe the chance to prosper – and is one of America’s greatest foreign policy achievements.
If she wins and serves a full four-year term, Merkel would join Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer in the exclusive club of Germany’s most enduring post-war chancellors. When she had dinner with Obama in November, there was deep uncertainty about whether she would run. Merkel spent much of 2015 and 2016 reeling from criticism – at home and abroad – over her welcoming of refugees. That sparked a short-lived boost for a far-right party and coincided with a polling bump for her main rival, Martin Schulz.
Given the political shocks that swept away mainstream establishment leaders like British Prime Minister David Cameron, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, it seemed Merkel could be next.
That’s what makes Merkel’s strong position heading into the election so remarkable. Yes, she’s demonstrated admirable political acumen. But her public persona is also a uniquely good fit for Germany’s psychology. Her self-contained manner and abhorrence of fuss is key to her enduring appeal.
“She is never seen as too charismatic a leader, too ego-driven as a leader,” Jan Techau of the American Academy of Berlin told me. “People have not gotten tired of it. They do trust her – even the people who don’t like her don’t think they will be thrown under the bus by her.”
There’s also a reluctance among Germans to jeopardize their prosperity by shaking things up too much – especially given the tumult they’ve seen unfold in the US and UK.
“Germans do want choice, but it is unclear whether they want change”
“I think Germans do want choice, but it is unclear whether they want change,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a former senior aide to Germany’s recently retired president, told me.
When she announced her decision to run again, Merkel noted the political storms battering Europe, including the Euro crisis that she has been instrumental in managing, the issue of refugees and Brexit along with the instability created by political developments in the US and Russia.
At times during her current term, there were reasons to think she might have had enough of public life. She sometimes looked tired after years in the political spotlight and was perhaps wondering what life would be like if she joined her friend Obama on the outside.
Bernd Ulrich, a journalist who has covered Merkel since the earliest days of her political career and is now the political editor of Die Zeit, the big German weekly, told me that Merkel sometimes thought about retirement, which he called her “third life.” For the first third of her life, she was behind the Wall. For the next third, it was all politics. He said Merkel wants her third life to begin when she is young enough to enjoy it, perhaps indulging her childhood dream of traveling through the US.
She isn’t explicitly running for re-election as a German version of a Never Trumper. But she can’t ignore the American president, who is deeply unpopular here. Her opponents have castigated Trump, forcing her to be more outspoken than her trademark caution would typically allow.
“The times when we could completely count on others, they are over to a certain extent”
“The times when we could completely count on others, they are over to a certain extent,” she said at a political rally at a Munich beer hall a few days after her encounter with Trump at NATO. “I have experienced this in the last few days.”
She added: “We Europeans really must take our fate into our own hands.”
Her rhetoric has toughened more recently. After Trump appeared to find it difficult to swiftly condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Merkel seemed mystified.
“It is racist, far-right violence and clear, forceful action must be taken against it, regardless of where in the world it happens,” she said in an August interview with German broadcasters.
In the only debate of the campaign season, Schulz slammed Trump’s rhetoric and said the US President is making tensions with North Korea worse.
“The problem we have with Trump is that he is unpredictable,” Schulz said. “We never know when he will tweet next time.”
Merkel responded that Germany needed the US as a partner for peace.
“We need to do everything possible to get them on the right and sensible path,” she said.
The world’s eyes were on Merkel long before Trump took aim at the White House. Time dubbed her “Chancellor of the Free World” in 2015 even as Obama was still in office. She rarely embraces such grandiosity, partly owing to the troublesome historical allusions of dominant German leadership in Europe. And whatever their differences, it’s Trump who commands the American military that has kept Europe safe.
But Matthew Qvortrup, Merkel’s biographer, says Merkel may protest too much. He notes that Merkel has one picture in her Berlin office: Catherine the Great, the German born Czarina of Russia who is one of history’s most powerful women.
“She is almost by default the moral leader of the free world,” Qvortrup told me. “She doesn’t have nuclear weapons or the rest of it. But she is the one who is setting the political agenda. The spokesperson for the Zeitgeist. The Zeitgeist of the non alt-right.”
The months ahead promise to be rocky between Europe and Trump. The disconnect between Trump’s political instincts and those of European leaders such as Merkel aren’t going away.
The European Union is the kind of bureaucratic, occasionally politically correct institution that Trump built his career opposing. And while he isn’t the first US president – with some justification – to complain that Europe is not pulling its weight on defense, he is the first to seem steadfast in his resolve on the issue.
Still, Trump did commit himself to the ideals of the West and NATO’s Article Five during a major speech in Warsaw in July. Even then, however, many Europeans saw his nationalistic tone as antithetical to their values.
European leaders were dismayed that Trump refused their entreaties to stay in the Paris climate deal. If he follows through on warnings that he could ditch the Iran nuclear pact, he could cause a deep rupture in transatlantic ties. European officials are still working out who to talk to in Trump’s chaotic administration and they fear crucial foreign policy decisions are being dictated by the President’s own short-term political concerns. They are concerned about Trump’s ties to Russia and his criticism of Germany and other European powers on trade.
Europe may never be on the same page as Trump. Still, no leader here wants the US to turn its back on the West. That’s one reason why Macron has launched a charm offensive to try to keep Trump engaged.
The question senior officials in Europe are asking is whether Trump is an anomaly and America will reclaim its global leadership role once he has left office
The question senior officials in Europe are asking is whether Trump is an anomaly and America will reclaim its global leadership role once he has left office. If not, a New West may emerge, featuring a looser affiliation with the US.
Merkel and Trump will play a vital role in shaping whatever happens next.
“We need the contribution and the leadership of the United States,” said Roettgen, who is a key Merkel ally.
Ultimately, the battle for the West isn’t simply a Trump versus Merkel spat. Trump may rankle European leaders. He may even infuriate them on a regular basis. But he’s forcing a long overdue conversation about what exactly the US and Europe should expect of each other in the modern age. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. And it’s one that could decide whether the relationships and institutions that emerged from two world wars can survive long enough to prevent another one.
Illustrations by Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy