By Javier Solana
Germany and China are chief among the countries whose economic policies have drawn US President Donald Trump’s ire. While the United States has the largest current-account deficit in the world, Germany and China are running the largest surpluses, and that irritates Trump and his advisers to no end.
Trump’s top trade adviser, Peter Navarro, insists that China is suppressing the value of its currency, the renminbi. More surprisingly, Navarro has also accused Germany, an American ally, of “exploiting” the US and its European partners through an undervalued euro. Most economists agree that Navarro’s accusations are largely unfounded. Trump himself has flip-flopped on these issues, contradicting Navarro on occasion, even as he remains openly suspicious of US trade partners’ policies generally.
Since Trump was elected last year, Germany and China have also been chief among the countries expected to supplant US global leadership. But Germany and China are profoundly different, and there is no consensus on whether either country can or will fill America’s shoes.
In a case of curious timing, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping are approaching domestic political events that are widely expected to solidify their leadership positions in the coming years. In Germany, Merkel is favored to win a fourth term as chancellor in the upcoming federal election on September 24. A victory will put her on track to match Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in office – a tenure exceeded only by Otto von Bismarck.
Campaign-season debates in Germany have centered on Merkel’s “open doors” policy in response to the refugee crisis in 2015. Merkel’s welcoming of refugees has exposed her to ferocious attacks – including from Trump himself – and energized the German far right, which, through the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, will probably elect representatives to the Bundestag for the first time since World War II.
Fortunately for Merkel, her relentless defense of humanitarian values does not seem to have cost her much support among those who voted for her previously. She and her party, the Christian Democratic Union, experienced a backlash in polls and state elections after the summer of 2015, but that storm has blown over. In fact, Merkel’s refugee policy has actually reinforced her popularity among younger voters.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defined the US as the “indispensable nation.” Now, almost 20 years later, The Economist magazine has deemed Merkel the “indispensable European.” But as Merkel herself has warned, it would be “grotesque and absurd” to expect that she could carry the standard of liberal internationalism.
Germany, owing to its history, is a leading role on the world stage. But at the European level, Merkel can and should use a fourth term to establish an international legacy that measures up to her political stature. With the election behind her, and with a potential partner in French President Emmanuel Macron, she will have a prime opportunity to pursue measures to rebalance and strengthen the European Union.