What to make of the Trump-Merkel dispute?

To those who have it in for our president, it’s obvious what to make of it — President Trump’s bluster and ignorance have alienated one of America’s most important allies and, in the words of the Washington Post, “sent tremors through Washington’s core postwar alliances.” But is the war of words really Trump’s fault? I don’t think so.

One issue of contention is Germany’s unwillingness to meet its financial commitment to NATO. Trump is entirely right to insist that Germany do so. One can understand if a struggling country in Eastern Europe, say, comes up a little short of its obligation. But for an economic powerhouse like Germany to come up short is unconscionable.

A second issue centers on President Trump’s unwillingness to go along with the Paris climate change agreement. Though the administration apparently has not made a final decision, Trump failed to embrace “Paris” and there’s a good chance he will reject the agreement.

Trump has every right to reject. President Obama declined to submit the agreement for Senate ratification because he knew he lacked the votes. Thus, it’s not a treaty, and the president can pull out at will.

Merkel supports the agreement and naturally is disappointed that Trump apparently does not. But a good faith disagreement about the merits of a climate change agreement shouldn’t be enough to undermine a longstanding agreement aimed at preserving the security of Europe. Merkel seems to be pouting.

Moreover, Trump has good reasons to want American to be free from “Paris,” as he promised we would be during the presidential campaign. Richard Epstein presents some of these reasons here.

A third issue of contention is trade. In a tweet that has prompted strong criticism, Trump said:

We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.

I should note that this tweet followed Merkel’s petulant statement over the weekend that, going forward, Europe will need to rely on itself rather than its friends. Europe should, indeed, rely mostly on itself. However, the implication that the U.S. no longer can be counted on was a shot at Trump. The president fired back.

As for the substance of Trump’s trade comment, it has merit. Support comes from the Washington Post, of all places.

Our trade deficit with Germany is, in fact, massive. Germany maintained a $69 billion trade surplus with the U.S. in 2016 — reflecting $49.4 billion in U.S. exports to Germany and $114.2 billion imports from Germany.

Moreover, the Post’s Ana Swanson finds merit in the view that “questionable policies the Germany government has promoted during years of economic unrest on the continent” have contributed to the trade deficit. She notes that the Obama administration chided Germany for a fiscal policy that suppresses consumer demand, thus discouraging imports. Moreover, Germany takes advantage of the fact that the euro is valued far less than any Germany currency would likely be on its own, says Swanson.

It’s natural that Merkel wants to keep German defense spending low, maintain its trade advantages, and have the U.S. embrace a climate change treaty she likes but that, in the view of many including Trump, is disadvantageous to America. But she has no valid complaint when Trump pushes back.

Merkel probably understands this. Why, then, is she at loggerheads with Trump?

Perhaps she simply detests the man, as so many European (and American) elitists do. Or maybe it’s for domestic consumption. Merkel’s popularity in Germany isn’t what it once was in part because of her extravagant refugee policy. Picking a fight with Trump makes her look tough and gives vent to what likely is the predominant view of the American president in Germany.

It’s fine, within limits, for Merkel to play to her audience. But Americans shouldn’t be fooled into believing that Germany has legitimate and important grievances against Trump.

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