Notice second the conditional quality of Merkel’s congratulation. Future cooperation with the United States government will be “based on these values,” opening the possibility that a deviation from such values will abridge or terminate cooperation.
Notice finally who will be judging whom. The “offer” functions as an implied threat: If Donald Trump fails to meet the values-standard defined and assessed by Angela Merkel, the “offer” will be withdrawn.
It’s quite a thing for a German chancellor to impose conditions on the U.S.-Germany relationship. During the Cold War, West Germany depended on the United States for security against the Soviet Union. In the fateful years 1989-1991, American policy enabled German reunification despite the qualms of other close U.S. allies, France and Britain. (A Frenchman, Francois Mauriac, is credited with the quip, “I love Germany so much, I am glad there are two of them.”) But since 1991, Germany has not needed the United States so much—and Germans have felt freer to express old resentments of their former protector.
It was fashionable a decade ago to blame the weakening of the German-U.S. alliance on George W. Bush. Yet even under Barack Obama, personally so popular in Germany, the German-U.S. relationship has not recovered its former closeness. Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation that the National Security Agency had listed Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone number in a database triggered a spasm of outrage among German political elites. In June 2014, Germany took the unprecedented step of expelling the senior U.S. intelligence official in Berlin, even announcing the decision on Twitter.
Never mind that it remains unclear whether anyone actually listened to Merkel’s calls. Never mind that the ensuing German investigation compromised more high-level secrets than had ever been at risk in Merkel’s calls. Never mind that it emerged in 2014 that German intelligence had scooped up a call from Hillary Clinton’s phone.
Under Barack Obama as under his predecessor, the two countries have drifted apart for reasons bigger than personality or policy. Barack Obama’s claim at his November 14 press conference that he worked more closely with Angela Merkel than with any other foreign leader seems intended less as a description of reality than as a flattering final appeal to Germans to sustain the battered old partnership. On issues from the defense of Ukraine against Russian invasion to the right way to accelerate European economic growth, Obama and Merkel have disagreed more than they have agreed. Obama’s Syrian policy has accelerated the Middle Eastern migration flow that has ripped the European Union and smashed German political consensus.
Yet even in the face of all these strains and difficulties, German friends of the United States have retained one clinching argument and decisive asset on their side of the debate: a wide and deep public intuition that people highly critical of the United States were probably animated by extremist and illiberal ideas. So long as the Germans most hostile to the U.S. alliance espoused various shades of fascism and communism, then the mighty German middle would cling determinedly to the U.S. alliance as a bulwark of stability and liberalism.