But no policy has generated more hostility than the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement. “The president, in this instance, gave [priority] to his domestic agenda over the ambition to display American leadership on the international stage,” Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the United States, told me in an interview this summer. In Europe, “there’s a fear out there that America is wittingly or willingly embarking on a tectonic shift in our configuration in the world by leaving a vacuum, by tolerating a vacuum” wherein China is “posing as the standard-bearer of free trade, posing as the greatest protector of the global climate.”
And yet while China is now Germany’s largest trading partner and a top ally in combating climate change, it is “not a like-minded partner” in that it does not share Germany’s values, Wittig noted. Germans “are fully aware that we cannot and don’t want to” substitute the U.S. alliance for an alliance with China, the ambassador explained. “There is no alternative to the transatlantic relationship for us.”
As for whether the current occupant of the White House is bound to these values, “many people in Germany … would doubt that—whether the leadership of [the United States] still shares entirely the same values,” Wittig said. But he himself “wouldn’t go that far,” because those values—liberal democracy, rule of law, human rights—are “part and parcel” of American society. (It’s a lesson to the world “when the acting attorney general, being a member of the executive, appoints a special investigator who potentially investigates against the president,” Wittig told me. “If that is not a constitutional strength, [along with] checks and balances, I don’t know what is. This is, in a way, a model of a rule-of-law country.”)
Just as German leaders aren’t prepared to cut loose the United States, they’re also unwilling to embrace the role that some critics of Trump’s America have assigned to the country: that of the new “leader of the free world.” When I asked Puglierin whether the title was appropriate, she laughed. “I mean, with which army?” she asked. Merkel has vowed to gradually meet a NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product on defense. But she’ll likely encounter great resistance in reaching that goal—both because of Germans’ post-World War II aversion to military buildups and the use of force to resolve conflict, and because many Germans don’t want to comply with a demand they feel is coming not from NATO but from a money-grubbing American president.
Merkel has repeatedly defended values associated with the “free world,” inserted her government into international efforts to address climate change and curb nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, and led the response to Europe’s debt and refugee crises. But Germany is “not aspiring to be a global power,” Wittig insisted. It is, rather, a “medium-sized power” and a “leading power in Europe.”