On the invitation of Germany’s chancellor, America’s “First Daughter” Ivanka Trump stopped over in Berlin this week for the W20 summit on women’s economic empowerment, part of Germany’s G20 presidency this year. They may have made an odd couple, but Merkel arranged the event for a reason.
Say what you will about Angela Merkel but, even nearing the end of her third term in office she remains a wily operator.
A year after taking office in 2005, she restarted stalled German-US relations by inviting US President George W. Bush to a Texas-style barbecue in her north German constituency. A week later, he was giving her unsolicited massages in public.
Some 12 years later, and barely three months after the inauguration of another controversial US president, Merkel has pulled off a soft diplomacy coup. The way to get to Donald Trump, the German leader has realized, is twofold: through his vanity and through his beloved daughter, Ivanka.
And so, on Tuesday, Merkel shared a public panel with the unelected 35-year-old so-called First Daughter to discuss efforts to boost women’s participation in the workplace and the entrepreneurial world.
So far so laudable. But Merkel was up to something else entirely: elevating Ms Trump into the company of women who ooze the achievement and status that the Trumps crave. And the young woman blossomed in the company of IMF chief Christine Lagarde, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, and Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland.
By making the ex-model and business woman look good Merkel hopes she has built up good will with her equally status-conscious father. And not a moment too soon, after the billionaire’s campaign broadsides against her “catastrophic” refugee policy, German EU dominance, and NATO hand-sitting.
Perhaps more than most world leaders, Merkel needs to get on Trump’s good side. His attacks on free trade and warnings of new protectionist policies has given fright to Germany’s massive manufacturing and exporting industries, from machines to cars. Last month’s occasionally bizarre White House meeting did little to calm fears but it did yield an invitation, gratefully accepted by Ivanka Trump.
The sight of her beside the German chancellor was odd, though the event took an even odder turn when Merkel was asked a simple question: “Are you a feminist?”
It was a moment of torment for the German leader for two reasons. She hates being pinned down in public and, since taking office in 2005, has been attacked by women for not doing more to advance gender equality. Flailing about onstage, unable to say whether or not she was a feminist, the German chancellor eventually gave a tortuous answer.
“To be honest the history of feminism is one with which I have common ground but also differences,” she said, adding that she didn’t want to “embellish” herself with a title hard-own by other, full-time feminist campaigners.
As Germany’s first women leader dug herself in further and further, it fell a fellow panelist, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands, to rescue her. “I just want that all women have freedom of choice and opportunities, that they can grab and be happy and proud of themselves,” said the Dutch queen. “If that is a feminist, I am a feminist.”
A grateful Merkel grabbed that lifeline, adding: “Then I am one, too.”
Ivanka Trump was in no doubt that she was a feminist, though she attracted groans for defending her father, who attracted ire for misogynist remarks. Those horrified millions of women around the world but, for Ms Trump, they were “criticism from the media … that has been perpetuated”. For her part she saw herself and thousands of women on the Trump payroll as “testament” to her father’s “belief and solid conviction in the potential of women and their ability to do the job as well as any man”.
Despite some jeering, the Berlin audience largely behave and some were largely impressed at this very different Trump tone. Merkel is no doubt hopeful that her invitation will yield dividends in Washington. After all Merkel knows a thing or two about stepping into public life in the shadow of an out-sized male figure. It took her a decade to liberate herself from her humiliating apprenticeship as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “Mädchen.”
By extending a hand to a grateful Ivanka Trump, the German leader has – with a two-hour time investment – good reason to hope for a notable improvement in relations when Donald Trump attends July’s G20 summit in Hamburg. Perhaps she’ll even throw him a barbecue.