A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

When Worlds Collide

US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stand for conflicting conceptions of the West.
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US President Trump’s understanding of the West, as sketched out in his Warsaw speech, is actually very Polish – or rather, PiS-ish. Meanwhile, Angela Merkel’s West is a place where people share certain fundamental political beliefs, including liberal democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality.

© REUTERS/Laszlo Balogh

Donald Trump’s recent visit to Poland and the G20 summit went better than expected. In Warsaw, Trump finally made the long-awaited and clear commitment to NATO’s mutual defense clause. There was no Russian reset, not to mention any great bargains between Russia and the United States. The US president actually urged Russia “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes.” Unlike on earlier occasions, he refrained from explicitly criticizing the EU. He even called the G20 summit “a wonderful success […] carried out beautifully by Chancellor Angela Merkel.” – no Germany-bashing via Twitter and no refused handshakes this time. The G20 leaders were even able to agree on a joint final communiqué, as vague as it may be, despite significant differences on climate change and trade policy. The worst did not come to the worst.

That this came as a great relief is in itself telling. Trump’s leadership has turned the US into a source of unprecedented uncertainty – and the American presidency into a loose cannon. Although Trump’s visit to Europe did not create any sort of actual transatlantic crisis, it has underlined that the German chancellor and the American president do not share a common view of international relations – or of what “the West” is.

In fact, their worldviews could not be further apart. Merkel champions multilateralism, free trade, and environmental protection (though she herself has been accused of a kind of “mercantilism”, particularly in the context of eurozone). Trump, whose slogan is “America First,” sees the world as “an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage” and has already withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. Whereas Merkel believes that international cooperation leads to mutual benefits and win-win-situations for all participants, Trump sees it as a zero-sum game where only relative gains matter. For Berlin, international institutions are linchpins of global diplomacy, for the Trump White House, they merely serve as tools for power projection.

Yes, Trump promised to preserve America’s post-Cold War alliances and promised that “the West will never, ever be broken.” He mentioned the rule of law and the right to free speech and free expression as defining Western values. But while President Barack Obama had expressed his concern vis-à-vis the PiS government’s crackdown on the independence of the judiciary and on journalists, President Trump had nothing but praise for the current Polish administration.

Trump’s understanding of the West is actually very Polish – or rather, PiS-ish. The PiS, like Trump, came to power by promising to fight the liberal, globalist ruling classes who are supposedly aiming at transforming their societies “toward a mixture of cultures and races, a world of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy sources and combat all forms of religion” – as the Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski put it in an interview with the German tabloid Bild in January 2016. “Making America great again” sounds like the PiS promises of “Rising from one’s knees.” Both Trump and the PiS leadership are convinced that the Western civilization is at risk of decline, under threat from “radical Islamic terrorism” and the “steady creep of government bureaucracy,” as the US president declared in Warsaw. And, most importantly, both think that at the heart of the Western civilization lay “the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are.”

Herein lies the major difference between Trump’s and Merkel’s concepts of the West: when Trump speaks of the “Western civilization” he implicitly means the “culture, faith, and tradition” of white people in Europe and North America. When Merkel states that “Germany and America are bound by values – democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views”, she understands the West not in cultural, religious, or historical, not to mention ethno-nationalist terms. Merkel’s understanding is universal. Her West is a place where people share certain fundamental political beliefs, including liberal democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality. While Trump (and the PiS) define the West geographically and want to pull up the drawbridges, Merkel’s West knows no geographical, only political bounds.

Trump’s Warsaw speech might have been meant as “an apologia for the West,” as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page put it, where the president took “a clear stand against the kind of gauzy globalism and vague multiculturalism represented by the worldview of, say, Barack Obama and most contemporary Western intellectuals.” If so, he also took a clear stand against Merkel – and much of what the West has been standing for.

NB. This article was originally published by the WiseEurope blog.