As U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Berlin for a farewell visit on Wednesday, German policymakers were scrambling to develop a road map for dealing with the presidency of his successor, Donald Trump. Last week, in a congratulatory note to the president-elect, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gently conditioned Germany's future cooperation with the United States on both countries’ adherence to a set of shared values: “democracy, freedom, [and] respect for the law and dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs.” It was a remarkable role reversal, and one that may set the tone for the relationship between Berlin and Washington in the years ahead: the leader of a country that owes its democracy to U.S. intervention was compelled to remind a U.S. president-elect of the fundamental principles of liberal government.
Some commentators have already declared Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” in light of Trump's apparent unwillingness to fill a role traditionally occupied by the president of the United States. The characterization is fanciful. It is true that of the dominoes of liberal democracy still standing, Germany appears one of the most stable. But Trump's election and the prospect of U.S. retrenchment that it has raised are ill-timed. Berlin is struggling to manage the political fallout from the refugee crisis and deal with the rise of Germany’s right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The European Union has also come under unprecedented strain, thanks to the United Kingdom's vote to leave the EU, or Brexit; the unresolved problems in southern eurozone economies; and the political successes of the continent’s right-wing populists, who have taken power in Hungary and Poland and may soon do so in Austria and France.
In the coming years, it will be difficult enough for Germany to stem the populist tide within its borders while helping to stabilize the rest of Europe. Dealing with those issues will leave Berlin bandwidth to lead the international liberal order. At best, Germany can engage in damage control, seeking to protect Western alliances and global institutions from the potential harms of Trump’s presidency.
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