Theodor Fontane, the master of the nineteenth-German novel, published Before the Storm in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812-13 in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to join with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war.
As is well known, candidate Trump ran a controversial campaign, and as an outsider to the political system, he faced equally heated opposition from many quarters. His victory came as a surprise, as much in Germany as elsewhere, and when Merkel begrudgingly sent her congratulations, she wrapped them in a carefully worded message, intended to demonstrate her distance from Trump, in a way that is symptomatic of contemporary German political culture. Her message to the victorious candidate: “Germany and America are bound by common values — democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
At face value, the statement makes German cooperation with the United States conditional on the listed terms of shared values. At stake then is not, for example, security concerns that the United States and Germany might share—that is, the NATO question for which Trump would later face criticism for his seeming equivocation—but instead a transatlantic participation regarding, for example, “sexual orientation,” which Merkel even lists prior to “political views.”
Her representation of the German-American relationship has little to do with its actual historical development. One could parse Merkel’s statement further by noting that she invokes “dignity,” from the Basic Law, rather than the liberty of persons. Similarly her phrasing places freedom in second position, following on democracy, which designates the structure of the state, rather than opting for the reverse order, in which the democratic state would follow on individual freedom. That word order captures an aspect of the transatlantic divide.
Of course, one can hardly fault the German Chancellor for giving expression to a distinctly German political culture, and that culture, the constitution of German political life, is evidenced in the core message of the congratulatory note: conditioning the alliance on abstract principles rather than shared interests, an approach fully within a German idealist tradition.
Trump’s critics present him as having a transactional rather than a relational approach to politics, pursuing short-term advantage rather than building reciprocity and community. Yet his answer to Merkel, presented indirectly in his July 6, 2017 speech in Warsaw, had nothing to do with narrowly defined interests, although vital issues, particularly shared security concerns, were certainly crucial to his argument.
Rather, his account involved the importance of historical experience and its legacy for the present. Invoking the Polish past, especially Poland’s long struggles to achieve and maintain independence, he established the significance of national history, within the context of a broader western civilizational narrative. Where Trump’s critics caricature him as a businessman with only venal interests at stake, in contrast to high-minded principle, they misunderstand that he counters the high-handedness of Merkel’s idealist principles—George Washington might have treated them as Jeffersonian “speculation”—with history and an appeal to tradition against theory in the spirit of a Burkean conservatism.
Merkel’s statement establishes a principle of universal dignity, followed by a list of glosses and an emphasis on disregarding one’s place of “origin.” That erasure of nationality is consistent with her open-borders policy, which would ultimately lead to her disastrous electoral results.
The dismissiveness toward place of origin also reflects the aspiration to dissolve nation-state sovereignties into the European Union. Trump argues for the opposite: the individual freedom of the citizen and the sovereignty of the state depend on each other. Hence the need to resist external adversaries, genuine threats to the body politic, as well to maintain our internal capacities, our virtues.
“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe,” he said in Warsaw, “value individual freedom and sovereignty.” The sequence that lists individual freedom prior to sovereignty is crucial. He continues, “We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”
Trump’s liberal critics view passages like this, where he identifies an Islamist enemy and invokes national histories, as expressions of paranoia and racism. Yet his argument is very much in a Washingtonian tradition; he is concerned with the viability of the individual nation as well as the western community of nations, and he is anxious that partisanship and parochialism could enervate the capacity of the people. Thus Trump: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?”
Trump draws a connection between borders (meaning both immigration policy and defense against foreign invasion) and values; this pairing echoes Washington’s connection between the union, threatened by dissolution, and morality. Washington linked morality and religion. To this, Trump adds history and will. None of these terms, however, plays a role in Merkel’s message, especially not religion. Trump meanwhile invokes the memory of John Paul II’s visit to Warsaw in 1979, describing a scene in which the assembled crowd called out for God. The Pope’s message was not only the call for a freedom of religion against the Communist government but, more importantly, the recognition that religion can be foundational for freedom, national, and personal.
Contemporary Germany and the United States both belong to the taxonomy of modern liberal democracies. This intellectual-historical parsing of the statements by Merkel and Trump runs the risk of exaggerating the differences. Each of these two political systems should be understood with sufficient suppleness to account for the possibility of varying electoral outcomes or shifting governing coalitions. Yet even allowing for this regular sort of variation—the United States under Obama or Trump, Germany under Schröder or Merkel—these two liberal democracies display some deep variations in constitutional history, culture, and institutions.
Where the American tradition invokes the figure of the free individual and the priority of liberty, Germany pursues the rational state as the vehicle with which to realize a categorical imperative. The success of the former depends on the virtue of the citizen and hence the importance of religion; for the latter religion is, at best, a marginal function, and it relies instead on the virtue of the state bureaucracy.
Aside from his reference to external threats, Trump’s Warsaw address also warns that growing domestic bureaucracy can undermine the national will. While this concern is an expression of his characteristic libertarian populism, it also points to a basic asymmetry between the two models, German and American: it is nearly unimaginable that Germany or other European liberal democracies could develop significantly in directions that would prioritize liberty along American lines, but future American elections could very well steer emphatically toward a model of European statism.
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