His body lan­guage dur­ing meet­ing with Merkel sent all the wrong sig­nals

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is a New York-based jour­nal­ist with ex­ten­sive writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence on for­eign af­fairs, diplo­macy global eco­nomics and in­ter­na­tional trade

PROB­A­BLY, the hang­over of his brash, over­bear­ing “You are fired” cor­po­rate de­meanour char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally seen in the tele­vi­sion show The Ap­pren­tice seemed to get the bet­ter of United States Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, as he ap­peared with his guest, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, be­fore the hordes of jour­nal­ists and pho­tog­ra­phers on Fri­day in Wash­ing­ton.

True, he is the chief ex­ec­u­tive-cum-com­man­der-in-chief of the world’s most pow­er­ful na­tion, but the US is not a cor­po­ra­tion. It is — still — the world’s only su­per­power with com­plex global re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, and Trump needs to talk and act in a “pres­i­den­tial” man­ner.

Im­ages of Trump’s body lan­guage vis-à-vis Merkel dur­ing the photo op­por­tu­nity with press pho­tog­ra­phers and also at the press con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, sent all the wrong sig­nals about the re­la­tions be­tween Ger­many and the US, which have been staunch North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­i­sa­tion (Nato) al­lies since World War 2.

The transat­lantic mil­i­tary al­liance not only pro­vided a strong de­ter­rence against the ag­gres­sive de­signs of the for­mer Soviet Union dur­ing the Cold War but also contributed to the col­lapse of the Soviet em­pire and the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of the once-di­vided Ger­man na­tion.

Ger­many hap­pens to be, by far, the strong­est na­tion in Europe, thanks to its sheer eco­nomic strength and, in­creas­ingly, po­lit­i­cal power. Trump can­not sim­ply ig­nore or show dis­re­spect to the Ger­man leader, whose coun­try has stood by America in ma­jor crises around the world, in­clud­ing in Afghanistan where Ger­man sol­diers sac­ri­ficed their lives serv­ing Nato.

While it is one thing to be abra­sively crit­i­cal dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign against Merkel’s de­ci­sion to ad­mit more than a mil­lion — mostly Mus­lim — refugees into Ger­many, and call the de­ci­sion a “cat­a­strophic mis­take”, Trump should have re­paired re­la­tions by be­ing more states­man­like in his in­ter­ac­tion with Merkel who had come to Wash­ing­ton, after all, to get to know the new US Pres­i­dent and re­move any mis­un­der­stand­ings.

After the two lead­ers met pri­vately in the Oval Of­fice, press pho­tog­ra­phers and videog­ra­phers were al­lowed to en­ter, and they cap­tured an awk­ward in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the two.

In one clip, pho­tog­ra­phers were heard ask­ing both the lead­ers to shake hands. Trump not only ig­nored them, but also ig­nored Merkel when she leaned over to ask him if he wanted to shake hands; how­ever, it is un­clear whether he heard her at all.

The hand­shake snub to Merkel at the Oval Of­fice be­fore press pho­tog­ra­phers con­trasted sharply with Trump’s long and vig­or­ous hand­shakes with other world lead­ers, in­clud­ing Cana­dian Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau at the White House or with Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe dur­ing a photo op. In­deed, the Trump-Abe hand­shake lasted 19 sec­onds!

But that was not all. At the in­fa­mous press con­fer­ence, Trump made the out-of-place and un­proven al­le­ga­tion that, like Merkel, he, too, had been wire­tapped by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Merkel’s face showed ut­ter be­wil­der­ment, with Trump cit­ing this as “some­thing in com­mon (with Merkel) per­haps”.

No mat­ter how hard they tried to play down their dif­fer­ences on trade, Rus­sia, immigration, etc, the body lan­guage be­tween Trump and Merkel lacked warmth.

How­ever, Merkel did not shy away from tak­ing a gentle swipe at Trump when she said it was bet­ter to speak to each other than about each other, re­fer­ring, ap­par­ently, to Trump’s crit­i­cism of her immigration pol­icy dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.

Dur­ing the press con­fer­ence, Trump also called on Merkel to meet Nato’s mil­i­tary spend­ing tar­get, and Merkel re­it­er­ated her coun­try's com­mit­ment to the goal of al­lo­cat­ing two per cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct on de­fence. Trump had called on Nato al­lies to pay their “fair share” of the de­fence costs, adding that many owed “vast sums” of money from past years and this was “very un­fair” to the US.

Only five Nato na­tions cur­rently meet the goal of two per cent of GDP: the US, Bri­tain, Greece, Poland and Es­to­nia. Fac­ing in­creas­ing US pressure, the al­liance fi­nally in­creased its over­all bud­get for the first time in two decades.

Twenty-two Nato mem­bers ear­marked more money for mil­i­tary costs last year. But mem­bers Canada, Slove­nia, Bel­gium, Spain and Lux­em­bourg still spend less than one per cent of their GDP on de­fence.

Trump, tak­ing aim at Merkel’s “open-door” pol­icy to refugees en­ter­ing Ger­many, said at the press con­fer­ence that immigration was a priv­i­lege, not a right. He has sought through ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to tem­po­rar­ily ban peo­ple from six Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries from en­ter­ing the US, caus­ing an up­roar do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally among crit­ics. Merkel has also emerged as one of the lead­ing voices in Europe op­pos­ing Trump’s travel ban.

Nev­er­the­less, Merkel, who had close re­la­tions with Trump’s pre­de­ces­sors, Barack Obama and Ge­orge W. Bush, also seeks a strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Trump, de­spite ma­jor pol­icy dif­fer­ences and wari­ness in Ger­many about the for­mer New York busi­ness­man.

While Merkel would like to see the US and the Euro­pean Union re­sume dis­cus­sions on a trade agree­ment — the Transat­lantic Trade and In­vest­ment Part­ner­ship — Trump stressed he did not be­lieve in iso­la­tion­ism but that trade pol­icy should be fairer.

Be that as it may, it is now im­por­tant for Trump to avoid dam­ag­ing re­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly with friends and al­lies. Re­la­tion­ships are as frag­ile as a vase; once bro­ken, the vase can be glued to­gether but it is un­likely that the cracks will com­pletely dis­ap­pear.

How­ever, Merkel did not shy away from tak­ing a gentle swipe at Trump when she said it was bet­ter to speak to each other than about each other, re­fer­ring, ap­par­ently, to Trump’s crit­i­cism of her immigration pol­icy dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign.


Pho­tog­ra­phers cap­tured a gauche mo­ment be­tween Don­ald

Trump and An­gela Merkel at the Oval Of­fice on Fri­day.

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