No one likes a bully
The short version
The president-elect is not making himself popular among our European allies. He has criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel, called NATO outdated, and threatened the German auto industry with a 35% tariff. Europe is not responding positively to such aggression and is making it well known that they have every intention of standing up and not taking any bullying from the president-elect once he’s in office. The rhetoric is getting tense.
The actual offense
This whole mess started over the weekend when the Great Orange president-elect criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her country’s acceptance of a large number of refugees from Syria and other countries. His remarks were part of an interview with the Times of London that appeared in Sunday’s edition. In that interview, the president-elect said, the European Union had become “a vehicle for Germany” and predicted other countries would leave the EU. He also criticized Ms. Merkel specifically, saying, “I think she made one very catastrophic mistake, and that was taking all of these illegals … And nobody even knows where they come from. So I think she made a catastrophic mistake, very bad mistake.”
That one would be bad enough. Germany is a critical ally in Europe, both economically and in terms of defense. Unfortunately, the president-elect wasn’t done.
The Great Orange told German newspaper BILD that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is obsolete. He said, “It’s obsolete, first because it was designed many, many years ago. Secondly, countries aren’t paying what they should.” He also said NATO didn’t deal with terrorism.
Finally, there was this gem, again published in BILD: “If you want to build cars in the world, then I wish you all the best. You can build cars for the United States, but for every car that comes to the USA, you will pay 35 percent tax,” the president-elect said. “I would tell BMW that if you are building a factory in Mexico and plan to sell cars to the USA, without a 35 percent tax, then you can forget that.”
Understandably, no one in Europe is taking the president-elect’s words too kindly, especially the Germans. I’ve heard a lot of German over the past 34 years and I heard some words yesterday I’ve not heard before. If the president wanted to make enemies of our closest allies, he’s doing a very good job. Europe understands what happens when bullies are allowed to have their way. They fought that war long before we got into it. They’re not keen on letting it happen again.
Francoise Holland, President of France, plans to hold the Great Orange accountable. He told CNN: “[Europe] has no need for outside advice to tell it what it has to do. I thought, frankly, it was inappropriate for a president-elect of the United States to be stepping into the politics of other countries in a quite direct manner. He’ll have to speak for that. As of Friday, he’s responsible for that relationship.”
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Foreign Minister spoke to the anxiety among NATO members: “I’ve spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but NATO foreign ministers as well and can report that the signals are that there’s been no easing of tensions.”
As to the whole auto tariff thing, Matthias Wissmann, the president of Germany’s VDA automotive association, said, “In the long term, the United States would be shooting itself in the foot by imposing tariffs or other trade barriers.” He noted that German carmakers have quadrupled light vehicle production in the United States over the past seven years to 850,000 units, more than half of which are exported outside the US.
German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that rather than trying to penalize German carmakers, the United States should instead respond by building better and more desirable cars.
Evercore ISI analysts said: “It is surprising that Trump singles out the carmaker that exports more vehicles from the United States than any other manufacturer.”
What happens next?
Of course, no one can predict the future, but the president-elect’s words are extremely inflammatory and sound dramatically protectionist. If he continues this level of rhetoric as president, a couple of things are likely to happen.
First, he’s going to find other world leaders resistant to anything he proposes, no matter what it is. He now has a reputation as a bully and no one trusts a bully to be true to their word. As president, he and his Secretary of State will have to work hard to win back that trust if they want any cooperation from our allies at any level.
Second, equally crippling tariffs could come from the EU and other countries, such as Mexico. The US imports more than it exports, which is already an economic problem. World leaders have historically gone tit for tat any time the US threatens or imposes tariffs. Don’t expect this round to be any different. Unfortunately, higher tariffs hurt Americans as they force prices higher on many every-day goods.
The alliances formed during and after World War II are strong and no one is likely to completely walk out on the US just yet. However, our allies will not allow themselves to be bullied.