Bruno Maçães, a former Europe minister for Portugal, is a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. His book The Dawn of Eurasia will be published by Yale University Press on August 7.
The German chancellor seems to be leaning over the American president, poised in rightful indignation. Trump looks up in a mixture of nonchalance and distraction. The photo immediately became a powerful symbol of the ghosts haunting the trans-Atlantic relationship since Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton on that extraordinary night in November 2016.
Other photos taken at the same time but from different angles told a different story, and photos of this kind are always misleading. They suffer from a surplus of what Walter Benjamin called aura. Banal moments for those sitting in the room acquire deep historical meaning. In this case, Merkel was hardly leading the group of European leaders trying to confront Trump. Macron had the floor, so to speak, and he was trying to convince a skeptical — or confused, if you prefer — American president to accept a reference in the final G-7 communiqué to the “rules-based international order,” an academic term that has acquired enormous power in European public discourse.
And yet, for all that, the photo captured something important. Merkel was standing up for the idea that rules matter in international affairs. Trump resisted because he believes, not without reason, that the great advantage of being strong is the ability to break the rules. The compromise rehearsed in Quebec — after Trump proclaimed that he wants to change, not to affirm, the rules — was to speak of “a rules-based order,” rather than “the rules-based order.” The differences were down to a grammatical nicety and an agreement was tantalizingly close, but Trump wanted the change to be presented as his personal victory, and that the Europeans and Canadians could not quite accept.
At the NATO summit this week, Trump made it personal. Interestingly, he attacked Germany for the very sin German politicians used to blame Greece for during the eurozone crisis: moral hazard. If Germany had to pay for its own defense, the Germans would be more careful about boosting the Russian defense budget with revenue from its oil and gas imports. But since they don’t pay enough, they behave recklessly.