On Wednesday, at around the time that news outlets were reporting that President Donald Trump had decided to pull America out of the Paris climate accord, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was at the Berlin airport, greeting Premier Li Keqiang, of China. As their national anthems played, Li and Merkel stood on a red carpet that had been cut to look like a giant arrow. It seemed to point definitively away from Trump. There was a connection between the two moments that was more than symbolic. China has made it clear that, with America’s abdication, it sees Paris as a vehicle for its efforts to assert itself as a leader of the international community. (Whether this means that it would also make sure that carbon emissions fell is another matter.) And Merkel, during the past few days, seemed to have had it with Trump, in some significant measure because of his flashy contempt for the climate deal and for his fellow world leaders.
That contempt was well on display on Thursday afternoon, when Trump confirmed America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In his remarks, delivered in the Rose Garden, Trump attacked not only the terms of the deal but also the goodwill of those who argued for it. He spoke like a man unravelling a conspiracy or a con job. The climate accord had been pushed by America’s economic rivals, whose real reason for wanting us to stay in was “so that we continue to suffer this self-inflicted major economic wound,” and by “global activists that have long sought to gain wealth at our country’s expense.” Paris was just a “scheme to redistribute wealth outside of the United States.” Only Trump really cared about the environment, and he would get a much better deal for it.
The only question now is how far away from America Merkel’s frustration leads the Chancellor, her country, and her continent. It’s not that she hasn’t tried; she even invited Ivanka Trump to Berlin, flattering her all the way. Last week, as Merkel endured Trump’s company at NATO and G7 meetings in Belgium and Italy—along with his boasts about the “unbelievable chemistry” that the two of them supposedly shared—she and the other leaders present made time to talk to him about the importance of protecting what had been gained for the planet in Paris. She said, later, at a press conference in Taormina, Italy, at the close of the G7, that, of all the points raised at the conferences, one that was “very difficult, not to say very dissatisfying, was the entire conversation on the subject of climate change.” That is, one person, representing one country, had dissatisfied her: “Here you have a situation in which six—if you count the European Union, seven—stand as one. And no one has any idea whether the United States is even going to stay in the Paris accords.” Indeed, one of the many ways in which Trump seems to have thoroughly annoyed his European counterparts is with his manufactured drama around the announcement of the Paris decision. After all, there wasn’t much mystery, given that Trump had put an end to American efforts to comply with Paris, back in March, when he issued an executive order discarding, among other things, President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The other world leaders just wanted to know if Trump would at least pretend to respect the pact and, perhaps, the idea that international pacts have value. They had all travelled to Belgium and Italy precisely so that important matters could be shared. Couldn’t he just tell them? But, perhaps, that would have given them a chance to tell Trump to his face that it was not, as he claimed again in his remarks on Thursday, “a very, very successful trip. Believe me.”
One explanation for Trump’s mishandling of the Europeans is that he is unwilling to accept that there are powerful people in the world who do not think that climate change is a joke, or a hoax, or something to just prattle about to naïve voters. Merkel, at her press conference, said, “This Paris climate accord is not just some accord or the other. It is a central accord in defining the contours of globalization.” She added, “I believe that the issue of Paris is so important that one simply can’t compromise on it.” But Merkel’s concerns may only matter to Trump if he sees it as an opportunity for bullying, or as ammunition in the trade war he seems ready to Twitter-start—or maybe just as a chance to get back at her for what she had said the day after arriving back in Germany from the G7, under a tent at a campaign beer rally in Bavaria.
The rally was in support of candidates for the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union) ahead of the parliamentary elections in September, so Merkel spent a good deal of time on ordinary political concerns: the rent in Munich, taxes on medium-sized businesses, shout-outs to various allies (“our friends in Schleswig-Holstein!”). But she also talked about how her recent travels had reminded her “what a treasure Europe is,” and how a strong Germany relied, for example, on a strong France. As the crowd applauded, Merkel paused to adjust the two microphones in front of her and then moved to the toughest part of her remarks—the words that, it seemed, she had really come there to say.
“The time in which we could fully rely on others is a bit in the past,” Merkel said. “I have experienced that in the past several days. And, because of that, I can say now that we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands—naturally, in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain, as good neighbors wherever that may work, with Russia and other countries.” It was striking that America was just another name on the list. Merkel continued, “But we must understand that we must fight for our future, as Europeans, for our own fate—and that I will gladly do with you.” The “you” there was the Germans in the tent.
Earlier in the speech, Merkel had emphasized that “we’re working for the people in Germany.” That included upholding values such as freedom of expression and religious tolerance, and being ready to help refugees—although she said that, since the refugee crisis of 2015, “we’ve tightened things up.” But it also meant focussing specifically on German dreams. On this, she was speaking to the German mainstream. Her opponent in the September elections, Martin Schulz, the leader of the more left-of-center Social Democratic Party, gave a speech at a Party gathering in a far less measured tone, in which he directly called Trump’s treatment of “our Chancellor” unacceptable, indeed unbearable. He later called Trump “a destroyer of all Western values such as we have never before experienced in this form.”
For many Europeans, and for people on many continents, addressing climate change speaks to the most fundamental of values. Trump spent so much time congratulating himself on his “historic” trip that he may have been surprised by the reaction of Merkel and others. He may not have thought that it was very nice. After Merkel’s beer-tent speech, he tweeted, “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.” Something will change. After Trump’s sour, shrill withdrawal from Paris, though, Merkel isn’t likely to be the one who is alone. The day before Li came to visit her in Berlin, Merkel had welcomed the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Merkel is a busy woman.