A few weeks ago, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel took the remarkable step of publishing a photograph of herself and Donald Trump at the meeting of the G7 in Montreal. The image, that has been widely published and commented on around the world, is significant on at least four levels.
In the first place the fact that such a photograph would be released at all shows how bad the relationships between the German Chancellor and the President has become. I am told that pictures taken at high level political meetings such as this are simply not published, ever. The photograph that is normally released is the well structured group photo taken at all such events showing well dressed men and women sharing mutual respect and a sense of purpose.
By publishing the picture, Ms. Merkel appears to want the wider world to know how intractable Trump is being and how isolated he actually is. She also may have declared the equivalent of a public relations war with the White House.
The second thing which struct me by the picture is the near universal reaction that it gets from Europeans and American Democrats. I have been showing the picture in the speeches on geo-politics I have been doing for the IESE Alumni Association in different cities across Europe and the reaction is always the same.
The photograph makes people laugh in a nervous way and what everyone appears to see is what I imagine the Chancellor wanted to show. What people see is that Trump appears to be out of his depth as Emmanuel Macron, the French President and Ms. Merkel try to explain to him how the world actually works. The nervous laughter comes out a certain sense of dread that the U.S. might actually implement a round of tariff increases and cause a trade war which might slow down the world’s economic recovery or even roll back some of the progress that globalisation has made over the last 20-30 years.
The third thing which struck me is that in the U.S., many people see something very different in the photograph and another similar one published by the White House. What they see is a defiant Donald Trump finally standing up to the European elites who are clearly out of touch. In this narrative Trump is the hero, not the buffoon of the picture.
The final significance of the photograph is that I believe it will go down as capturing this moment in the modern history of the West and be seen as a turning point. By now it is apparent that Trump intends to push the United States’ closest allies as hard as he legally and politically can on a number of issues with little to no regard for their own interests and internal political realities.
This week at theNorth Atlantic Treaty Organization summit meeting in Brussels, Trump has started out by bashing Germany as being “totally controlled by Russia” and insisting that it was “unfair” for the United States to pay for much of NATO’s budget and operational capability.
The question is will this moment in time, and the photograph mentioned above, be seen as the start of an irrevocable deterioration of the unity of the West and a fundamental shift to world order or will it be seen as a a temporary aberration in the history of the West after everything goes back to normal after a possible impeachment or electoral defeat of Donald Trump?
That question will be answered by American voters in the mid term elections this November which, in my view, will be the most important in a generation.