Though it appears that America can’t trust Trump to follow through on the bulk of his promises, or hope that he’ll hold the office of President with a sense of dignity not shown to us on the campaign trail, we thought we could trust him to just shake the hands of a foreign leader. He is, after all, a living marketing ploy—not unlike a Kardashian—studied in the fine art of photo-op and public appearance. But, on an awkward Friday afternoon, there Trump sat looking as empty and vapid as ever next to Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. And there they sat as a photographer called out for a handshake. Then silence, Trump staring at the cameras as if he had suddenly turned into a deaf/mute. Merkel was forced to lean over and ask him herself if he wanted to do a handshake. No response. The whole exchange is about ten seconds long, and is among the most painful of exchanges from an already embarrassing President. But why? Why snub Merkel?
Because that’s what Putin would have wanted.
The world is a giant board game with different players jockeying for position, status, and, most importantly, power. Diplomacy is the les regles du jeu, the manual by which all national relations are played out. By these rules, a handshake is not just a handshake, a phone call is never just a phone call. In fact, Trump made a series of diplomatic faux pas when he first claimed victory, speaking to a country like Taiwan although it bucked a tradition going back to Nixon. Calls suggesting that Trump knew what he was doing do not diminish the sense of amateurism within this administration—or the need for a later mea culpa with China. But they do suggest that, if true, he knows when he’s doing something that he shouldn’t be doing.
Angela Merkel is right now one of the most powerful leaders in Europe, certainly the head of the European Union and by some estimations, the leader of the Free World—a phrase usually reserved for the American president. In terms of diplomacy, snubbing her is snubbing the most powerful woman in the world, and one of our closest allies. So when Trump refused to shake Merkel’s hand, he was sending a pointed message that America would no longer be playing by the social niceties grounded since May of 1945 with the collapse of Nazi Germany, and the splitting up of West Germany and East Germany by the Berlin Wall.
Oversimplified, West Germany was run like much of Western Europe and heavily influenced by American relations, and East Germany was essentially a Russian (USSR, then) colony. It was here that Merkel was raised, with an intimate knowledge of a Russian state, speaking Russian fluently. The state was in period of decay, with everyday life run by the Secret Police, known as the Stasi. Visits outside of the state, and especially to the West, were limited if they were permitted at all. It was as closed off as a country could be, so reunification in 1989 was a shock to the system of all of East Germany, but in a way, it was another colony loss for Russia.
Fast forward to 2014: Vladimir Putin, Russian President and former KGB officer, in twenty-four days annexes Crimea, a territory relinquished by the Soviets to Ukraine in 1954. While some were quick to say that this was Putin’s Sudetenland, what it showed was that Russia in the 21st century under the leadership of Putin would be looking at formerly held lands, whether they were given up by choice or by force. The takeover was neither ruthless, nor hostile. A referendum was held, and 96% of Crimea voted to join the Russian federation, with an impressive 123% turnout in Sevastopol.
Rigging elections is a tactic favored by dictators (recall Saddam Hussein’s “free” elections), and is one of Putin’s favorite numbers to trot out. He’s done it here in America, which is of no doubt. With each passing day, it seems more and more likely that Trump and his team were complicit in doing so. The media has thrown around the word, “Kompromat,” in terms of how beholden Trump actually is to the Russian President. This assures Putin of a puppet in the White House, and in terms of world powers, there is only one country with more power and influence, and that is Angela Merkel’s Germany.
As Jochen Bittner argued in the New York Times, she is a likely next target for Putin with elections coming up this Fall. But the reasons are much deeper than that. Merkel is fully aware of the Russian state and can speak the language (as can Putin speak German). So when it comes time for a European authority to criticize Putin, the job often falls to Merkel. And their relationship has been rocky from the get-go; once he even let a dog loose on her knowing that she feared dogs.
The relationship is such that a 2014 profile of Merkel in the New Yorker contained thirty-eight instances of his name, including the above mentioned dog story. Merkel’s response: “‘I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man,’ she told a group of reporters. ‘He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.’” An answer that is as indicative of her ability to play the diplomacy game as it is that she knows how to deal with Putin specifically. She has his number, and he doesn’t like that. A lessened relationship with the United States is just the first step in ensuring that she will not accede to a fourth term as Chancellor.
And so, back in the Oval Office, there sits President Trump and Chancellor Merkel. Not seated is Putin, but he’s there. He’s there in the silence when Trump is asked whether he was going to shake her hand. One can doubt whether or not Trump knows all of this, or whether he was playing the role of Kompromat, and told not to shake her hand, but the decision not to exposes a history of three countries and the importance of understanding diplomacy. A handshake is not always just a handshake, a phone call is not always just a phone call. A businessman should know that. And as in the Taiwan situation, if we are to believe that Trump does in fact know what he’s doing, then America must not be surprised when it doesn’t get offered a seat at the table the next time the game is played.
@chrisjohngilson is not dead, he writes about music for Pancakes & Whiskey, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Paste, Splitsider, and elsewhere.