Germany’s New Trump-Critic President Sees Stormy U.S. Ties Ahead
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a vocal critic of Donald Trump elected as Germany’s 12th postwar president on Sunday, predicted “difficulties” in relations with the U.S. as the global order is upended by the new administration in Washington.
Asked whether he would seek to improve relations with Russia, the Social Democrat, who served two stints as foreign minister under Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the world was confronting a “complete re-ordering of international relations.”
“In the past we were always certain that we would have more difficult negotiating partners in the east,” Steinmeier told broadcaster ZDF hours after he was overwhelmingly elected to the mostly ceremonial post by a special assembly. “Suddenly we’re confronted with a situation in which we’ll at the very least deal with uncertainty and also difficulties in trans-Atlantic relations.”
Steinmeier will be President Trump’s counterpart according to protocol, even if the German presidency lacks the political or policymaking power held by the chancellor. While Merkel steered clear of sharing her views on Trump during the U.S. election campaign, Steinmeier, as her top diplomat, vociferously derided what he saw as a campaign that broke taboos and threatened trans-Atlantic bonds.
Steinmeier, who once called Trump a “hate preacher,” was asked whether he felt his view had been vindicated by Trump’s first three weeks in office.
“This isn’t about feeling confirmed, but I don’t think I was the only one to feel really shocked at what was happening in the U.S. campaign,” Steinmeier told ZDF. “I really could never have predicted what happened there.”
Steinmeier, 61, was elected with about three-quarters of the vote in the Federal Assembly, a constitutionally mandated body made up of lawmakers from the lower house and party representatives from the German states. He succeeds Joachim Gauck, 77, the one-time Protestant pastor and political dissident in communist East Germany, who opted to stand down after serving a single five-year term. Gauck will remain in office until March 18.
Germany’s presidency mostly involves representing the country abroad, although Gauck has also intervened in domestic politics, including on Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis.
Steinmeier, who had a 79 percent approval rating this month in a poll for public broadcaster ARD, emerged as a presidential hopeful after Merkel failed to find a suitable candidate from within her party bloc willing to run. Sigmar Gabriel, the outgoing Social Democratic leader who succeeded Steinmeier as foreign minister, stepped into the void, advocating for Steinmeier as the coalition’s choice. Wanting to avoid a costly battle over a presidential pick ahead of the Sept. 24 election, Merkel relented.
Even if Merkel’s support was reluctant, few questioned Steinmeier’s ability to take over the country’s highest office. Steinmeier came to Berlin as the chief of staff to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, overseeing German foreign intelligence in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. When Merkel took office in 2005 with the Social Democrats as junior partner, the Schroeder acolyte became foreign minister.
Steinmeier challenged Merkel for the chancellorship in 2009, which resulted in the Social Democrats’ worst result since World War II and a legislative term in the opposition, which Steinmeier led in the lower house. He returned to the Foreign Ministry when Merkel formed another so-called grand coalition with the SPD in 2013.