This week’s first meeting – in Washington, D.C. – between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump is being billed as a confrontation between polar opposites due to apparently clashing positions on immigration, trade, alliances and international organizations, and contrasting personalities. Actually, notwithstanding the penchant of the mainstream media and bipartisan policy establishment for Trump hysteria-mongering, one of the divides between Mr. Trump and Ms. Merkel may actually be more fundamental than recognized. Growing trade tensions might be signaling that the two economies simply aren’t structured to trade with each other in mutually beneficial ways – at least not at current levels.
So far, the mounting trade row – which could already be the most serious since American ire at an allegedly undervalued deutschemark during the Nixon era – has produced a now-predictable policy debate. The Trump administration is accusing Germany’s powerful economy of unfairly benefiting from a euro that’s kept weak because of the economic problems of its partners in the eurozone. As a result, goes the American complaint, its goods enjoy major price advantages over their U.S. competition all over the world for reasons that have little to do with market forces.
Germany and its sympathizers counter that the country simply makes terrific products, especially advanced manufactures, and that its trade barriers are actually on the low side. Another argument raised in Germany’s defense – in part because of a strong inflation-phobia created by the disastrous experience of the 1920s and by the population’s natural frugality, Germans tend to be low spenders and high savers.
All of the pro-German positions have merit. And the Trump administration case is further complicated by Germany’s consistent calls for eurozone economic policies that would tend to strengthen the common currency.
Yet Germany’s free trade record is at the least open to dispute. Although its tariff levels are generally low, like most other U.S. trade partners, it uses a value-added tax that effectively raises the prices of foreign goods headed for its market and reduces the prices of its exports via the rebates they receive. Moreover, even before President Trump took office, the U.S. government repeatedly reported that non-tariff barriers maintained by Berlin “can be a difficult hurdle for companies wishing to enter the market and require close attention by U.S. exporters.” The country’s government procurement market appears to pose special problems. According to the American Commerce Department under former President Obama:
“Selling to German government entities is not an easy process. German government procurement is formally non-discriminatory and compliant with the GATT Agreement on Government Procurement and the European Community’s procurement directives. That said, it is a major challenge to compete head-to-head with major German or other EU suppliers who have established long-term ties with purchasing entities.”
Nonetheless, the more closely the German economy is examined, the less amenable to standard trade policy remedies it looks. For Germany has long decided to create a national economic and business model that seeks both to maximize net exports and depress consumption at home. Two examples should suffice to make the case.
First, although Germany’s is, as frequently noted, a high-cost, high-regulation country, upon adopting the euro, its government put into effect a series of policies that put its labor costs on a much slower growth path than those of the rest of the eurozone and the high income world as a whole (including the United States). As many critics of Germany have charged, the resulting wage repression has overpowered the euro-dollar exchange rate and in fact amounted to an “internal devaluation” that produced the same effects as currency manipulation.
Second, Germany has also limited its consumption levels in part through very low expenses on infrastructure and other public investments. Moreover, according to one former European Central Bank official, the country’s external orientation has been so pronounced that “private investment in Germany’s aging capital stock has been weakened by many German companies’ desire to invest abroad.”
Revealingly, some of the harshest attacks on these and similar German policies have come from the eurozone itself. In particular, members like Greece and other southerly countries have accused Berlin of conducting a mercantilist campaign to grow at their expense by flooding them with exports and denying them comparable opportunities to supply the German market.
Without taking sides in this dispute, it’s clear that because the eurozone is a currency union, its success arguably depends on members conducting both their domestic and foreign economic policies in mutually compatible ways. So in principle, Germany’s eurozone fellows have grounds for complaining about the totality of the German national model. (The reverse holds as well in principle.)
The United States also should be perfectly free to ask Germany to change its priorities. Unlike eurozone members, however, it has no legitimate claims to influence over this vital aspect of German sovereignty. Germans apparently have decided that their choices work for them, and are absolutely correct to insist that aside from the rules of the World Trade Organization or other international legal arrangements, they have no obligations to accede to foreign demands for reform. Berlin, moreover, has a point when it notes that the United States should look to domestic practices of its own that might be hampering its global competitiveness, rather than placing the burden of change on others.
This German argument, however, is not dispositive. After all, if America’s national business and economic model emphasizes consumption and domestic-led growth rather than promoting net exports, that’s a choice that its own political system has been entitled to make. Moreover, it’s a choice that makes considerable sense for a big, continent-sized economy with great potential for more national self-sufficiency in a wide variety of goods and services. Germany has no more right to dictate U.S. preferences than vice versa.
The decisive difference between the two countries is that Germany has been happy with the pre-Trump status quo, and the United States has not. Washington of course has the right to press complaints about possible German violations of world trade law and other trade agreements. But it also needs to recognize that such conventional approaches are dwarfed by the breadth and depth of Germany’s approach to economics. Promoting German reform isn’t likely to work, either – given the above sovereignty concerns, and given the sheer difficulty facing even so powerful a country as the United States in urging domestic reform on another powerful country – especially one that views itself as a success.
So what to do?
First, in general terms, understand that, however legitimate Germany’s sovereign decisions, they create problems to which the United States is equally entitled to respond
Second, without continuing to hector or nag Germany, figure out the most effective response and act accordingly.
Third, depending on Germany’s counter-moves, decide what combination of unilateral carrots, sticks, and negotiations, might achieve progress (including some acceptable compromise), while preserving approximately current levels of trade.
But fourth, recognize along the way that Germany’s legitimate sovereign economic decisions simply may not permit bilateral trade to continue at those levels with acceptable results for the United States. If need be, then, revert to whatever unilateral strategy can preserve or enhance interests America has identified as its own priorities.
The new status quo would put the ball in Germany’s court, and grant it full scope to accommodate the United States if it’s dissatisfied, or make whatever other changes are needed to achieve whatever new objectives it chooses.
In other words, Washington should deal with Germany through an ongoing process of give and take, employing a variety of tactics and tools in flexible, agile ways. The aim would be to capitalize on its considerable leverage but also understand where it can and can’t hope to succeed at acceptable cost and risk. This approach clearly has a less impressive upside than efforts to produce grand bargains, or than more extensive international economic integration schemes — both of which can in theory maximize bilateral commerce. But its very modesty means that it’s less likely to risk angry misunderstandings and consequent major blow-ups, and more likely to result in trade and investment that’s sustainable not only economically, but politically, socially, and culturally.
President Trump can think of this new policy framework as the Less is More Strategy. And he should realize that its usefulness extends far beyond Germany.