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Trump Tweets U.S. Has A Massive Trade Deficit With Germany

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Germany is the world's fourth-largest economy and one of America's most trusted allies, but you wouldn't know it from President Trump's tweet yesterday. He wrote, quote, "We have a massive trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay far less than they should on NATO and military. Very bad for U.S. This will change."

And while German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn't mention the U.S. or Trump, she did make remarks suggesting that Germany needs to be prepared to take care of itself. Constanze Stelzenmuller is on the line with us now. She studies Germany and European foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for being with us.

CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: My pleasure. Hi.

MARTIN: Let me just first get your take on President Trump's tweet taking Germany to task. How did you see that?

STELZENMULLER: Well, it's certainly a very unusual way to conduct diplomatic relations. There hasn't been anything quite like this in a very, very long time. And I think the sense in Berlin is that it is unfortunate because the president's take on trade and defense, while he has a couple points to make, parts of them are actually easily refutable.

Let me say where he's right. He's right that Germany has a trade and current account surplus that it could do something about. He's also right that Europeans and Germany needs to spend more on defense and that they're not up to the 2 percent voluntary commitment that they made a couple years ago.

MARTIN: To NATO, yeah.

STELZENMULLER: Yes, to NATO. And where he's wrong, I'm afraid, is in suggesting that Germans are manipulating the euro, the European currency. They can't do that. And where he's also, I think, been semi-wrong is in suggesting that Europeans have been doing nothing at all to increase their defense spending.

MARTIN: So you're saying he's - he may have a couple of germane points, relative points that Germany could work on but doing it in such a public way doesn't exactly help move those issues along.

STELZENMULLER: It's not helpful. Yes. And it seems to suggest that we're actually not doing anything.

MARTIN: So I want to get to how the German chancellor has responded. These two leaders have had a rocky relationship from the beginning. Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made some fairly pointed remarks about the U.S. This was at a campaign rally. Let's listen to a little bit of that here. This is her speaking in German.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking in German).

MARTIN: She is saying, "the times in which we could fully rely on others are partly over. I've experienced this in the last few days. We Europeans really have to take our destiny into our own hands." Interesting, she doesn't talk about Trump. She doesn't talk about the United States, but clearly it's present there in the undercurrent of that remark.

STELZENMULLER: Yeah. Now, I think it's important to keep in mind that the chancellor is four months out from a re-election. And while she's currently leading in the polls, she's taking no chances. And her challenger - Martin Schulz, a Social Democrat, currently a member of her grand coalition - is clearly gearing up to make American foreign policy and the relationship with America and defense spending and arms exports a key element of his campaign. And so she is determined to not let him do that and to occupy that space before her opponents can make it toxic.

MARTIN: Constanze Stelzenmuller of the Brookings Institution. She joins us on the line via Skype. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

STELZENMULLER: You're very welcome. Have a good day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.