Merkel ‘staunch believer’ in close U.S. relations, says German ambassador

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump's first overseas trip included meetings last week at NATO and European Union headquarters in Brussels, and with other G7 nations in Sicily.

Germany is a key member of all three bodies. And in the aftermath of those meetings, Chancellor Angela Merkel sounded notes of concern about President Trump's stance on some key issues, chief among them climate change and the Paris agreement.

To talk about this and other matters, I spoke a short time ago with Germany's ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig.

Ambassador Peter Wittig, thank you for joining us.

PETER WITTIG, Ambassador, Germany: It's a pleasure to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me start with the terrible incident this morning in Kabul, Afghanistan.

This is a normally considered safe area, diplomatic area. But the German Embassy was among the many places affected. You had a German citizen who was injured. Others who work at the embassy, one died, another severely injured.

Does this give your government pause, does it give you second thoughts about the commitment you have made to NATO in Afghanistan?

PETER WITTIG: Well, this is an atrocious and horrible attack once again in the center of Kabul, hurting not only German citizens or injuring or killing them, but also a lot of Afghan civilians.

But this is no reason for us to waver in our commitment to stabilize Afghanistan. We have been there together with the U.S. from the outset. And we are not quitting. We will remain there in the north, basically in the north of Afghanistan, where we have the largest force.

And we will stay there and do the job to stabilize Afghanistan, so that it doesn't fall back into conflict and turmoil.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Different subject, the Paris climate accord. As I know you are aware, there have been reports today all day long that President Trump is close to making a decision, and that he is leaning toward the United States pulling out of the accord.

If that happened, what would the repercussions be?

PETER WITTIG: Well, first of all, as we speak, we don't know what the decision will be.

It's no secret we have been a staunch advocate of the Paris agreement. We think it's a landmark achievement. It's an almost universal agreement containing the global warming, fighting climate change. And we think it's so important that the U.S. stays on board in a leadership role.

Thanks to the U.S., this agreement was possible in the first place. Now, if the U.S. would leave, you know, it would be a kind of self-isolation, and the U.S. would find itself in odd company, just with Syria and Nicaragua, the only countries that are not part of the Paris agreement. And we don't think that's a good option.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me read you something now that we just learned. This is the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.

He had a message for President Trump. He said in Germany — he said, "Mr. Trump believes that the U.S. can leave the agreement" — and I'm quoting him — he said, "because he said he doesn't get close enough to the dossiers to fully understand them."

He went on. He said: "We tried to explain that to Mr. Trump in Taormina," where the meetings were, "in clear German sentences. It seems our attempt failed."

Does the president understand this issue, do you believe?

PETER WITTIG: Well, I think he has advisers that explain that to him, and I trust that he will be fully briefed by his advisers on the importance of that agreement.

I don't doubt that there is the expertise of the White House to judge on the merits of that Paris agreement. We just hope that it will not lead to major repercussions for this global achievement that we think Paris is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, of course, it wasn't only the Paris accord that came up during the G7 summit and even during the NATO conversations, but it looked as if to the outside world that this was a strained series of meetings.

In the aftermath of it, your own chancellor had remarks over the last few days in which she said — and I'm quoting again — she said: "The times in which we," referring to Europe, "could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent." She said, "This is what I experienced in the last few days."

What is she saying?

PETER WITTIG: Well, Judy, I think, you know, Chancellor Merkel has a good and productive relationship with President Trump. They have met in Washington and now in Europe.

They have been on the phone on a whole range of issues of the international agenda. And the chancellor has been committed to transatlantic relations, to a friendship with the U.S. right from the start of her career as few other leaders have been.

So, she is a staunch believer in close relations with the U.S., and that doesn't change with the president. What she said is — and I think that is, you know, a call on the Europeans.

And she has said this before. We cannot leave our fate in the hand of others. We have to take it in our own hands. We have got to push European reform forward, and it's us who have to determine the future of Europe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But she is saying this as a result of the new policies of and approach of President Trump, correct?

PETER WITTIG: We have excellent relations to the United States. We always have.

And part of those relations is precisely that you can also discuss divergences. And this is what happened in Europe where they discussed points where they diverge. They have differences of view. Climate change was one of them. And so I think that's part of good and dependable relations that we can speak openly about our differences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does she believe that the U.S., that this administration can still be relied on as a reliable partner to the NATO nations and to common values with the European community?

PETER WITTIG: There are so many trusted interlocutors in this administration, minister of defense, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, the national security adviser, McMaster.

We have had a lot of contacts with them. They reassured us on NATO. They reassured us on the close alliance with our country and with the Europeans. So, we have heard a lot of good messages from this administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So she absolutely believes the U.S. is committed to the defense of NATO?

PETER WITTIG: This is what we hear from many important members of this administration. And we believe it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm asking, of course, because the president has hammered away time and again at the amount of money the NATO countries, European countries are putting into their own defense.

He tweeted again, President Trump did yesterday. He said, "We have a" — he mentioned the quote in large capital letters — "massive trade deficit," he wrote, "with Germany. Plus, they pay far less," again, all caps, "than they should on NATO and military. Very bad for U.S."

PETER WITTIG: The president raises two important points.

Fair burden-sharing in NATO, I think that's a valid point. We are fully subscribing to the decision of the leaders of NATO in 2016 to increase our spending, defense spending incrementally in a certain timeline.

What we reject is that when people tell us, you're not paying your membership dues. Yes, we are. We are paying the common costs for NATO. But apart from that, there is this pledge to raise the defense spending. And we're doing that. We have raised our defense budget by 9 percent last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much, Ambassador Peter Wittig. We appreciate it.

PETER WITTIG: Thank you, Judy. It was a pleasure being here.

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