Berlin (AFP) – An official photo posted by the German government showing a determined Angela Merkel standing up to an intransigent Donald Trump appears destined for the history books, summing up the deep fractures left by a disastrous G7 summit.
The already iconic picture by Berlin’s official photographer at the gathering in Canada, Jesco Denzel, set social media alight when it appeared on Saturday, hours before Trump ripped up the hard-fought summit conclusions in an angry tweetstorm.
The image, which drew comparisons to a Baroque painting, shows Merkel standing at the centre of the image leaning across a table before a seated Trump, his arms crossed in defiance.
Merkel, looking focused or exasperated depending on the viewer’s interpretation, is flanked by British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, their faces largely obscured. Shinzo Abe of Japan looks on with a world-weary expression.
Many saw a distillation of a crisis of the West in the photograph.
Like virtually all German media, Berlin’s daily Tagesspiegel ran the picture prominently and said Trump’s caustic tweets upending the summit conclusions had “shaken the West”.
Trump “uses Twitter to snub American’s partners in Europe and the world — is the G7 finished?”
Other observers hailed a triumph for the spin doctors in Berlin eager to present Merkel as the leading defender of the rules-based global order.
“A hands-down public relations triumph for Germany,” news weekly Der Spiegel said on its website of the picture that for most of the weekend seemed to capture the world’s imagination.
“In politics it’s not just content that counts but images too.”
– ‘1:0 for the US president’ –
A winner, however, is of course in the eye of the beholder.
Elisabeth Wehling, a political linguistics researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, tweeted that the body language clearly pointed to Trump dominating the scene.
“1:0 for the US president! Sitting while the other stands is a classic strategy of gestural framing, to establish one’s own authority and propagate it via pictures — it works on global media because it transcends language barriers,” she wrote.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who stands next to Trump in the picture and appears to be saying something to Macron across the table, tweeted the picture during the summit to tout the America First message.
“Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank,” he wrote.
“The President made it clear today. No more. (photo by @RegSprecher),” crediting Merkel’s spokesman’s account for the image for good measure.
Regardless of the interpretation, the image succeeded in launching an internet-wide caption contest.
Belgian Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the European Parliament’s liberal group, chose the tart tagline: “Just tell us what Vladimir has on you. Maybe we can help,” in a reference to alleged collusion between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and the Trump team to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
“This looks like an episode of Celebrity Apprentice where Trump is about to fire Angela Merkel because her strudel marketing plan fell through,” US-based comedian Tim Young tweeted.
Doctored images showed the US president as a petulant child — including memes with Trump overturning a bowl of noodles on his head or clutching a teddy bear as Merkel sternly looks on.
– ‘Won’t be bamboozled’ –
But the levity couldn’t mask a deep sense of unease that the end of the post-war era of transatlantic cooperation was nigh.
Far from taking a victory lap, Merkel told German public television late Sunday that she found the summit’s implosion “sobering and a little depressing” and called it a “momentous step” taken by Trump.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose office for the first time in the history of the republic has reportedly ordered an overhaul of Germany’s US policy, went further.
“You can destroy an incredible amount of trust very quickly in a tweet,” he said.
“That makes it all the more important that Europe stands together and defends its interests even more offensively. Europe United is the answer to America First.”
Germany, Europe’s top economy, finds itself in the sights of the US president due to its large trade surplus and defence spending criticised as too low by NATO.
Merkel acknowledged in the interview that the moment had arrived for Germany and Europe to rethink their role in the world.
The European Union must develop “a joint strategic culture”, she added, “otherwise Europe will be ground up in a world with very strong poles” of power elsewhere.
But with an eye to the trade dispute, she added, “we won’t be bamboozled — we will take action.”