The fear of a xenophobic populist in the White House has liberals everywhere looking to Berlin for moral guidance. They tout Angela Merkel as the new torchbearer for human rights. They call her the next leader of the free world. Or as the New York Times put it in a headline shortly after the vote: “Donald Trump’s Election Leaves Angela Merkel as the Liberal West’s Last Defender.”
Sounds good. But anyone with a long-term memory may be forgiven for asking: Good God, how did it come to this? Since when do we have to rely on the Germans for the future of global democracy?
Merkel, it must be admitted, got off to a promising start in her new position. She acted very leader-of-the-free-world-like when she congratulated Trump on his success in a press conference last week. She reminded him of the importance of human dignity, respect for minorities and so forth — and then added that, on the basis of those values, she’d be happy to work with him.
It all sounded a bit like the kind of statement U.S. presidents used to put out when a new leader got elected somewhere in Latin America. Or in post-war Germany, for that matter.
What a reversal of roles. For decades, German governments only rarely challenged American power. The budding West German democracy after 1945 depended on the U.S. for economic aid and military protection. The Germans also got a lot of advice on how to build democratic institutions. Some people — on the far Left and Right, mostly — resented the junior-partner role that came with the whole setup. But the political establishment, by and large, has embraced it until now.
Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and joined the conservative CDU after the collapse of communism, belongs firmly in the aforementioned establishment. Though she can be hard to pin down at times, her allegiance to transatlanticism has never been in doubt. She has often said she admires and loves American values, and when she needs to deliver an important speech — not one of her core competencies — she usually talks a lot about freedom.
But leader of the free world? The U.S., with the world’s most powerful military, will retain its status as the geopolitical superpower no matter what Trump’s foreign policy looks like. Germany, meanwhile, only has the Bundeswehr, a comparatively toothless collection of 180,000 soldiers lacking in both international prestige and nuclear weapons.
If Merkel is going to strike fear into the hearts of autocrats and other freedom haters, she’ll have to rely on the power of her rhetoric. And, in this arena in particular, she is no Barack Obama. Her pragmatic and down-to-earth approach to governing served her well in her initial years as German chancellor. But she is first and foremost a technocrat; she lacks the kind of charisma that leading a global movement against right-wing populism would now require.
Even in Germany and Europe, Merkel’s political clout is on a downward trajectory. Consecutive crises — financial, currency, refugee — have shaken the European Union to the core. And there have been plenty of occasions in which the German government displayed not so much leadership, but a penchant for divisiveness.
Merkel’s insistence on responding to the problems in the eurozone with financial austerity was, arguably, in Germany’s best interest, but it alienated Europe’s debt-ridden South. Then, her unilateral decision to welcome more than a million refugees to Germany — and thus to Europe — angered just about everyone else. With right-wing populism on the rise, Merkel seems pretty isolated. Few are confident of her ability to prevent the EU from further drifting apart.
Merkel’s decision in September 2015 to open Germany’s borders have hurt her approval ratings at home as well. Until then, German right-wing populism was largely dormant. Today, most pollsters give the emergent Alternative for Germany party around 15 percent of the national vote. A major terror attack carried out by Islamists — such as the ones that took place in France and Belgium — would no doubt propel that number to National Front-kind of heights.
Luckily, Germany’s right-wing populists have yet to find their Donald Trump and they spend most of the time bickering. The one thing that unites them is the demand that Merkel has to go. That may happen sooner than they think. The chancellor has ruled Germany since 2005. But in recent years, her grip on power has weakened. With federal elections to be held next autumn, Merkel has yet to announce her candidacy.
Norbert Röttgen, a senior CDU politician, told CNN this week that she will run again. But the German government quickly issued a denial and said a decision would be announced in due course. Merkel once said in an interview that she intended to get out of politics at the right time and before she was half-dead. She also said female leaders know better than men when to relinquish power. (Her predecessors in the Christian Democratic Union Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer didn’t know, she appeared to be suggesting.)
Leading the free world doesn’t seem such an attractive proposition in the age of Trump. Perhaps Merkel will soldier on and accept the role so many want her to take. Or, perhaps, she’ll decide that the “right time” is now.
Author: KONSTANTIN RICHTER