In Europe, there is a shortage of civilised discourse about global problems.
Barely a year ago, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as US President, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was being touted as the new leader of the free world, the upholder of liberal European values in the face of Trumpian tomfoolery.
Now, almost six months after Germany held its own elections, the woman fondly nicknamed “Mutti” (the affectionate German word for “mother”) is poised to head a new coalition government. But her critics charge that in the process of forming her fourth government, she has gone from free-world leader to lame duck and is working on her retirement plans.
That said, no other leader in Europe is doing a lot better. British Prime Minister Theresa May has contracted a nasty case of Brexit fever and is undertaking more contortions than a yogi to make a case for something she never really wanted in the first place.
In Spain, they’re working out how to prevent Catalonia from seceding. In Italy, recent elections have left them with a messy tangle, with eurosceptics from both left and right wanting to lead the new government. French President Emmanuel Macron is the only major European head of state willing to make the pro-EU changes that some might say are both necessary and unpopular.
At the February policy-wonk fest that is the Munich Security Conference, several attendees remarked on this depressing lack of leadership. A story in the Atlantic headlined “A Weekend for Ignoring Signs of Doom” noted that “officials did little to dispel the notion that the West is in disarray”. Another referred to “a mood of confused impotence” that reflected “political entropy … a near-universal phenomenon in the Western world”.
Tobias Bunde, a German political scientist and head of policy and analysis at the conference, tweeted that “the traditional ‘guardians’ of the liberal international order seem overwhelmed and paralysed. The US increasingly looks like a rudderless ship, and the Europeans mostly offer analyses rather than strategies. When people who don’t spend much time with world politics ask whether it is as bad as the media say, I now respond: ‘No, it’s actually worse,’” he concluded
All of which raises the unnerving question of who the hell is in charge here? Who will lead the united states of Europe – if they manage to stay united? Who will put country ahead of party? Who will bring good sense and civilised discourse to bear upon the thorniest of global problems: climate change, civil war in Syria, immigration, the rise of the radical right and left, the decline of one superpower and the rise of another?
In the US, Donald Trump has polarised people and motivated a new opposition. He has forced Americans to ask what they and their country stand for, and he has lowered public respect for politics. Europe will soon have enough mini-demagogues to start its own football team, but it doesn’t have a target as big and ugly as Trump.
Optimists have suggested that Merkel and Macron could make Europe more united. But who knows? Consensus-driven politics just doesn’t seem to cut it any more. The Merkel style of leadership – passionless ministry-trading behind closed doors – is not what voters want. Fortune currently favours the bold, opinionated idiot who shouts loudest.
Perhaps a fiery centrist leader with vision, willing and able to stand for something – for anything, really – is a contradiction in terms. Perhaps history and human behaviour are cyclical and we should get ready for a rough ride. Perhaps democracy has failed us. Or perhaps we are failing at democracy?
This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.