“Leader of the Free World” is an unofficial title traditionally, if often mockingly, bestowed on the American President. There was never any qualification needed, other than occupancy of the White House; there was no ballot and no rival contender for the title.
But that all changed with the election of Donald Trump. Now, it is not clear who “the West” – those countries, including New Zealand, that share a commitment to democratic elections, free markets and civil and human rights – would consider their unofficial leader.
It is unlikely that Trump has any desire to give up the role, but his behaviour has eroded his presumed right to the title, just as it has eroded the dignity of the office he holds. The respect that used to accrue as of right to the President of the United States does not belong to a man who has conducted himself as Trump has done during the escalation of tension with North Korea, to name one example among so many.
With Merkel, on the other hand, what you see is what you get. There is no flamboyance in her appearance or manner: indeed, she appears to take it as a badge of honour that it’s sometimes said “dullness is her middle name”. A scientist by training and East German by birth, she is cautious and reliable. She has always resisted being put on a pedestal. The Chancellor is the leader of the wealthiest and arguably most influential country in Europe and, for her, that is sufficient authority. Humbled by Germany’s 20th-century history, she does not seek to be leader of the free world, though she understands the importance of Germany to Europe and the importance of a unified Europe to the world.
Anyone who lived through either or both of the world wars, or walked through the cemeteries where soldiers lie who were left behind by those terrible conflicts, understands the importance of European unity, at the heart of which is the relationship between Germany and France and their ability to get on with Russia.
In that, Merkel demonstrates both ambition and strength. She has not shrunk from tackling Russian President Vladimir Putin over his country’s annexation of Crimea, or decrying Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change, or calling out Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over human rights.
In May, Merkel declared that the time when Germany could rely on others was partly over. “We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands,” she said. Her comment followed the G7 meeting in Italy, which she declared unsatisfactory and difficult, and also Britain’s Brexit vote, which heralded the start of its difficult separation from the European Union.
Britain’s leaders talk as though their nation is still a major power, even though the Commonwealth exists only as a relic of historical attachment and nostalgic goodwill, demonstrated more by the viewership of royal weddings than any practical trade or migration benefits. Commonwealth countries already knew what Europe learnt in Brexit: Britain’s hand of friendship is not extended in perpetuity.
Germany’s size and economic power mean that the Western world increasingly looks to Merkel for leadership. Her immediate challenge is to build a coalition from the hand that German voters dealt – a Bundestag in which her base is eroded, the Greens and Free Democrats rarely see eye to eye, and a far-right party has seats for the first time since World War II.
The success of that party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), is a signal that the Chancellor’s opening of Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees was too fast and too loose. It is always a risk for politicians to get too far ahead of their people; leading incrementally is the art of politics. So this election has delivered her the opportunity for a fourth term, but it has come with a warning.
The rest of the world, including New Zealand, will be hoping that she succeeds. If the need for European leadership that is moderate, principled and humane, while at the same time stable and fearless, was not obvious before, the aggressive posturing of the US President has made it so now.
This editorial was first published in the October 14, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.