Is Angela Merkel the true leader of the free world?

by Cathrin Schaer / 03 February, 2017
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo/Getty Images

Angela Merkel is standing again because “the world needs sorting out”.

It feels good to be a European this year. In fact, it feels better every time you turn on the telly. You feel virtuous as soon as you hear another feckless statement from the new US President, Donald Trump. You’re assured of your own decency every time another reductive, racist, irrational, rabble-rousing or uber-conservative executive order is signed by a former reality TV star who gives gingas a bad name. And you cannot help but feel happy to be living here in Germany with the woman many pundits have already described as “the new leader of the free world” at your national helm.

But can German Chancellor Angela Merkel really live up to that description? Does Germany even want her to?

She has already shown leadership. Her widely praised understated ­congratulations to Trump after his victory noted that Germany and the US could continue to be friends, but only if everybody played nice, with “shared values”. Her stand on refugees was principled, even if it’s now under pressure, as was her insistence on sanctions after Russian interventions in Ukraine.

Merkel, whose party is on the centre-right of the German political ­spectrum but whose politics are centre-left by global ­standards, may qualify as the new leader of the free world, but before we can call her that, we need a proper job description.

While noting that the notion of “the free world” was up for debate in the post-Soviet era, US current affairs magazine the Atlantic offered this grand ­definition: “A community of countries committed to democratic values … a global liberal order based on international institutions and reduced barriers to trade” that “boosted world trade, spread ­prosperity, weakened totalitarianism and ­diminished war”.

One of the advantages of this, the writer noted, “is that it kept countries closely linked politically as well as economically”. And if the soft power – money, trade, diplomacy – didn’t work, the US could always rattle its rather large sabres and use hard power.

Germany has nowhere near the soft, economic power the US does, nor do the Germans have any hard, military advantage. These days, they care more about exporting cars than ideology and the German military has been confined to defensive activities for decades. For many Germans grappling with history, their military remains an ugly symbol, and there isn’t much enthusiasm for actual combat.

Thanks to Trump, that may soon change. Military spending as a proportion of GDP is already rising in Germany and if the country will never have the diplomatic or martial heft of the US, Merkel still represents those “democratic values” and leads the richest country in the European Union.

After years of diplomacy and consensus creation marked by the occasional spot of economic bullying, the Germans and their leader are at a difficult crossroads. One suspects Merkel doesn’t really want to be here. Local analysts have suggested that, after 11 years in office, the 62-year-old felt she had no choice about standing again in this year’s German federal elections. When she was asked how she felt about being called the leader of the free world, Merkel replied she was honoured but that it was an absurd thing to say. Then, in a November speech announcing her candidacy, she said that part of the reason she was ­standing again was because the world needed “sorting out”.

Still, the question for us, the righteous news junkies of Berlin, remains: more than 70 years after a war that changed their culture and their continent, can the Germans muster the will – and can their ­low-key, pragmatic Chancellor muster the passion – to stand for something again?

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the February 11, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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