A Dim View of the World

Will Merkel Be Followed by Darkness?

Part 2: An Ally and an Adversary


German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Tuesday, 5/28/2019   11:52 AM

In contrast to her relationship -- or lack thereof -- with Trump, Merkel at least had a couple years during which she derived some amount of pleasure from Vladimir Putin. The Russian president is alien to the German chancellor in every sense of the word -- a former KGB officer who, even at his advanced age, rides through the tundra with his shirt off. But she also views Putin's cool intelligence and chutzpah as a kind of challenge.

In June 2013, Merkel traveled to St. Petersburg to open with Putin an exhibition of artworks that had been looted from Germany by Soviet soldiers during World War II. Originally, the chancellor was supposed to give the opening remarks, but because Merkel intended to argue that the artworks should be returned, Putin had her speech removed from the agenda shortly before Merkel left Germany. The chancellor, in turn, refused to accompany the president to the Hermitage; simply standing silently in the background was not for her.

At first, Putin remained intractable and throughout the entire day, it looked as though the visit could end in a scandal. Ultimately, though, Putin gave in. On her way back to Berlin, Merkel happily reviewed the events of the day. Putin was a man who would exploit any and every perceived weakness, she said. "He tests you the entire day. If you don't fend him off, you become smaller and smaller," she said, holding out her finger and thumb and moving them closer together to illustrate. She was visibly relieved that Putin was unable to diminish her that day.

In recent history, German chancellors have found ways to build trust with their Russian counterparts. Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin went to the sauna together, for instance. So did Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin. Such an outing is out of the question for Merkel, but what she does have that connects her to Putin is language. When they speak to each other on the phone, their first few sentences are usually in German. Merkel can speak passable Russian, but Putin's German is far superior. In their many phone conversations and encounters, however, no private word has ever been spoken, according to one high-ranking diplomat. "Putin hasn't even mentioned that his children attended the German school in Moscow."

Her Crowning Achievement

Merkel never gave in to the illusion that Putin wanted to turn his country into a democracy. But she was hopeful that Putin's admiration for the prosperity and innovative power of the West would ensure that he would permit at least a moderate opening. Putin believed himself capable of orchestrating an economic revival, says a German government source, much like Lenin thought in the 1920s with his New Economic Policy. That didn't happen, and to make matters worse, the global price of oil began to fall at the beginning of 2014. It was during this time that Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea. The war in Ukraine marked a turning point, the high-ranking diplomat said, adding that Putin lied to Merkel about the presence of Russian soldiers in Crimea. This, of course, had an adverse effect on their relationship. But for years, Merkel didn't have a strategy for dealing with Russia either and she preferred to defer to the EU when it came to forging a policy vis-à-vis Ukraine -- a decision that would come back to haunt her.

The chancellor was able, though, to ensure that the crisis in Ukraine didn't escalate. The Minsk talks that took place on Feb. 11-12, 2015, lasted 17 hours and Merkel would later say that she was able to roughly guess the time of day based on whether there was a roast or jam on the table.

With the agreement, Merkel prevented the hawks in the U.S. from getting their way and delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine -- no small achievement, and perhaps even the greatest accomplishment of her tenure. How would things have ended if American missiles had blown Russian tanks to smithereens?

But the Minsk Protocol never ushered in true peace. Merkel once said that she is now familiar with virtually every tree along the so-called Contact Line in Ukraine's Donbass region, where Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian rebels have been facing off since 2014 and where both sides continue to suffer casualties. There is hardly a foreign policy issue to which Merkel has dedicated herself more. But mere diligence isn't going to force Putin to reason. He has no interest in peace, because a stable Ukraine could align itself with the West. During her last trip to visit Putin in May 2017, she said the Russian president was once again returing to "his area of expertise" -- meaning a show of strength through his army and hybrid warfare.

A Role Model, Almost

During her time in office, Merkel has watched the idea of democracy weaken in places like Europe, Russia and also China, a country where many people though economic success would be followed by a desire for freedom.

It is one of Merkel's greatest contradictions that she has always viewed the dictatorship in Beijing with a certain leniency. She is, to be sure, an advocate for dissidents and hardly a visit to China goes by without a meeting with human rights activists at the German Embassy. Ultimately, though, Merkel's respect prevails for a government party that managed, within four decades, to transform China from a developing nation to the world's second-strongest industrial power. A Chinese politician once told Merkel that the greatest contribution to the protection of human rights was the fight against poverty. Merkel found the argument to be quite persuasive.

Merkel has focused on China like no other German chancellor before her, and she has traveled to Beijing 11 times since taking office in 2005. For her, China isn't foremost a country in which capitalism, surveillance technology and single-party rule have created an entirely new form of oppression -- but an admonishment for Germany to stay vigilant.

Merkel has frequently pointed out that for centuries, China was a high culture, a leader in science and technology. But she doesn't say so to illustrate China's failings, but to highlight just how fleeting order and prosperity can be.

On her last trip to China in May 2018, Merkel visited the city of Shenzhen, which has grown within just a few decades from a small town on the South China Sea into a high-tech metropolis with 12.5 million inhabitants. It may have still been the case 10 years ago that China was stealing important intellectual property from the West, Merkel said, but today, the country is flooding the West with patents. "And in 10 years, we'll need people who can read patents in Chinese, because they don't feel like writing them in English," she said.

For Merkel, China is a study in contrast. A place where she can see the flip side of democracy, with its tedious debates, endless decision-making processes and inability to come up with long-term plans. Shenzhen is something like China's Silicon Valley. There, Merkel visited a startup that wants to use artificial intelligence to optimize health care -- a place that could just as easily have been in Palo Alto, California, with its casual interior decor.

Since Merkel took office, China's economy has grown by 202 percent. Many Germans still delude themselves into thinking that China is merely a country where toasters and other appliances are assembled. Not Merkel. She knows the country has systematically bought up shares in European technology companies and that it wants to be a leader in the development of artificial intelligence -- and is investing 11 billion euros a year to meet that goal. Germany only manages an annual investment of 500 million euros. Indeed, the German automobile industry can't even manage to develop its own battery cells, Merkel has complained.

Merkel's mood was gloomy as she flew home to Germany from the Shenzhen trip. She spoke of the disaster that is Berlin's new airport, a failure that seemed even more grotesque to her against the backdrop of the pace of change in China. There's never any urgency back home, Merkel commented -- for anything to get done, there always has to be the pressure of a looming crisis. "Something's got to happen," she said.

Great Accomplishments

What makes a great chancellor? The first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, the gnarled old Konrad Adenauer, anchored Germany in the West against significant resistance. His charismatic successor, Willy Brandt, reconciled Germans with democracy and forced them to reflect upon their own guilt with his historic genuflection in Warsaw. Helmut Kohl, long mocked as a bumbling rube, had the skill and foresight to unite the nation at the right moment.

What about Merkel? There is a strange discrepancy between the reverence that Merkel is now increasingly receiving, and the disappointment that she isn't using her experience and the freedom that comes with a politician's final years in office to their full potential. "Merkel has the power to initiate something big," says Julianne Smith, the deputy security advisor to former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. "But what we're experiencing is a paralyzed Germany, and that's bad for Europe and bad for the U.S."

Merkel has augmented Germany's reputation in the world: No sensible person can deny that. A survey in summer 2018 found that Germany was the most popular country in the world. And the fact that nobody is afraid any longer of German jackboots marching across their borders also has to do with the chancellor's penetratingly modest demeanor. During the past 10 years under Merkel's stewardship, some 140,000 Italians, 95,000 Greeks, 24,000 Brits and 6,200 Israelis have moved to Germany and stayed. The claim that Germany is a xenophobic country is a rather difficult one to substantiate, statistically.

Merkel has spent 13 scandal-free years at the helm of Germany's government. The idea that she could somehow be corrupted is about as plausible as the thought of Trump taking his marital vow of fidelity seriously. Merkel knows how important she is; and that explains why she does all she can to avoid even a whiff of courtly whim. During a trip to Washington, Merkel once said that she follows a single script for all state visits to the Chancellery: "Military honors, an hour consultation, press conference, the end."

Everyone's Mutti

She is Germany's first-ever female chancellor, and she has successfully dispelled any lingering doubts about whether a woman could have the necessary chops for the job when it comes to an awareness of power, tenacity and meticulousness. Since Germany's last federal elections, Merkel has had to answer lawmakers' questions three times a year. Initially, her people were concerned that the opposition could use their new privilege to make Merkel look like a fool on live television. Their concerns turned out to be completely unfounded.

When Merkel appears before parliament, like she did most recently in early April, she parries each attack as routinely as a chess computer would. She's familiar with startups' concerns over upload filters. She left the head of the Free Democrats shaking his head in confusion by saying that she was "pursuing a CO2 pricing approach even in non-ETS areas." And when one Social Democratic lawmaker had her microphone turned off after she was unable to finish her question in the allotted 60 seconds, Merkel threw her a life ring: "To help you out, I suspect I've understood your question." After an hour in Merkel's class, the lawmakers are exhausted by so much policy minutiae. It would hardly have been surprising if she had handed out homework.

It is one of Merkel's greatest strengths to be able to break down any seemingly insoluble problem into manageable, unthreatening technical questions. Then-German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wanted to kick Greece out of the euro, but Merkel was strict and made the Greeks do their homework until the markets calmed down. In the 2008 financial crisis, a few soothing words from the chancellor were enough to prevent Germans from plundering their savings accounts. Since Merkel took power, Germany's economic output has risen by 23 percent and unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since reunification.

But Merkel can be accused of a certain lack of principle in some respects. The 2005 federal elections, which her party won only by a slight majority, rid her once and for all of any ambition to prescribe Germany a sweeping reform program. And her commitment to nuclear energy didn't even last 72 hours after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Washed away by the fear of losing voters.

There is one point, however, on which Merkel has never wavered. For her, it has always been self-evident that a German chancellor must take full responsibility for the past crimes Germans committed. Even before she became head of government, she kicked Bundestag deputy Martin Hohmann out of her party's parliamentary faction because he gave a speech with anti-Semitic undertones. And she snubbed her party colleague Günther Oettinger as he prepared to posthumously declare the Nazi judge Hans Filbinger a resistance fighter.

The Sleeping Giant

No one need fear Germany any longer, this giant at the heart of Europe. If its neighbors in recent years have taken offense at the government in Berlin, it is not because of any hegemonistic desires, but Merkel's unique approach to the refugee crisis, which countries in Eastern Europe in particular do not support. The chancellor has been accused of moral imperialism -- an imperialism that has nothing to do, of course, with spiked helmets or panzer divisions, but one that merits considerable respect. "We should learn from the Germans how to treat refugees," said the Israeli historian Tom Segev at the height of the refugee crisis in autumn 2015.

The question now is what Merkel will do with the respect she enjoys. How will she use her political capital in the last phase of her chancellorship? For decades, Germany's foreign policy has been burdened by the country's dark past. No one wanted to see a resurgence of the old great power in the middle of the Continent. The opposition of Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher to German reunification reflected an old fear of Teutonic dominance.

But in the 1990s, Hitler increasingly became an excuse for Germany to become nestled in a niche of global politics. In 2011, Poland's then-foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said: "I fear Germany's power less than her inactivity." Now, eight years later, a lack of understanding for Merkel's inaction has turned into anger. "It's a shame that Merkel isn't seizing on opportunities to lead," says Smith, the former Biden adviser.

"I'm like a toad in hibernation," Merkel said on the sidelines of one of her party's congresses in the city of Essen a few weeks after the election of Donald Trump. She wakes up whenever things get important, she said -- noting that she did so during the CDU party donations scandal by publishing an unforgettable op-ed in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, distancing herself from then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and propelling herself to party leadership. Now, a similar watershed moment has been reached, she said.

Pressed to Act

So why isn't Merkel doing anything? She doesn't need to worry about re-election, which should give her considerable freedom. She has a French president on her side who is pushing for a reform of Europe. And she knows -- at least in theory -- the answers to the most pressing questions of our time.

In May 2017, Merkel said in a beer tent in Munich that the days when Europeans could rely on the U.S. were over. "We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands," she added. Hardly any other speech by the chancellor has had the same level of resonance, which is largely due to the fact that it contains a deeper truth.

The U.S. lost interest in Europe and turned to other regions of the world before Trump. It was former President Barack Obama who shifted U.S. attention to East Asian countries. NATO was a product of the Cold War; it was designed to prevent a weakened Europe from being absorbed into Moscow's sphere of influence. The alliance's first general secretary, Lord Hastings Ismay, summed up NATO's purpose as follows: "To keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Today, nobody views Germany as a threat anymore, while the Americans have lost their desire to pay for the security of a continent that is perfectly capable of paying for itself. In that regard, Trump's remarks about NATO being obsolete are not entirely wrong.

If Merkel were to take her own speech that she gave in Munich seriously, she would have to explain to voters that Germany -- together with the Europeans -- must feel a sense of responsibility for its periphery, North Africa and the Middle East. She would have to get Germans used to the idea that the German military needs more money and that in the future, German soldiers will be deployed more often on more dangerous missions. After the refugee crisis, who could honestly argue that civil wars in places like Syria or Libya doesn't have a direct impact on Germany?

Merkel knows all this. She speaks theoretically about Germany needing to do more. But when it comes to suggesting a concrete strategy, she hardly says a word.

A Drowsy Ending

A first step toward more responsibility would be a reform of Germany's mandatory requirement of parliamentary approval for armed operations, which currently makes it very difficult to quickly react to crises. Merkel, though, is fully aware of how controversial this would be, so she prefers to steer clear of it.

The same goes for the military budget. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen wanted to ensure that it would at least increase to 1.5 percent of Germany's economic output by 2024. But Finance Minister Olaf Scholz only plans for it to hit 1.25 percent of GDP by 2023. "These figures cannot be explained to people in the U.S. who are actually well disposed toward Germany," says Julianne Smith.

In theory, Merkel also believes that Europe needs to further integrate, and not only militarily, but also to be able to compete with China. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech at Sorbonne University on Sept. 26, 2017, that "the rebuilding of a sovereign, united and democratic Europe" was necessary.

Macron had waited to give his speech until after the German election was over because he wanted Merkel at his side. But to this day, Macron is still waiting for the German chancellor. Her answers are, at best, small-scale. At the Elysee Palace, impatience has long been replaced by a lack of understanding as to why Merkel refuses to lead the debate over the future of Europe.

"The chancellorship is ending in a slumber. Merkel is turning out the light and saying: good night," says the Berlin-based historian Henning Köhler, who has spent his entire career studying the legacy of German chancellors. He has written two definitive biographies, one about Kohl and another about Adenauer. He considers both men to have been great chancellors. But Merkel? Not so much. The thing people will remember about her, in Köhler's opinion, is that a far-right populist party won seats in the German Bundestag on her watch.

Prize After Prize

Merkel's power has become brittle. If the Social Democrats lose their nerve now that they struggled to attract much support in the European elections, all could soon be lost. Merkel knows this. She's not bent on staying in office. There are many people who would like to convince her to stay in politics. Couldn't a woman with her experience move to Brussels? Other heads of government have pressured her repeatedly. But Merkel doesn't want to.

Sometimes it seems like Merkel would be content to simply sit back and enjoy the fruits of her years of labor. Ever since the refugee crisis, the prizes Merkel has received for her service to humanity have piled up.

In May 2018, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos presented her with the "Lamp of Peace," an annual award presented by the Franciscans. Merkel showed what solidarity meant in politics with her "correct, though not always popular decisions," Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said.

Half a year later, Queen Rania of Jordan gave the laudatory speech at the award ceremony of the "Golden Victoria Award" of the Association of German Magazine Publishers. "Since taking office, Chancellor Merkel has earned the world's admiration and respect for her steadfast commitment to delivering stability, prosperity, liberty and peace," Rania said.

Merkel is also a recipient of the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen, which recognizes work done in service of European unification. And she has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. She has been named an honorary doctor 15 times.

The only thing that's missing is the Nobel Peace Prize.

The last German to receive that distinction was Willy Brandt. And the solemn ceremony in Oslo in December 1971 helped canonize the Social Democrat in the eyes of many Germans. before him, only three Germans had been singled out: Gustav Stresemann, a chancellor during the Weimar Republic; the historian Ludwig Quidde; and Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist and activist who shone light on Germany's clandestine rearmament in the run-up to the Third Reich.

In the Chancellery, it is said that Merkel doesn't waste any time thinking about the Nobel Peace Prize. At the same time, she has long been considered a favorite candidate. The prize would represent the pinnacle of her tenure -- an honor that would contradict all the naysayers who claim that her refugee policy was merely a misstep by an overly sentimental do-gooder.

A Celebrity Abroad

"We'll miss her," says Herfried Münkler. When asked what Merkel's legacy would be, the political scientist at Berlin's Humboldt University cited the end of compulsory military conscription and Germany's phaseout of nuclear energy. But would the memory of those two policies really survive the passage of time? "For Merkel, politics was the avoidance of what was wrong," Münkler said. That was what made the chancellor's policies seem so hesitant. What's more, Merkel was never a great orator.

Rhetorically gifted politicians always put themselves under pressure, because their emotional appeals oblige them to act. Angela Merkel never had this problem.

On May 30 this year, the chancellor will give the commencement speech at Harvard University in the U.S. The school has produced a trailer to promote her upcoming address, with scenes from recent German history underlaid with dramatic music. Toward the end, the words "The most powerful woman in the world" appear on the screen as an image of Merkel's signature hand gesture comes into view.

The film has very little to do with the actual Merkel. At the Chancellery in Berlin, her staff is amused at what they perceive as a typically American treatment: an XXL-sized dose of emotion.

But maybe a bit of emotion, a grand idea is just what Merkel needs to see her across the finish line. It would be something new. But at the moment, it doesn't look like Merkel is likely to change.

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