When I suggested in a 2015 article for this paper that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany might become the leader of the free world, I knew it was a pretty far-fetched idea. After all, despite her leading role in the euro and refugee crises, she didn’t actually seem to want the job.
Today, I’m less sure. She might actually have the talent — and the ambition.
When Ms. Merkel starts her fourth term after Germany’s election this Sunday — and she will, barring polling errors exponentially worse than those around the Brexit vote and the American presidential race last year — she will do so in a world significantly different from the one she faced after her last re-election, in 2013.
But if the world has changed, so has the chancellor. It will almost surely be her last term, so it’s legacy time. But more to the point, the woman who gave the German language “merkeling” (a term meaning “muddling through”) finally seems to grasp the full scope of her task — that as the leader of Germany, she is more than just the leader of Germany.
Look at what has happened in the past couple of years from Ms. Merkel’s perspective: Just as Germany emerged from its expensive and exhausting effort to salvage the eurozone, President Vladimir Putin of Russia shattered a postwar taboo by violently changing the borders of Europe. Next came an American president who abandoned another postwar principle fundamental in German eyes: a commitment to a liberal, cooperative world order.
More than anything else, it is this last change that has meant the most for Ms. Merkel’s evolution. Until Mr. Trump, Germany has been broadly in line with America’s foreign policy principles, and, despite its growing economic and political power, happy to let Washington take the lead. But what happens when that alignment breaks down?
Long before President Trump used the United Nations podium this week to call for a “reawakening of nations,” his national security adviser, Gen. H. R. McMaster, and the director of the National Economic Council, Gary D. Cohn, had described what precisely the president means by putting “America first.” In an essay in The Wall Street Journal in May, they wrote that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” They added: “We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”
General McMaster and Mr. Cohn said that America looks forward to working with friends and allies. But who are friends and allies? Only those, the authors make abundantly clear, with whom “our interests align.” Meanwhile, “Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.”
Even from afar, it seems clear that such zero-sum, us-versus-them thinking is not simply the product of Mr. Trump and his advisers. Rather, this hostile and authoritarian tone appears to have emerged from a domestic political climate in which people with differing opinions have come to regard one another as enemies. As Senator Jeff Flake, an anti-Trump Republican from Arizona, puts it in his new book, “Conscience of a Conservative,” the Republican Party has decided to “abandon reason and any old-fashioned notions of the common good, and have an unquenchable appetite for destruction.”
Boil this down to its essence, and Trumpism states: When you lose, I win. Being strong equals being right. And if you want to advance your own interests, it is legitimate to inflict damage on others.
This is not a path that Germany can follow, and it is not a path that Germany can let its European neighbors follow, either. If Trumpism had been applied to Germany in 1945, my country would have become a province of the Soviet Union, and Western Germans would never have bought a pair of Levi’s or a bottle of Coke, let alone the idea of America as a beacon of freedom. If Mr. Trump was right and internationalism led to economic disaster, Germany should have one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. In fact, it has one of the lowest.
Does the European Union, arguably the best example of multilateral governance in the world, have flaws? Has it created too much red tape? Does it fail to fulfill central promises? You bet. But Mr. Trump’s idea that “bureaucracy” as such impedes sovereignty is just as narrow-minded as the idea that Britain will be better off outside the European Union. Brussels’ bureaucracy, first and foremost, has enormously facilitated trade within Europe. The British are about to experience what happens without it.
Ms. Merkel knows these things, believes them in her bones. And she seems to know that, in 2017, it is up to her to defend them. It was probably no coincidence that she announced she would run for a fourth term only after the Brexit vote and after Donald Trump had moved to the White House.
What will it mean for Ms. Merkel to pick up the standard of the free world? Expect her to defend and promote the European Union as a bulwark of liberal internationalism, against an America that might well begin to attack it. At the same time, expect her to do more to mitigate the negative consequences of political and economic internationalism on everyday Germans and Europeans. In Ms. Merkel’s view, this buffering has not happened in the United States, because of the lack of a “reasonable social system,” as she put it in an interview.
Merkelism, in short, draws a very different conclusion from Trumpism about globalization’s unsettling effects. Mr. Trump wants to disrupt and destroy, Ms. Merkel seeks to continue but correct. If the free world is best led by success, with step-by-step repair preferable to scrapping, then the German chancellor seems to be the right woman, at the right moment, for the job.
Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.