It’s a gloomy November morning on the East Coast of the United States. This tired reader of the venerable New York Times is rubbing his eyes in vague disbelief. The sometimes aloof paper, which tends to shy away from lavishing exuberant praise, has made Angela Merkel the last bastion of the free world and a model defender of liberal democracy.
It’s hard to imagine higher praise. But considering Donald Trump was just elected the next president of the United States, it’s also hard to imagine a time of greater despair. And that is precisely why this surprising accolade for the German chancellor gives one pause to reflect. Can Angela Merkel, who has decided to run for a fourth term in office, fulfill the role of defender of freedom and democracy?
Geopolitically, 2016 has been an annus horribilis for the West. Both the British Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump have forced us to question the order of things. The United States of America could lose its predominant position in the world under a new, erratic president while the People’s Republic of China could grow to become a superpower. Meanwhile, without leadership, Europe is looking at the ruins of its efforts to integrate both newcomers and long-term ethnic and religious minorities. At the moment, social solidarity appears to be deteriorating.
This has provided an excellent opportunity for Russia to elbow its way back onto the world stage. As we have seen in both Aleppo and Eastern Ukraine, the results have been both brutal and destabilizing.
Indeed, Angela Merkel has managed to live up to the praise in regards to standing up to Russia. Vladimir Putin might not forgive her for it, but he has been forced to respect Chancellor Merkel. This has only been underscored by her ability to unite the European Union in imposing sanctions against Russia.
So is the German chancellor a tamer of macho autocrats? The Turkish President Erdoğan may not think so. And he would be right. Angela Merkel’s relationship with the Turkish president has unfortunately become one of dependency and does not correlate to ideals of liberal democracy. But it does fit the mold of realpolitik. The political pressure in Germany during the refugee crisis was immense. Her handling was clumsy at best, and so the German chancellor, who was elected in Germany and not in New York, felt compelled to make concessions. But normal political decision-making involves acting practically with those whose opinions you don’t share. Diplomacy, as they say, is not another word for friendship. This certainly held true for the refugee crisis, which has brought with it an entire spectrum of reactionary sentiment, from increasing xenophobia and nationalistic tendencies to a general suspicion of foreigners.
In this context, Chancellor Merkel can rightfully be seen as the last bastion of humanism. Her decision to accept refugees from the war zones in Syria was born from a mixture of pragmatism and ethical conviction. Tactical decision-making it wasn’t. But by risking her chancellorship and reputation, Ms. Merkel showed that protecting human rights is central to her vision of the world. There is no shortage of opportunists in German politics. But Ms. Merkel isn’t one of them.
So does she possess the unique inner compass for liberal values that the New York Times has attributed to her? Perhaps. But she is certainly both unpretentious and smart enough not to place any value on such a label. Not given to overstatement, symbolic decrees or lofty rhetoric, she knows her realpolitical limits.
Accordingly, her congratulatory message to President-elect Donald Trump was familiarly dry, but packed a punch: Germany and the United States can gladly work together, but on the basis of common values. While Chancellor Merkel knows that these values are more likely to be displayed in Berlin, Paris, Rome or Athens, she understands that the military power to uphold these values lies on the other side of the Atlantic. There can be no Western ideals without the United States.
Ms. Merkel has refused to succumb to the fantasies of power displayed by leaders like Theresa May – or dreams of national greatness espoused by Donald Trump. Instead, she has preferred to calmly reiterate that within today’s new geopolitical alignment, no Western country can make it alone. As mild as her rhetoric often is on domestic issues, Ms. Merkel’s international creed is one of liberal multilateralism.
Ultimately, through her actions, the chancellor has made Germany into a true friend to its allies and political partners. Angela Merkel probably isn’t the last defender of the liberal West, but she is certainly a beacon of calm and balance in a world in turmoil.