This weekend, Angela is playing host to the world. It’s a time for great photo ops with the high and mighty in the cosmopolitan northern metropolis of Hamburg – at least that’s probably how the German chancellor imagined it when she first scheduled the G20 summit to be held just a few months before federal elections in Germany.
As a general rule, these meetings rarely amount to more than a stage, one that is often misused for domestic purposes, culminating in a wishy-washy final communiqué from leaders of the world’s 20 leading economies.
But this summit is different. Its political significance is such that, even on the domestic level, the country’s parliamentary elections could fade into the background. It isn’t just a matter of substantive issues like free trade, climate change or the fight against terrorism – all of them important enough in and of themselves. It is above all about the question of how order can be brought to a crisis-ridden world.
Angela Merkel should be measured by the degree to which she and her allies can prevent Donald Trump from causing the most mischief in the long run.
The visions of how to do that couldn’t be more diverse. There are those who say multilateralism is the answer, who want to negotiate and are looking for equilibrium in an open system. Others see the system as unilateral. Their motto is “might makes right,” basing political action on national interests alone.
These two blocs have always existed, but what is new is that this rift now runs right through the middle of Western societies. Ever since Donald Trump has been residing in the White House, there hasn’t been much left of the West, as we have known it for decades. The US president is not only an avowed protectionist, a climate-change denier and one who despises of international organizations, but he questions the very world order that the Americans themselves established after the Second World War. Those people whose political aims include building high walls, national borders and strong identities, feel history is on their side now, and Mr. Trump is primarily responsible for this.
With such a backdrop, many Western-minded people will be measuring the success of Ms. Merkel’s summit on the degree to which the chancellor succeeds in isolating Mr. Trump. But that is a mistake. She should be measured instead by the degree to which she and her allies can prevent Mr. Trump from causing the most mischief in the long run. The summit can at least be a start.
That may sounds illusionary, but it would be even more of an illusion to think the Europeans could ever replace the Americans as a stabilizing force on the global stage. Just like it’s illusory to develop a new world order (without the United States) based on joint institutions, common rules that apply to all, and reliable alliances. America is and remains an indispensable nation, even under Mr. Trump. That applies to trade policy, climate policy, and above all global security policy.
It would already be a success if things don’t spin out of control in Hamburg. A rapprochement needs time.
Of course, if Mr. Trump welds the Europeans together with his escapades and threatening gestures, then this should be welcomed. The election victory of an Emmanuel Macron in France is a hopeful sign that the pendulum that had most recently swung strongly in the direction of nationalism and populism at least is finally swinging back in Brexit-weakened Europe. In fact, to some extent Mr. Macron can thank the mounting fear of a “Trumpification” of European politics for his election victory.
Ultimately, however, the crucial question is whether America can be successfully brought back in the fold in the long term. Naturally, it is presumptuous to believe that a single summit could launch this process. Under the circumstances, it would already be a success if things don’t spin out of control in Hamburg. A rapprochement needs time.
Why should Angela Merkel, of all people, be in a position to accomplish that? No, Ms. Merkel is not the leader of the free world, nor is she the last champion of Western values. She doesn’t even want the role. But Ms. Merkel, thanks to her years of experience, is a credible moderator vested with a good deal of authority. No more but also no less. Added to that is the fact that the chancellor represents a country that now serves as a model for many nations – economically successful, socially balanced and politically plural.
And it should also not be forgotten that America is not Trump. The United States still is a pluralist democracy with institutions that are just as vibrant as they are strong – even if they have struggled to tame the erratic president. And it is nothing but wishful thinking by his critics that “Russiagate” will be Mr. Trump’s downfall.
For the moment, then, the greatest global threat to freedom, democracy and open society emanates from the very nation that is the most Western of all Western nations. Not because Mr. Trump is the worst of all populists – his brothers-in-spirit from Moscow and Ankara, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, still beat him by a mile – but because the US president has traditionally been the most important defender of these values. He no longer is.
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