However you may feel about Angela Merkel’s policies, you must admit that Germany’s chancellor, in office for twelve years and probably another four, is a political genius. But is she a great leader? The answer, as with most statesmen in the past, is subtle and may only become clear long after she has left the stage. But this week was a telling one in that evolving chronicle. Just ponder the stark contrast between Ms. Merkel as she appears to the world, and at home.
On the global stage, she is now without any doubt the defender of the international liberal order (such as it is). She has called that notion “grotesque”, of course, but that is de rigeur. For proof, behold the woman as she addressed the Bundestag yesterday, probably for the last time before the election on September 24th, and only days before she hosts the G20 leaders in Hamburg.
In no uncertain terms, she indicated that she plans to coordinate the liberal resistance against America’s Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (all in attendance in Hamburg) and any other leader who would put his own country “first” at the expense of open trade and international cooperation. In the struggle against climate change, protectionism, Russian aggression and more, the German chancellor is now the necessary, if not sufficient, agent of change.
Then contemplate the same week again, but from the vantage point of domestic German politics. Here Ms. Merkel at first glance seems to have suffered a stinging defeat. A signature value held by her conservative Christian Democrats is support for traditional family models and opposition to gay marriage — a line that Ms. Merkel herself maintained publicly, if awkwardly and unconvincingly, as Barbara Woolsey, one of our editors, has documented beautifully. At the same time, she knew that public opinion in Germany has shifted and now accepts the right of lesbians and gays to marry and adopt children. And she knew that all of her potential coalition partners in the next legislature would demand legalization. It was going to happen one way or another.
Her response? In an interview with a women’s magazine at the beginning of the week, she said that if and when the issue came to a vote in the Bundestag, every member of parliament should vote his or her “conscience”. Germany’s entire political class at once understood this to mean that whips would not force members to toe the party line. So far, so what. But then history accelerated, as Ms. Merkel’s coalition partners, the Social Democrats, defected and joined with the other two left parties in parliament to force a vote today. With the unified support from the left and more than a quarter of her own partisans, the house legalized gay marriage. Jean-Michelle Hauteville, another of our editors, captured the historic event with masterful reporting.
So Merkel was outflanked again. She had already “lost” a previous round to her Social Democratic coalition partner (talk about frenemies) when they maneuvered one of their own, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, into the office of president this year. Surely, she must be weakened.
Au contraire. Take a peek at the polls. In no scenario presently imaginable can the three left parties form a majority against her. Every politically plausible coalition is one led by Angela Merkel. And this week she took a potentially dangerous campaign issue, gay marriage, and cleared it off the table before the silly season properly gets underway in late August. By September, even gay spouses may be more interested in tax policy and might just vote for Merkel.
She pulls this sort of coup all the time. In her first five years as chancellor, she hewed to the Christian Democratic line that Germany needed nuclear power, even as the Green party won hearts in its crusade against fission energy and the population turned against it. Then, in 2011, a tsunami caused a nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. Seemingly overnight, the chancellor had a change of heart (this week, too, she described a recent encounter with two lesbian parents that had deeply moved her). And lo, Germany began exiting from nuclear power. Today Ms. Merkel’s bloc is at about 40 percent in the polls, while the Greens languish below 10 and are lucky if Ms. Merkel even remembers them during coalition talks.
The fancy word German wonks use for this style is “asymmetrical demobilization”. Ms. Merkel neutralizes her rivals’ strongest campaign themes with an adroit concession here or there, then observes as voters for the other side — feeling that less is at stake — stay home on polling day. Martin Schulz, her Social Democratic challenger this year, this week called this strategy “an attack on democracy”. But is it? After all, societies change, and Ms. Merkel is simply evolving with public opinion.
Ah, her critics say, but that is “leading from behind” — ie, not leading at all. But that neglects another crucial aspect of leadership. This is the ability to discern tactics from strategy, the immediate from the ultimate goals. I described just what that means in my book, “Hannibal and Me”, by looking at how figures such as the Carthaginian general and his Roman enemies Fabius and Scipio understood and mis-understood the difference. Tactics is about winning battles, occasionally even wars. True strategy is about winning the peace that follows, by choosing which battles and wars are even worth fighting.
To see where Merkel fits into this, return your gaze to the Hamburg summit next week, and contemplate what is at stake. Problems on that scale call for strategy. Then simply accept that Angela Merkel will need to win the election. That calls for tactics, in support of the bigger goal.
Andreas Kluth is editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org