Angela Merkel

Ahead, Relaxed, Reflective

108564521 Merkel Steingart interview Andreas Krufczik for Handelsblatt
At ease, Ms. Merkel. Source: Andreas Krufczik for Handelsblatt

You’d be forgiven for thinking there isn’t really an election going on in Germany. Despite the many campaign posters that have popped up in the past couple weeks, the result of the vote on September 24 appears a foregone conclusion at this point.

So Angela Merkel, already nearly 12 years in power, oozed understated confidence during an interview in Berlin on Wednesday with Handelsblatt’s publisher, Gabor Steingart. Despite the many serious challenges facing Germany and the wider world, her body language was that of a relaxed and seasoned leader comfortably cruising to a fourth term. If she made no attempts to score campaigning points, that’s probably because her chief opponent, Martin Schulz of the Social Democrats, languishes more than 10 points behind her in the polls.

For the second time in 10 days, that lead allowed Ms. Merkel, who heads the center-right Christian Democrats, to focus more on her governing philosophy and worldview than on domestic issues in an interview. Ever the diplomat, she showed understanding for an angry US population and the rise of her new US counterpart, Donald Trump. America is wracked by a fear of decline, she said. After years of projecting its values abroad and helping the world recover after the Cold War, many Americans are understandably looking inward at the state of their own economy.

It may be understandable, but it’s the wrong approach: “For America to be ‘great’, it has to worry about things beyond its own borders,” she said.

Ms. Merkel said Germany would "not automatically" support the United States if it came to war in the Koreas.

Her biggest challenge of the past few years, she says, has been confronting that kind of nationalist thinking by framing the benefits of globalization in a way that reduces temptations to look inward. “We can’t think that to become bigger others must become smaller…we should have the view that we can all win from globalization.”

That goes for Europe too, which she complains has become hopelessly divided when it comes to foreign policy and projecting its own values abroad. That’s a problem, especially when it comes to countries like China, she says, which seems to think that the larger its economy becomes, the less the western world will worry about its human-rights violations. “That is not my intention,” she said.

Ms. Merkel has had to deal with some tough leaders over 12 years in office. Asked about her strategy, she offers a rather elegant answer: Don’t try to change your counterpart’s mind, but find and exploit the wiggle room within their own thinking. And if there isn’t any room for compromise, don’t be afraid to “voice dissent.”

In a sign of just how far she is willing to go on the latter, Ms. Merkel said Germany would “not automatically” support the United States if it came to war in the Koreas. On China’s north-western neighbor, North Korea, Ms. Merkel said she’s confident that the room for diplomacy hasn’t been exhausted, insisting she sees “no military solution” to the conflict.” Here, too, Europe could play a larger role in bringing about an end to the conflict. “We can and should involve ourselves more,” she said.

Don’t try to change your counterpart’s mind, but find and exploit the wiggle room within their own thinking.

It’s a style of diplomacy that hasn’t necessarily endeared her to her new US counterpart, though she did also offer Mr. Trump some flattery. Asked if all her encounters with world leaders over the years have been “enriching” – rather than disappointing – she responded “definitely enriching.” In fact, though she may disagree with Mr. Trump on a whole host of issues, one could learn a thing or two from him, she says; after all, the man won a grueling election campaign in which hardly anybody thought he stood a chance.

At ease in her comfortable lead, Ms. Merkel presented herself as Germans have come to know – and generally like – her: Unpretentious and witty in a wry way. Goaded repeatedly with comparisons to Otto von Bismarck, another German chancellor known for his longevity (19 years in office) among other things, Ms. Merkel responds deadpan: “I’m not sure about Bismarck’s understanding of ‘win-win’.”


Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global based in Berlin. To contact the author:

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