The arduous final spurt of her election campaign does not appear to be taking its toll on Angela Merkel. At the Handelsblatt event “Deutschland Live” in Berlin’s Westhafen district, around 450 members of the Handelsblatt business club met a plain-spoken chancellor. About 100,000 people followed the interview online via live streaming, with the highlights reaching over half a million people via social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In particular, Ms. Merkel’s skeptical comments about Donald Trump caused a stir in the United States.
Handelsblatt: Ms. Merkel, at one of our first meetings in Bonn we discussed extroverted politicians such as Jürgen Möllemann and Guido Westerwelle. You said no one had prepared you for that type of character, that you didn’t have anyone like that growing up in East Germany. Decades later, you’re surrounded by extroverted politicians like Putin, Trump and Erdogan. Is it actually ever possible to be prepared for that?
Angela Merkel: I have since had a lot more experience of the different types of people who are involved in politics. That makes it easier to deal with. I’m learning a lot about very different things…
… about Donald Trump, for example?
Whatever the differences of opinion, he won a tough election battle. He wasn’t just handed the presidency on a silver platter. There were more than 10 competing candidates from the Republican Party alone. Ultimately, he won in accordance with American electoral law. That shows that he was democratically elected and that this person must be shown respect. When you meet different politicians from different countries, it’s not about friendship, but about interests.
It’s also about values, isn’t it?
I am guided by those values that make up our constitution. But what’s important is that I meet all these people not as Angela Merkel, but as chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, i.e. with a clear mandate from voters.
You became chancellor 12 years ago. When I first visited you in your new office, I asked you: “And?” You answered: “Thanks for asking, I have settled in well.” The question today is: the world around the chancellery is experiencing a kind of permanent upheaval. Is it at all possible to settle in? Or do you have to work it out anew every day?
A week before I was elected chancellor, I was already feeling queasy about the task. I can still remember talking to the incoming vice chancellor, Mr. Müntefering. He said: “Ah, it’ll be all right.” That helped me, because he was already familiar with how things worked from his time in office with Gerhard Schröder. Looking back, I have to say that I was lucky in a way. We had a quiet phase of development between 2005 and 2007. Yes, we had to tussle together within the grand coalition. But we also felt the effects of the reforms implemented by the Schröder government. In that respect, I also had time to learn a lot about the foundations of governance.
Things were becoming less settled by 2008.
The international financial crisis happened, which required all our strength. For the first time we experienced in a massive way how globalization affects everyone. That was followed by the euro crisis and the challenge with Ukraine, the civil war in Syria, which we had blocked out for a long time, and later the consequences with the refugees. It was very helpful that I had the early years to get used to classic government business, and was therefore equipped for these challenges.
The Americans distinguish between two styles of governing. One is driven by the political vision a leader wants to push through – the Americans call it “agenda driven.” The other style of government is “event driven,” whereby the head of government is repeatedly forced to react. How would you describe your term in office?
I have always tried to do both. I consequently pursue plans that are very important to me, even when there are external events. One of my decisions was to bring the minister of state for integration into the chancellor’s office. I introduced the integration summit, for example, because we were doing to little to integrate second- and third-generation guest workers. In some cases, they were still being treated as guest workers. Or take the dialog on innovation that I established. Then events suddenly come along that throw everything into disarray and prevent these important issues from being examined publicly. But I know for myself that we will keep working on it. Then later, I will have a foundation that we can build on. It’s important to me not to lose sight of these things.
So you tried to do both, a third way, as it were?
That’s something that the public often doesn’t notice. Sometimes I’m sad about that, because suddenly there’s a crisis in Greece and the substantive work on other important issues no longer counts. And sometimes you’re happy because you can pursue your own concepts without obstruction.
An America that looks after nothing but itself won't be a great America.
All heads of government have one-to-one meetings. Is there any political wiggle room in these meetings, or are all positions set in stone by the respective government machineries and national interests?
It depends. At the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2007, for example, the question arose of how the American president, George W. Bush, would behave on the issue of climate change. There was a clear expectation that I, as the host, would make something happen. Bush, for his part, had his own clear interests and didn’t think much of climate change. However, it happened that there was a fortunate circumstance in that it was the last summit for the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and he represented the same interests as I did. We then found a good solution: our final declaration stated that we would aim to halve environmentally harmful emissions by 2050. But on the other hand, I also have to say that if no concessions are made, you have to maintain your dissent. You’re polite, but clear.
And that also applies to you, despite your obliging manner?
I am as a matter of fact very clear, if only because I know that misinterpretations can otherwise occur very quickly. Take the war in Iraq. Gerhard Schröder and Bush were anything but united. And each of them was claiming he had been misinformed by the other. Or look at when new countries such as Ukraine joined NATO. I said clearly from the start that I would not give my approval for it. Because I knew it would lead to misinterpretations in Russia.
Donald Trump is an individual unlike any that has been in the White House before. Does his election mean a turning point for you and Europe?
I think we need to view Trump’s rise against the backdrop of the great disappointment of part of the US population. It’s no coincidence that this personality came out on top. There’s a belief in the United States that something has to change fundamentally. In that respect, the election is a turning point.
Can you describe this turning point in more detail?
America fought for freedom for decades and emerged from the Cold War victorious, which resulted in the collapse of the Soviet system. There was talk about the end of history. But this triumph of freedom led to the creation of a global power balance that no one foresaw in 1990. China advanced, and many countries in Africa and Europe suddenly attached value to their independence. The American population has been asking itself since then: “What does this mean for us?” The Americans have had numerous engagements in Afghanistan, Libya, through to Syria in which they have seen that it’s not so easy to win military campaigns. The results were sobering, to a certain extent.
The Americans are plagued by fears of decline, globally, but also within their own country.
That’s also because the shift and the consequences of globalization have not been arranged within a sensible social welfare system.
So is the United States an unsettled country?
It’s an unsettled country that has the impression that America looks after everything, but not the people in the country who are unemployed and don’t have health insurance. But that doesn’t mean that I’m legitimizing everything the new US government is doing.
Your understanding of globalization is completely different from that of the US administration. Right?
Many people within the US administration believe that in order for their country to become great again, other countries have to become smaller. I don’t believe that is an accurate view. Everyone can win from globalization. The whole thing isn’t a zero-sum game. Or, if you look at it the other way around: An America that looks after nothing but itself won’t be a great America. So that’s why I will keep making the case that globalization should be seen as an opportunity from which everyone can benefit.
How are you dealing emotionally with the new president, given that he strongly emphasized his “America first” policy during his election campaign and has displayed a certain stubbornness since then?
It’s not about emotions in these kinds of meetings. You can’t approach them with a motto of “What do I think about the person, how do I feel?” I have clear assignments. I have to make sure that our trade doesn’t suffer. I have to make it clear that there are good reasons for our trade surplus and that we don’t engage in any unfair trading practices. I have to occupy myself with the question of which arguments are relevant to my counterpart, how I can argumentatively reach him. I’m completely preoccupied with formulating my own positions and looking at how I can achieve good results. Because my task is to serve the German people and to protect them from harm.
America’s soul has been hurt by the United States’ relative decline and the simultaneous rise of China. Do you have the feeling that we have all grasped the turning point in international relations that this implies?
No, I don’t have that feeling at all. We tend to discuss individual events. But we don’t take enough time to analyze whether individual events could perhaps be part of a bigger picture. That should not be taken as a reproach, but as encouragement to thoroughly analyze the major shifts taking place in the balance of power on the planet. It’s worth putting yourself in the position of the heads of state and government leaders in other countries, for example in the position of Chinese president. For him, China’s growing economic, military and geopolitical role is simply a return to normality. Because for the past 2000 years, China, apart from a few centuries, has always been at the forefront.
It’s also worth analyzing and understanding the Russian perspective, isn’t it?
You don’t have to agree with everything the Russian president does. But if we put ourselves in the Russians’ place, what they are thinking is: we helped to defeat Hitler. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union was the second major world system, but then it fell apart. That’s why Obama’s comment that Russia is now only a medium-sized power struck in the middle of the Russian soul.
What does that mean for German interests?
There are 80 million of us – we’re not important to China and India per se. But we’re important because we are currently economically strong. If we are no longer economically strong, we will no longer be important, regardless of whether I am chancellor or somebody else; rather we will just be a small sales market. Because a country with a population of 1.3 billion people won’t pin its hopes on aging European countries. Then we will be behind, just as China was for a few centuries. That’s why the most frequently booked trips to Germany by Chinese people are museum tours. They want to look at the three or four centuries in which they weren’t on the forefront. So the Chinese president says, we need to become a bit stronger economically, and then the people in the West will forget all their values, then individualization, freedom of expression and religious freedom will no longer be so important to them.
But we aren’t planning to forget our values?
Under no circumstances. But we need to recognize that we are being watched. And we need to make sure that our economic strength is preserved, which has secured our status until now. We talk a lot in Germany about redistribution, but we haven’t talked enough about production. In Europe, we haven’t had such a long period of time in which we weren’t leading the world market in so many areas. Today, new developments in digitalization that are aimed at consumers are all coming from Asia or the United States. That doesn’t have to crush us, but it should worry us.
The German chancellor seems seriously concerned.
There was a time in which we were the world’s pharmacy. Then we were the world’s automotive power. Our machinery construction was the best in the world. We’re still good in the last two industries, but we were also the inventors of the first computer and the MP3 player. All that is not present anymore, not only in Germany, but in all of Europe. The question of how we deal with digitalization is therefore of paramount importance to our prosperity and the scope we have for redistribution. I am really a friend of the social market economy, but many others on the planet are now waiting for their chance.
For the German economy, what is even more important than digitalization is a world that does not disintegrate into zones of war and peace. The American president has now entered into hostile relations with North Korea. Do you see a threat of war in the region, and do you see Germany automatically siding with the Americans?
Very clearly no. I do not see a military solution for North Korea. I think that would be completely wrong. I also believe that the diplomatic options have not by far been exhausted. Countries like China, Japan and South Korea also have a strong interest in reining in someone like (North Korean dictator) Kim Jong Un. But the world must achieve this with non-military means. And I believe we can do that. So, to answer your question clearly: No, we would not be automatically on board.
Could Germany take over the role of a mediator in this deadlocked conflict? After all, we are not pursuing any interests in North Korea, except the interest in peace.
It is not Germany but the European Union that should play a stronger role, as was the case with the Iran agreement. And within the EU, of course, Germany is demanded in a special way. While it is true that Europe has no direct interests in North Korea, we do have diverse, close and sometimes contentious relations with Russia. We are in talks with China, and we have a close partnership with the United States. We can and should get more involved, because we cannot simply sit there and say: Someone please come up with a diplomatic solution, but we aren’t going to do anything.
Even as a mediator?
It’s important to distinguish between cause and effect here. All the nuclear weapons and missile technology being developed in North Korea are in violation of many international agreements. North Korea is going in a direction that we can’t support. In other words, it isn’t just a matter of mediation, but of resolving a conflict.
And perhaps it’s also a matter of skepticism about what the intelligence services are reporting to us from the United States. We don’t know exactly which weapons nations like North Korea can produce.
You have to remain skeptical and listen to various sources. But the United States isn’t the only country that’s worried. So are China, Japan and South Korea. I do want to say one thing, though: Our cooperation with the American intelligence services in connection with international terrorism is so indispensable, and their knowledge is so vital to us, that we should not call this cooperation into question.
Let’s get into a time machine and travel back to 2003. The issue on the table at the time was whether to invade Iraq. US President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and you, as the opposition leader, were in favor of the invasion. Knowing what you know today, would you still make the same decision?
You can never be in favor of war. War is always a last resort. At the time, I was very dissatisfied with the fact that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had brought about polarization in the EU. If Europe had gone to the US president united, perhaps the military conflict could have been prevented. I don’t know…. This polarization was what troubled me the most. And when the military conflict arrived, the question was: Whose side am I on? I thought about it a lot. I believe to this day that you always have to do everything possible to keep the dialogue going, and that a confrontation within Europe cannot simply be accepted.
But greater independence relative to the United States is certainly appropriate. What was it, once again, that you said in a Bavarian beer tent?
Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands.
Doesn’t that also mean a stronger Europeanization in foreign policy?
Europe is too divided in terms of foreign policy. We have an economic and a currency union, but essentially no common foreign policy. Just look at our policy toward China, which is highly unsatisfactory. It can’t be that when a decision is reached by an international court on incidents in the South China Sea, the European countries react to it in highly different ways.
Are we just entering a European century – with a European army, coordinated fiscal policy and, ultimately, a common foreign policy?
It is for me always also a matter of our commonality with the United States. But Europe cannot sit back and expect others to solve problems for us. This is why Europe has to formulate its own interests. There will be plenty of commonalities with the United States of America. And I believe this will always be reflected in NATO as well.
But sometimes our interests can also diverge?
And these divergent interests will be apparent, for instance, from my perspective, when it comes to our engagement in Africa. But one thing has changed considerably in the last 10 years. How often has it been said that the United States is only interested in the Middle East because it is dependent on the oil and natural gas from the region? America is at the moment no longer dependent on those resources.
Because shale gas is providing the United States with a very independent energy supply.
And that means America’s strategic interests are changing as a result. If we look at where the world’s conflicts are happening today, we have North Korea in the Pacific region. But we also have a number of conflicts directly at our doorstep, including the conflicts within the Islamic world. It’s a mistake to believe that someone who lives thousands of kilometers away is as concerned about Europe’s and Africa’s neighbors as we are. In this sense, one has to state very clearly that there are uniquely European interests. We Europeans need to arrive at a common Africa policy. But we also need to agree on a common Syria, Iraq and Iran policy. We have been quite successful in achieving the last of these. And we need a common Russia and China policy. Anything else violates Europe’s interests.
Europe is too divided in terms of foreign policy.
You wouldn’t go so far as to support our establishing a bloc that eventually formulates an independent Russia policy, because we say that Russia is our big neighbor. Or an independent Syria policy. Aside from bearing the consequences of Aleppo and other conflicts, we do not play a major role in the region. We do not truly have a seat at the table when it comes to the Middle East.
The first issue is that we need to have a seat at the table, so that we can begin by strongly voicing our opinions. But I also still believe that there is a natural degree of consensus with the interests of the United States.
Is that one of the reasons we should increase defense spending in Germany?
Barack Obama had already told me on several occasions: It cannot go on like this…
You Germans need to spend more on your defense.
From the standpoint of the United States, it is unacceptable that Germany spends only 1.2 percent of its gross national product – or even less at that time – on its defense. This is a lengthy discussion that has nothing to do with the current president, Donald Trump.
He assumed the demand that Germany should spend 2 percent of its GNP on defense.
He assumed the demand, but this demand was first made when Gerhard Schröder was chancellor, when the expansion of NATO was being discussed. NATO said at the time that with its so-called Membership Action Plan, a precursor to NATO membership, all of the new member states, the Baltic nations, Poland, Hungary, would only be granted this status if they agreed in advance to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Then it emerged that the countries that had long been NATO members had not even met this target yet. And then there was the decision made in Wales in 2014: Those that were not in compliance with the 2-percent benchmark pledged to raise their defense spending closer to 2 percent by 2024.
One of those formulaic compromises …
Then we began to increase our defense budget, which we have now already done over the last two years. And I believe that everyone would agree that our armed forces need to be better equipped. So this really has nothing to do with the current American president, which gives me hope that we can arrive at an objective discussion despite the election campaign. Apart from that, we also established the two-percent goal approved by the federal government last summer.
Some people don’t seem to remember that very well, such as Sigmar Gabriel, your vice chancellor and the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He even says that you are trying to deceive voters, because you want to increase the defense budget and pay for it by cutting social programs. Do you plan to deceive us?
Of course not. That’s completely erroneous. We have already increased the defense budget in recent years, and we will continue to do so in a measured and appropriate manner. We can do something for the UN peacekeeping missions, which are underfunded. And we can’t as Europeans ourselves resolve military conflicts everywhere. Still, some of the debate is also hypocritical. I have spoken with the Nigerian president many times. He tells me: “You give me development aid, and you do everything, but neither the World Bank nor Europe nor Germany are helping me in any way to fight the Boko Haram terrorists on Lake Chad. Or the terrorists that are trying to come to me from Mali.” We cannot expect these countries to develop in a stable and reasonable manner if we do not give them the kind of support they need to ensure domestic security.
When you said hypocritical, were you referring to the African president or Sigmar Gabriel?
Hypocritical refers to the whole, also our policies of the past years. We train Malian soldiers, and then we hope that France will subsequently provide them with good equipment. That isn’t entirely honest, which is why we need to ensure that these countries have a reasonable security structure, so that they can move forward with their development. We have really learned a lot in the past few years, and there is also no disagreement within the coalition on the notion that you always need an integrated approach to resolve conflicts. The Germans were the first in Afghanistan to say: Let’s build the security structure, the police force, development aid and political structures, but also take military action wherever necessary. The new European defense policy is based on this integrated approach. In NATO, we only have an integrated approach from one case to the next, but NATO also isn’t simultaneously a development organization. We have to acknowledge this integrated approach. It includes all elements, in which military action is always the last resort.
And the first-time home buyer allowance, just to conclude the issue, it won’t be eliminated as a result?
No, of course not. We will not be eliminating any social spending. In the last few years, we have managed to boost research expenditure, strengthen social spending and even to increase spending for the armed forces. The crucial point is whether we have enough jobs. And with good work, we want to produce things that are suitable for the world market. I’m not worried that we won’t be able to complete all these tasks. The dangerous aspect is that if we suffer big weaknesses in an important pillar of our economy, we would have problems of a very different sort.
Are you thinking of the automobile industry?
I’m very much in favor of clearly calling out the mistakes made in the auto industry. The industry has to state what it is doing differently. But we also want to come together again for secure jobs and a strong auto industry. That’s in Germany’s interest.
The auto industry executives and supervisory board members have kept their jobs, despite the fact that drivers were not told the truth about how environmentally friendly their cars really are.
I don’t want to tie this to demands for personnel changes. Those are decisions the companies have to make. It’s important to me that citizens are given transparency and safety, and that what happened cannot happen again….
You are also a little disappointed by what you experienced?
I’ve said before that I’m angry.
Have you lost trust?
It doesn’t mean that one can never have trust again. I don’t stay angry forever.
Well, as chancellor you probably can’t stay angry forever…
I was merely asked whether I have any feelings about this. I was the environment minister for four years. I know my way around the subject pretty well, which is why I achieved that emotional high point.
Gabor Steingart publishes Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global. This interview was condensed for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: email@example.com