Occasionally, writers allow the pleasant sound of a sentence to supplant a more prosaic description of reality. Here is an example from me: “The leader of the free world will host Donald Trump on Thursday, ”I wrote in July 2017.“ This will be the third time that Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, will meet the American president. Alas, I’m afraid I was a little too generous with Merkel. To be the leader of the free world, it takes more than just responsible governance. You have to take risks and make sacrifices.
I am one of the many semi-admirers of the outgoing German Chancellor – and first wife – and her second since Otto Von Bismarck (Helmut Kohl was only three months older than Merkel). What other Democratic leader has won four straight elections – and likely a fifth if she ran in Sunday’s election? When Merkel came to power, Tony Blair was still Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, George W Bush was entering his second term, Jacques Chirac had two more years as President of France and Twitter had not yet been invented.
Merkel’s rock-solid strength is in itself a remarkable achievement. The same goes for Merkel’s calm predictability – except for her reckless decision to admit 1 million Syrian refugees in 2015 and to cancel Germany’s nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This quality stood out with special resonance during the four-year Twitter storm known as the Trump administration.
Germany’s relative success in keeping far-right populism at bay owes much to the seriousness, if not the boredom, of its political culture. In which other country does the leader party go to the polls on the slogan “No experiments!” as Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union once did? Unlike the English-speaking democracies and, of course, Italy, politics in Germany is not a branch of the entertainment industrial complex. Merkel is the personification of it.
Yet in her final days, Merkel has been subjected to a well-deserved revisionism from critics who don’t see her as the towering figure some claim to be. Of these, the best is that of Matthias Matthijs and R Daniel Kelemen in Foreign Policy – “The other side of Angela Merkel”. It is also worth reading the always sharp Jeremy Cliffe in the New Statesman. My colleague Alan Beattie once credited Matthijs and Kelemen with coining the perfect phrase – “merkantilism” to describe his “systematic priority of German commercial and geoeconomic interests over democratic values and human rights or intra-solidarity. EU “. They continue: “From her pampering Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban as he built the EU’s first autocracy to her active court of Europe’s geostrategic rivals in Russia and China, Merkel tended to place German profit and opportunity above European principles and values. ”
Two things seem particularly obvious to me. The first is Merkel’s protection of Hungarian Orban, a neofascist who made fun of European values. His motivations were commercial – Hungary is both a production site and a market for large German manufacturers. Second, its decision to go ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which makes Ukraine much more vulnerable to Russian encroachment. It was shortsighted and is likely to boomerang over Germany and Europe in the years to come.
The slightest indictment is Merkel’s age-old political device of kicking the box on the road. In Germany there is even a word, merkeln, which means chronic indecision. Whoever succeeds Merkel after Sunday’s election will inherit a patchwork of band-aids, workarounds and Nelsonian blindness that will be hard to ignore. Chief among them is Germany’s refusal to be a serious player in foreign policy. Europe’s budgetary development is another. Far from being Europe’s ‘Hamiltonian moment’, Merkel’s deal last year on the creation of jointly responsible coronabonds looks more like a one-off change than a permanent change in EU budget arrangements .
Still, I’m going to give Merkel two cheers for her departure anyway. It has its faults. But the right question in politics is always to ask “in relation to what?” The current generation of German leaders, including CDU leader Armin Laschet, lack Merkel’s political skills. The same is true for most of its international counterparts. And Merkel’s boldest decision – to allow an influx of Syrian refugees into Germany without consulting her European partners, let alone reforming her asylum system – came for good reasons.
To paraphrase Robert Kagan’s 2002 essay, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus,” Merkel may have lacked this Martian advantage, but not as much as the Martians in the United States, in Great Britain. Brittany and elsewhere have missed that Venus touches.
Rana, am I being too kind or critical of Merkel? Will you miss her too?
In this vein, my column this week raises concerns about the acceleration of the Indo-Pacific arms race between China and the United States and its allies. “On China, Washington is largely of the same opinion. Biden won’t earn any brownie points for standing to the left of it.
My colleague Martin Wolf had a well timed and pointed column calling on the US Fed to end quantitative easing. A day later, Jay Powell, the chairman of the Fed, gave his strongest signal yet that he will start cutting the $ 120 billion in monthly purchases in the near future. Few things have fueled inequality in the United States and around the world as much as the central bank’s unprecedented support for financial asset prices.
I also urge Swampians to read my colleague Philip Stephens latest Financial Times column – after 35 years as one of the main voices of the newspaper. That’s why the French are right about the Americans – they are indeed reckless unilateralists but they are the best we have, he argues. We will no doubt see many of Philip’s books in the years to come.
Catch up on Swamp’s previous notes on FT.com.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I will definitely miss Angela. As a frugal Midwestern woman, I have a bit of a crush on her Swabian housewife vibe (both macro and micro level; so many exports, so little debt, costumes so simple! ) made possible by the lavishness of southern Europe.
Like most Germans, Merkel never really wanted to admit that her country is the biggest beneficiary of the euro, and that Germany very often acts like Europe’s China (congratulations to Matthijs and Kelemen for their invention of the word). Plus, she was unwilling to make some of the really tough choices between trade and liberal democratic values, as you point out.
Yet, I have long admired the way she communicates as a leader. There’s no Macronian drama, and it feels like she actually has a personal life. Far from seeing him as a snub, I admired her decision to give up being the very first foreign leader in the Biden administration to call, as she was tied up in the garden. Well done. I hope she has more time to do it now, and I look forward to reading her memoirs.
And now a word from our Swampians. . .
In response to ‘United States vs. China – Part Two ‘:
“My grandfather used to say that when people talk, you have to believe them. The Chinese ratified that they are a communist state in their 2017 constitutional reform. We should believe them. The implications are so massive that we prefer to think that they are just lip service to this statement. We should not characterize China as state capitalism. To begin with, there is no private property, no independent justice, two foundations of capitalism. China is engaged in a much more complex experience, difficult to define. Limited and politically controlled economic freedom comes to mind, but the contradiction in terms is mind-boggling. Time will tell how this experience will unfold. – Alfredo Rodriguez, Washington, DC
In response to ‘The Democratic Party’s double standards on wealth inequality‘:
“The ‘deferred interest’ loophole is for me the canary of the coal mine. Until it is eliminated, I will continue to think that the government’s tax system is completely corrupt. Of course, the easiest way is to equalize capital gains rates and ordinary income rates, but direct elimination would also be acceptable. Doing neither is extremely disappointing. The problem is, most readers outside of the investment world have no idea what ‘deferred interest’ means, but they would practice a lot more if they knew that it means investment managers pay. capital gains rates on what would otherwise be regular income bonus payments. Perhaps a column detailing and highlighting how it works and even suggesting another name for it next to “focused interest” was moving public opinion. – Ira Wagner, Bethesda, Maryland