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Can Germany, the country that once unleashed Nazism, lead the free world? The idea that the former home of militarism and nationalism could become a beacon for human rights and peaceful international cooperation within one lifetime may seem far-fetched. But with outsider Donald Trump’s election as US president and the rising strength of far-right and populist movements in Europe, some have suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is left as the last powerful defender of liberal values in the West.
Since taking office in 2005, Merkel has been a fixture of the international summit circuit, often providing the only dash of color in row upon row of grey suits. She has outlasted most of her contemporaries, save for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and won plaudits for successfully steering her country through the turmoil of the global financial crisis.
Along the way, the trained physicist has deftly maintained relations with allies as they gained new leaders, including prime ministers and presidents whose positions were very different from her own. Merkel navigated embarrassing moments, too, such as when US President George W Bush caused her to recoil in shock by playfully rubbing her neck at a G8 summit in 2006 and after former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was quoted making sexually explicit comments about her.
Merkel’s relationship with US President Barack Obama hit a stumbling block when it was revealed that the National Security Agency had been monitoring her cellphone, but both leaders weathered the strain. Peter Tauber, the general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, noted that the uncertainty surrounding another country’s new administration usually makes people think “cooperation won’t work anymore.”
With the German chancellor having demonstrated otherwise, “there is a certain opinion that maybe it would be good if Angela Merkel would remain as an anchor of stability among the statesmen of the Western world,” Tauber said. Merkel departed from the usual diplomatic script after Trump’s election last week by suggesting that respect for liberal values was a precondition for Berlin’s continued good relations with Washington. Many commentators saw her remarks as a sign that the chancellor was thrusting Germany into the forefront of international politics.
As if to drive home her point, Merkel repeated Monday that Germany was prepared to “protect the dignity of every person, and that’s independent of religion, origin, sexual orientation, gender or other attributes.” Obama himself reinforced the image of passing the baton to Merkel by choosing to spend two days in Berlin during his final foreign trip as president, and declaring that the German chancellor had “probably been my closest international partner these past eight years.”
Rather than bid farewell to Europe in Paris, the capital of America’s oldest ally, or in Britain-which prides itself on a having a “special relationship” with Washington, Obama’s choice signals recognition that the heart of the old continent now lies in Berlin. The leaders of Europe’s other major powers- Britain, France, Italy and Spain-will meet Obama in the German capital Friday, a day after he confers at length with Merkel.
“The phrase ‘leader of the free world’ is usually applied to the president of the United States, and rarely without irony,” Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and professor of European studies at Oxford University, wrote Friday in Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper. “I’m tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now Angela Merkel.”
Yet skeptics point out that Merkel may not be suited to rally the West. Her decision last year to open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty was seized upon by European nationalists and featured prominently in Britain’s debate over quitting the European Union, which the ‘leave’ camp narrowly won.
European allies blame her for earlier stoking popular unrest by insisting on the need to cut public spending during the continent’s debt crisis. And in Ukraine, Merkel’s recent efforts to maintain a united European front in the face of Russian aggression are looking increasingly fragile. Domestically, Merkel is battling a new nationalist foe in the form of Alternative for Germany, a party that has surged in popularity by railing against refugees. Rather than confronting the party head-on, Merkel has instead stuck to her measured mantra of “We will manage.”
“Germany can’t replace the United States as the leader of the free world,” Josef Braml, an expert on international affairs at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said. “At best, it can protect Europe from nationalist tendencies and remind America that the liberal world order it established is also in the economic interests of the United States. That’s something the new businessman in the White House should be able to understand.”
Close allies say Merkel-who is expected to declare her intention to run for a fourth term in the coming days-is conscious both of her responsibility and the limits of her power. “She is absolutely determined, willing and ready to contribute to strengthen the international liberal order,” said Norbert Roettgen, the head of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “But we can’t see the chancellor of Germany as last man standing. This will only work together, within Europe, and if we can have the backing of the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
For now, German officials are hoping Trump, who called Merkel’s immigration policy “a catastrophe” while campaigning, will tone down his rhetoric once he’s inaugurated. They are conscious that Berlin is in no position to solve problems such as climate change and crises in the Middle East without American help.
In the meantime, Germany hopes that its post-war history will at least serve as an example to other nations. “Our country embodies, perhaps more than any other country in the world, the experience that war can become peace, division can become reconciliation, and that the mania of nationalism and ideology can eventually be replaced by political sanity,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Wednesday.