German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Source: IMO at German National Maritime Conference/Flickr)
This weekend, the world’s most powerful leaders will gather in Hamburg for the G-20 summit. The main event for many observers will be the first (or at least the first publicly confirmed) face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Also in the spotlight, however, will be the event’s nominal host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. After a year in which she was buffeted by criticism for her handling of Germany’s immigration policy and its handling of the Greek debt crisis in the EU, Merkel’s political fortunes have been on the upswing over the last three months. As she leads her Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (collectively, the CDU/CSU) into national elections in September, Merkel appears destined for re-election. At the same time, she has become a lightning rod in the current storm over the Atlantic, thrust into the role of the leader of the opposition to the Trump administration’s agenda.
President Trump appears to have a significant problem with the Germans, and with Merkel in particular. His off the cuff comment during his trip to Europe in May that the Germans were “Bad… very bad” stood out—and sent Germans scurrying to their dictionaries to decide how to translate the president’s sentiment. Did he mean böse (which can translate as evil?) or schlecht (a more generic word for “bad”)? Was he referring to particular policies, or to the larger German character? Whatever the etymological foundation, it was notable that President Trump, who went out of his way to avoid criticizing any of his other hosts on his international trip, used such unusually negative terms to speak of one his country’s staunchest allies, including multiple references to the German failure to meet NATO’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defense.
Although his indictment of German trade policy and defense spending is consistent with criticisms leveled by others, Trump’s reaction to Merkel reflects some characteristic blind spots regarding Germany and its role in the world. That Merkel’s administration endorsed NATO’s 2014 plan to raise defense spending, and has affirmed Germany’s commitment to reach the goal in the face of domestic opposition, has received no mention in the president’s speeches. Nor has Germany’s tenacious diplomacy on the ongoing Ukraine crisis. For President Trump, Germany and Merkel have become the symbol for all he dislikes about Europe, a sentiment shared by many of his closest supporters.
Merkel has responded to the criticism from Washington with criticism of her own. In a campaign speech to CSU members after the G-7 meeting, she warned that Europeans could no longer automatically rely on the United States or Great Britain, and should work more closely together to advance their interests. As a further symbolic gesture, the CDU/CSU’s election platform has changed the wording of the relationship with the United States, no longer referring to Washington as Germany’s “friend” in favor of the more impersonal choice of “partner.”
It remains to be seen whether the president will use this visit to Europe to modify the first impression he made in May. Donald Trump is not alone in his criticism of Merkel, however, nor does he show any signs of relenting. The popularity Merkel has earned as Time Magazine’s 2015 Person of the Year—an article in which she was given the grandiose title, “Chancellor of the Free World” (a moniker she has never sought and which sits uneasily upon those shoulders that George W. Bush famously tried to rub) have made her a target for many opponents. The nature of those criticisms tells us a great deal about the current state of the transatlantic alliance, and provide reason to fear for the future of the West.
Anglo-American conservatives have never really known what to do with Angela Merkel. For all the comparisons between her and Margaret Thatcher as successful leaders of European conservative parties, Merkel does not inspire the same level of devotion from conservatives outside of Germany. This is in part due to the significant differences between the laissez-faire conservatism of Thatcher’s Tories and that more statist conservatism of Merkel’s Christian Democrats. With its complex inheritance of both capitalism and Catholic social teaching, Christian Democracy has always been more comfortable with public intervention in the economy, as indicated by the CDU/CSU’s embrace of the complicated (even oxymoronic) concept of the Social Market Economy. For many Anglo-American conservatives, who are classical liberals at heart, the very word “social” is suspect, and they have had problems with Continental Christian Democrats for years. For too many conservatives, whose default setting is Euroskepticism, continental Europe is a hotbed of socialism, and that’s that.
As the head of a coalition government that includes the Social Democrats (SPD) for most of her time in office, Merkel has raised conservative ire further, compromising with the SPD on spending issues that have made even the more capitalist-friendly elements of her party blanch. Merkel’s personal history as a native of the former communist German Democratic Republic also causes some to wonder whether she might have some basic hostility to capitalism. At the same time, however, “green eyeshade conservatives” should be impressed by a chancellor who has managed to present balanced budgets over the past five years, with mounting surpluses over the last three. One looks in vain for leaders of any democratically elected party—conservative, liberal, or whatever—who can currently make such a claim.
Conservative critiques of Merkel have not insulated her against criticism from the other flank. The Left is not fond of her either—if only because she has stolen much of their thunder, on issues ranging from renewable energy to migration. The SPD has been continually frustrated in its efforts to escape its position as the junior member of a Grand Coalition with the CDU/CSU. After struggling to gain electoral traction for the better part of the past year, the SPD thought it had hit the jackpot by electing a new party leader and chancellor candidate, Martin Schulz. The former president of the European parliament had both international stature and a working-class background, and he immediately scored points by promising a return to traditional SPD positions on expanding the welfare state. Enthusiasm for Schulz has faded of late, however, as the CDU has scored major victories in state elections, and Merkel is riding high again in national polls.
Leftist criticism of Merkel is not limited to her domestic rivals, however. Merkel has also absorbed heavy criticism from the global Left for her European policy. She is the champion of austerity, and has been a tenacious defender of Germany economic policy—whether on demanding that Greece accept harsh debt terms or on claiming that Germany’s trade surplus is good for the world economy. This led even such a relentlessly anti-Trump outlet as Slate to publish a piece claiming the president “has a point” with his criticism of the Germans. (Though, amusingly, the headline of the piece was altered sometime after initial publication to avoid appearing too positively disposed toward Donald Trump.)
Beyond establishment criticism from the Left and Right, populists in particular loathe Merkel for her domestic moderation, her European advocacy, and especially for her commitment to immigration reform. Facing a humanitarian crisis in the late summer of 2015, Merkel famously offered an open invitation for migrants to come to Germany. Hundreds of thousands ultimately came. International praise for this decision (which played a major role in Time’s decision to make her Person of the Year for 2015) quickly ebbed after a series of sex crimes on New Year’s Eve 2015 and after subsequent news stories exposed significant problems in the assimilation of so many newcomers. Merkel faced criticism not only from the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland but also within her own party (especially the CSU). In response, she advocated a series of legal reforms to encourage the repatriation of criminal migrants, and also pursued an international agreement with Turkey to help block the migrant flow.
For populists across Europe, however, it is her first decision, and not the subsequent adjustments, that show Merkel’s true colors. Marine Le Pen, smarting at an interviewer’s question as to why the other leaders of Europe declined to meet with her during her presidential campaign because she was “toxic,” launched a rant against Merkel for being toxic herself for her policies. Le Pen’s indictment was not quite coherent, but covered all the bases of the populist distaste: Merkel was responsible for austerity with her insistence on maintaining the euro, Merkel was also responsible for migrant chaos for her decision to allow so many migrants into Germany. For populists, she is both hard-hearted and soft-headed, and equally vilified for both sins.
Loathing for Merkel’s policies and frustration at her success and good press has also led to the usual clichés of warning about Nazi and German dominance of Europe. This extends beyond placards in Greek protests to also include semi-learned pseudonymous articles in Trumpist outlets such as Zero Hedge and American Greatness.
The connection between such populist conservatives and anti-Merkelism is made through British Euroskeptics, both within and outside of the Tory party, who have been warning of the EU as a German plot with nefarious background since the Thatcher Era, and whose comments are still spiced with references to Baroness Thatcher’s tart comments about congenital German flaws. In the current tensions between Merkel and Trump, some conservatives have even hinted darkly at Germany’s plans to strike a deal with Russia—warnings that require one to ignore both President Trump’s own warm words for Moscow and Chancellor Merkel’s central role in supporting sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.
Just this week, Victor David Hanson in National Review repeated many of these tropes, accusing Merkel of being motivated by a “strange driving force” to open the doors to immigrants in pursuit of an anti-American, anti-Christian agenda. Hanson’s comment that Merkel criticized the Trump administration in a “Munich beer hall” (referring to her May speech to the CSU) drips with historical innuendo—and ignores that her speech was part of a democratic election campaign, held in a tent erected for the purpose.
There may indeed be a pathology at work in these discussions of Germany, but considering the vitriol of the attacks on someone as moderate and Western as Merkel, one cannot avoid the conclusion that the pathology lies not in some deep subconscious German lust for another Reich as in the subconscious of her critics. An unwillingness to grant the humanitarian impulses behind Merkel’s 2015 decision to welcome immigrants is perhaps understandable, if historically myopic; an inability to see the ways that Merkel has presided over policy changes to limit the flow of refugees since then (both in German laws and in her pursuit of a deal with Turkey) is rather less so. They reflect a willingness to believe anything negative about Germany, even if that leads to claiming to see a brown shirt peeking out from the pantsuit and jackboots where there are only sensible shoes.
The charge that Merkel is the face of German dominance also ignores the degree to which her criticism of American policy is widely shared across Europe. Longtime analyst of European politics Judy Dempsey, for example, sees Merkel as the rallying figure for the defense of transatlantic values—free trade, democracy, individual rights, as well as resistance to Russian efforts to re-establish dominance in Eastern Europe—that the current administration has chosen to abandon. Merkel herself may be uncomfortable with loose talk about being “leader of the free world,” but she has been able to rally Europe to her positions. Even if the details of policy can be debated, her willingness to stand up for values that have guided the West through the Cold War deserve praise rather than dark innuendo.
Professional “moderates” like to say that if you are being attacked from both the Right and the Left, you must be doing something good. This is sometimes true, but it is by no means universal. Sometimes being attacked from all sides might be proof that you are dead wrong. In Merkel’s case, it is also important to see that she is far from perfect. Her handling of the Greek budget situation was, at times, inflexible, and her swift about faces on energy and immigration each required her to readjust after initially miscalculating the downsides. Right now, she has shocked many in Germany by softening her opposition to marriage equality, a decision that is hailed in some quarters as brave leadership and canny electoral politics, but criticized in other quarters as proof that she doesn’t have any firm principles at all. Both may be true to a certain degree. It is certainly worth debating whether her form of leadership, which relies on quiet long-term management and tactical finesse rather than dramatic statements and bold initiatives, is at least partially responsible for allowing certain issues to go unresolved for too long.
At the same time, the different nature of the criticism from the Right and Left indicates a disturbing trend in transatlantic politics. Criticisms of Merkel from the Left tend to follow traditional political grooves—she is accused of being a conservative at heart, seizing opportunities to triangulate and co-opt leftist positions for electoral advantage to keep her party and its agenda in power. That is certainly quite frustrating for the opposition parties, and for her social democratic partners, but it is also very much in a long tradition. Social Democratic Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schröder absorbed similar attacks by the CDU/CSU for being equally good at co-opting center-right positions.
The criticism coming from the Right is another issue. Some of it comes from disgruntled elements within the CDU/CSU, who worry that too much tactical adoption of center-left positions undermines the Union’s traditional principles. That is the mirror image of the main criticism from the Left, and experience indicates that sooner or later every political party or movement will pull back from too much centrism. Merkel’s success in undermining critics within the CDU leadership has preserved her position, and her current high poll numbers mean she is secure through this election campaign. It does not take too much imagination, however, to see that her successors will have to deal with a significant backlash.
The criticism from the right-wing outside the CDU/CSU, however, is another matter. When devotees of the Alternative für Deutschland attack her for willfully seeking to destroy German culture with her immigration policies, they come quite close to ominous traditions of accusing democratically elected leaders of Volksverrat, or treason against the people. When those themes are further taken up by Euroskeptics outside of Germany, who mix it with the apparently contradictory argument that she is using the EU as a vehicle for a German plan for world domination, they become even more corrosive to Western unity.
In the era of Brexit, all of the structures of the West have been called into question. If the EU is no longer a one-way street toward “Ever closer union,” then what should the relationship among European states look like? NATO may no longer be “obsolete” in the eyes of President Trump, but is it still an essential political organization, an alliance of democracies, or an arrangement of convenience among states who have to be reminded to pay their dues? If, as suggested in a recent op-ed by National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and White House Adviser Gary Cohn, the United States no longer believes in an international community of common values, but in an arena of competition where each member pursues its own interests, what will become of notions of Western values, or of the Atlantic Alliance as an organization to protect them? President Trump used his speech in Warsaw on Thursday to ask whether the West has “the will to survive.” But does he have a vision of the West that will embrace the traditional values of free trade, solidarity, and mutual respect? Will the other leaders of the West be able to offer suggestions of their own to build a more coherent relationship for the future?
Answers to any of the questions will depend upon the commitment of the leaders of the West to work together. It does not require them to agree on all things at all times, but it does require a sense of mutual respect, and a common belief that any policy differences do not overshadow their common values. Angela Merkel has made a career of articulating policies based on those common values, and she will be a central figure in the debates to come. She deserves better than being accused of secret plots for world domination.
Nevertheless, Angela Merkel will not stay in office forever, no matter how well she does in this fall’s elections. Her long run in the chancellorship is impressive, but not unprecedented. Two of her CDU predecessors, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, won four consecutive elections as well. Each in his own way accomplished great things. Nevertheless, neither could avoid the inevitable erosion of their authority, the missteps that come after too many years in power, and the exhaustion of an electorate that eventually wanted something new. One can hope that, unlike them, Merkel will have a keener sense of the right time and place to depart, and better luck in choosing a successor. That all remains to be seen.
Right now, there is no one on the horizon, within Germany or elsewhere, who possesses her combination of skill, patience, and principle. When one considers not only the Trump Administration’s current attitude toward the Atlantic Alliance but also the current weakness of Europe’s other two traditional leaders, Britain and France, it is even more apparent that she will leave a significant gap in German, European, and transatlantic politics when she leaves. The consequences will be felt across the West. The search for Merkel’s replacement will likely lead to a difficult transitional period, at a time when the global challenges facing the West are only likely to grow. That is something that should indeed scare us all.