Merkel's Crowning Achievement: The Road to America

Germans accustomed to Angela Merkel's domestic track record are hard-pressed to recognize the chancellor as she re-orients German foreign policy and takes it back toward its rightful place: at America's side. Thank goodness! An opinion piece by Gabor Steingart.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to Washington: courageous abroad, petrified at home.
AFP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her visit to Washington: courageous abroad, petrified at home.

The ability to be critical and point out mistakes are the crucial factors in the life of the political observer, whose preferred frame of mind is a notorious lack of satisfaction with the status quo. A truly passionate journalist, DER SPIEGEL founder Rudolf Augstein once said, is incapable of writing an article without subconsciously wanting to change the world.

Of course, political leaders of all stripes perceive this attitude as an imposition. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was only being honest, not ungracious, when he berated journalists as "highwaymen." His successor in the office, Helmut Kohl, privately referred to the SPIEGEL journalists who coined the unflattering nickname "Birne" (the German word for pear and slang for "head," a reference to cartoons showing Kohl's head as a pear) as "dung beetles." Even chancellors have the right to defend themselves.

When it comes to this traditional division of labor between politicians and the media -- the task of the former being to govern and that of the latter to criticize -- there is one human ability that gets the short end of the stick: the capacity to register astonishment. The world of politics is by no means the world of reason it is so often portrayed as. On the contrary, it is literally a cosmos of irrationalities, chance occurrences and excessive demands placed on individuals, the latter being at least partly the result of leaders not being given enough time to learn their trades. Drivers typically receive their licenses after spending hours in the student driver seat. But chancellors aren't as lucky. They're already in office by the time they take their first spins around the block. Which brings us to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Talent makes up for a lack of experience

She has given us our fill of astonishing moments by displaying an unexpected flair for foreign policy. When she took office, Merkel set out to reform the country from within. But now she is suddenly rolling up her sleeves and wading into the thick of things worldwide, revealing herself as an instinctive politician who is clearly making up for her lack of experience with talent. Of course, her true caliber on the world stage isn't evident yet, but it is already clear that she has an uncanny ability to get things right the first time, an ability achieved much later in their terms by some chancellors and never by others.

Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, often criticized as a political elephant in a china shop, was truly inept during his first few years in office. He was sure to make Germans at home cringe whenever he went abroad, and the question on everyone's mind was whether he would put his foot in his mouth -- once again.

Kohl's successor and Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, remained a traveling domestic politician until the premature end of his tenure. He was all-too-generous in bestowing his "friendship" on often unworthy recipients, including potentates. He chided the US president because he hoped the tactic would give him the upper hand in the election. Throughout his chancellorship, Schröder remained a brilliant campaigner, but he had an abysmal track record when it came to foreign policy. He excelled at capitalizing on the events of the moment, which explains why no one was overly surprised when he switched from German government service to the Russian government's payroll.

Bringing Germany back to America's side

The astonishment over Angela Merkel is all the more immense when one considers that she has not only managed to tromp across the world's red carpets without mishaps, but, in the short time of her chancellorship, she has also taken the country back to where it belongs -- at America's side.

Germany's ties with Russia were not put on ice in this process, they were merely downgraded. Russia's leaders are partners with Germany, but not its friends. Merkel senses that the old Soviet Union is not as dead as Schröder claimed when he handed the reins to his successor. The authoritarian element didn't go away, partly because it is more deeply rooted than communism. The Russians, it turns out, do not share our values.

The road to America, and this is the salient achievement of Merkel's chancellorship to date, has by no means taken her back to that conservative place marked by a little sign that reads "German-American Friendship," more recently downgraded to the disparaging abbreviation GAF. The idea of Germany as Washington's loyal vassal is now a thing of the past, and it will never return.

Merkel avoids the kinds of sappy fraternal gestures that have always meant subjugation in the past. She sees the United States as a relative on equal footing, not as a parent from across the Atlantic.

The right partner for confronting globalization

Most important, however, Merkel sees the Western superpower as the right partner for confronting the challenges and burdens of globalization. Building on that conviction, she is currently trying out an approach that rivals, in its boldness, the policies of former Chancellor Willy Brandt. Brandt, a Social Democrat, developed a policy of détente toward the Soviet bloc that was based on a principle of "change through trade." His success in convincing the initially suspicious Americans that his concept was superior to theirs made Brandt world-famous.

The current chancellor is attempting to achieve something similar, albeit in a different area. What we see today is not the entire production, of course, but only the opening scene. When Brandt reached the first agreement allowing members of families divided by the Wall to travel between West and East Germany, the wide-reaching impact his policy of détente would have was still far from clear.

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