German-American relations have played prominently in the news lately. But unfortunately, coverage has largely missed the mark. In particular, an inordinate amount of attention was payed to awkward episodes at a Trump-Merkel meeting where the President refused to shake the German Chancellor's hand, and where he made a cringeworthy joke that both he and Merkel had been spied on by Barack Obama.
As symbolically interesting as the tension between the two world leaders was, it was wholly insignificant compared to another unfriendly encounter that happened the next day. At the annual summit of G20 finance leaders in the German city of Baden-Baden, the United States defeated several attempts by the German delegation to add language stressing the importance of free trade and a rules-based international economic order into the summit's joint statement of purpose. This omission is a departure from an unbroken, decade-long tradition of extolling the liberal economic order that goes back to the first G20 summit. Just last year, the world's finance leaders stated plainly that they "[reject] protectionism on trade and investment in all its forms." What a difference one year can make.
We are yet to see what other unprecedented moves the Trump administration will make at the summit, with the President slated to travel to Baden-Baden in the coming week. But the political theater of the past few days — Trump's tense meeting with Merkel, Mnuchin's battle with his German counterparts in a German city, etc. — draw into focus a question that has been on the minds of the world's liberals for months: with the election of Trump and the broader ascent of right-wing populism globally, is Angela Merkel now the "leader of the free world?"
It's an intriguing thought, and Merkel's own actions add to this intrigue. Immediately after Trump's election, she put their two worldviews in sharp contrast. She expressed personal "trepidation" after watching the campaign, and laid out ground rules for Trump, saying: "Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation." (The emphasis here is my own.)
Buttressing claims that she is the leader of the free world, the German Chancellor drew further contrast with Trump at their joint press conference last week. Whereas he has openly rooted for the failure of the European Union, Merkel repeated her defense of the EU on Friday, recalling Europe's long history of war. She noted the central importance of NATO, while he continued his long-standing tirade against the alliance. He offered an unconvincing defense against being labeled an isolationist, while she promoted a vision of globalization as a driver of progress worldwide.
And it's not just the fact that she is more liberal than Trump that causes some to see Merkel filling the leadership role normally attributed to American presidents. Also important is the widespread rise of illiberal, anti-globalization forces in the West and worldwide. Merkel has predictably led the EU to a stern negotiating position over Brexit, hoping to make an example of sorts out of the UK. She remains the strongest bulwark against Putin's advances into Europe, especially with Trump's friendly demeanor towards Russia. And she appears as the last familiar face after Western political leaders have been dropping like flies in the past year. A popular photo circulated in December showing Merkel as the "last leader standing" after the falls of Obama, Cameron, Renzi, and Hollande. And while the narrow defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands' recent election is a welcome lull in the march of right-wing populism, nervous eyes will still be fixed on Marine Le Pen in France and the Alternative for Germany party for the next few months. With relative chaos all around her, Merkel might be the leader of the free world merely by default.
With relative chaos all around her, Merkel might be the leader of the free world merely by default.
That is all partial evidence that Merkel is indeed the face of the post-War order, but the whole picture is not that simple. Merkel's ability to lead the world is constrained heavily by her particular circumstances. First and foremost, Germany remains wholly reliant on America for its military and strategic needs. To address this shortcoming, German Defense Minister Ursla von der Leyen has called for a common EU military force, noting that the United States could no longer be completely relied on. And despite its success in the EU, Germany's economy is still three times smaller than China's and five times smaller than America's. So even if Merkel wanted to take on the a global leadership role in these arenas, the reality of German power and its limits would stop her.
But it's not even clear that Merkel would even want to if she could. Merkel has faced incredibly harsh political consequences in the wake of her decision to admit nearly a million Middle Eastern refugees into Germany, and this has caused her to be more cautious and reserved. Pressure from populists in her country even caused her to support a public ban on burkas and niqabs, a decidedly illiberal move. Constrained by domestic politics, the last thing Merkel would want to do is take on the task of rescuing the world order, a proposition she has called "grotesque and absurd."
So if not Merkel, then who? Who is the leader of the free world? It's certainly not Trump, the anti-trade, pro-Putin, NATO-ambiguous President of the United States. One must believe in the free world in order to lead it. Nor could it be British Prime Minister Theresa May, the offspring of Brexit. Francois Hollande literally lacks the political capital to even run for office. You know the international order is in disarray when China makes a not-entirely-ridiculous claim of "free world" leadership, as Xi Jinping did at Davos in January.
If America elected its leader with people instead of with land, the free world would have a clear leader in Hillary Clinton. But such is not the case. As it stands, the free world does not have a leader, as it always has since 1945. As Barack Obama departed the White House on January 20th, he had a domestic successor, but not one on the international stage.
For all her apprehension, Merkel's preeminence among liberal leaders does have merit. But she cannot fill the role for very long. Angela Merkel is essentially the "acting leader" of the free world — the interim chair, as it were. She is filling the role out of necessity, but she lacks the ability to shepherd the liberal international order in any meaningful way on her own. Until Trump leaves office or does a 180 with his foreign policy, there is no one at the wheel. The world ought to buckle up.
Photo Credit European People's Party, Creative Commons