Merkel new ‘leader of the free world’?

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

The shock elec­tion of Don­ald Trump as US pres­i­dent has forced greater re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­fend­ing West­ern val­ues and in­ter­ests onto Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s shoul­ders, an­a­lysts say, with some even crown­ing her the new “leader of the free world”. While the last decade has been de­fined by Bri­tain, France, Ger­many and the US show­ing a largely united front on is­sues rang­ing from NATO af­fairs to de­fense of ba­sic free­doms, the com­ing four years may present a more frag­mented pic­ture.

Dur­ing his cam­paign Trump sig­nalled a pro­tec­tion­ist and anti-im­mi­gra­tion stance, while Bri­tain is pre­oc­cu­pied with se­cur­ing its fu­ture out­side the European Union after June’s stun­ning ref­er­en­dum vote to exit the bloc. France’s Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande is grap­pling with record low rat­ings ahead of next May’s elec­tion that could see far-right Marine Le Pen reach­ing the sec­ond round run-off vote.

Merkel, after 11 years at the helm, now looks in­creas­ingly like the only bul­wark of sta­bil­ity and lib­eral free­dom among West­ern al­lies. “Merkel... has sud­denly be­come the most im­por­tant leader of the free, demo­cratic and lib­eral world,” said the left-lean­ing TAZ daily. The his­to­rian and colum­nist Ti­mothy Gar­ton Ash agreed in an ed­i­to­rial for Bri­tain’s Guardian news­pa­per: “I’m tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now An­gela Merkel.”

Rather than visit Bri­tain - a nat­u­ral stop for any US leader given the two coun­tries’ spe­cial re­la­tion­ship, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama was trav­el­ling yes­ter­day to Ber­lin on his last of­fi­cial trip to Europe, in what al­most seems like the pass­ing of a ba­ton to Merkel. Ahead of the visit, Obama said Merkel “has prob­a­bly been my clos­est in­ter­na­tional part­ner these last eight years”.

Coun­ter­ing Putin or Er­do­gan

Merkel’s strik­ing mes­sage to Trump after his vic­tory was not lost on ob­servers - where her peers sim­ply pledged close ties, she tied them to demo­cratic val­ues. She said that any “close co­op­er­a­tion” must be on the ba­sis of the “val­ues of democ­racy, free­dom, re­spect for the rule of law and hu­man dig­nity, re­gard­less of ori­gin, skin color, re­li­gion, gen­der, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion or po­lit­i­cal be­lief ”.

The re­marks in­di­cated the Ger­man leader is likely to ac­cept per­haps grudg­ingly - the man­tle of “leader of the real, re­main­ing West and re­mind Trump of val­ues”, said Die Welt daily. “She is more than ever the woman who is coun­ter­ing men like Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan,” said the TAZ. Merkel, 62, does not have Obama’s or­a­tor­i­cal flour­ishes but her voice is in­creas­ingly force­ful on the world stage. She put her flu­ent Rus­sian to good use in me­di­at­ing in the Ukraine con­flict with Putin.

When most European coun­tries were busy shut­ting their doors to refugees flee­ing war in pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim coun­tries, Merkel let in nearly 900,000 peo­ple last year - a stance that Trump branded “in­sane”. Trump, who pledged to de­port mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented mi­grants from the US, made anti-im­mi­grant poli­cies a key plank of his cam­paign. And few ex­pect him to take the lead in coun­ter­ing Putin, given his open praise for the Rus­sian strong­man. If Trump makes good on his prom­ises to rip up deals on free trade, cli­mate change and Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram, as well as re­con­sider pro­tec­tion for NATO al­lies that haven’t paid their dues, it could spell the end of the United States’ post-World War II role as the guar­an­tor of world peace.

Ste­fani Weiss, an ex­pert on European in­te­gra­tion and for­eign poli­cies at the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion, said the US had started to re­treat as “world po­lice” un­der Obama and cede more re­spon­si­bil­ity to Europe. “This is a trend that will likely pre­vail and in­ten­sify with Trump’s pres­i­dency,” she said. It re­mains to be seen how ef­fec­tively Merkel can push her agenda on the global stage, if Trump, as leader of the world’s big­gest econ­omy, adopts con­trary poli­cies on mi­gra­tion, cli­mate change and sanc­tions tar­get­ing Rus­sia.

‘Can’t Do This Alone’

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