Best of the West

New Zealand Listener - - EDITORIAL -

Ev­ery four years, the world watches the US ­pres­i­den­tial elec­tions know­ing the ram­i­fi­ca­tions will be felt far around the globe. So, too, all eyes are now on ­Ger­many, as Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel tries to form a new gov­ern­ment. “Leader of the Free World” is an un­of­fi­cial ti­tle ­tra­di­tion­ally, if of­ten mock­ingly, be­stowed on the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent. There was never any ­qual­i­fi­ca­tion needed, other than oc­cu­pancy of the White House; there was no bal­lot and no ri­val con­tender for the ti­tle. But that all changed with the elec­tion of Donald Trump. Now, it is not clear who “the West” – those coun­tries, in­clud­ing New Zealand, that share a ­com­mit­ment to demo­cratic elec­tions, free ­mar­kets and civil and hu­man rights – would con­sider their ­un­of­fi­cial leader.

It is un­likely that Trump has any de­sire to give up the role, but his be­hav­iour has eroded his pre­sumed right to the ti­tle, just as it has eroded the dig­nity of the of­fice he holds. The re­spect that used to ac­crue as of right to the Pres­i­dent of the United States does not be­long to a man who has ­con­ducted him­self as Trump has done dur­ing the es­ca­la­tion of ten­sion with North Korea, to name one ex­am­ple among so many.

With Merkel, on the other hand, what you see is what you get. There is no flam­boy­ance in her ap­pear­ance or man­ner: in­deed, she ap­pears to take it as a badge of honour that it’s some­times said “dull­ness is her mid­dle name”. A sci­en­tist by train­ing and East Ger­man by birth, she is cau­tious and re­li­able. She has al­ways re­sisted be­ing put on a pedestal. The Chan­cel­lor is the leader of the wealth­i­est and ar­guably most in­flu­en­tial coun­try in Europe and, for her, that is suf­fi­cient au­thor­ity. Hum­bled by Ger­many’s 20th-cen­tury his­tory, she does not seek to be leader of the free world, though she un­der­stands the im­por­tance of Ger­many to Europe and the im­por­tance of a uni­fied Europe to the world.

Any­one who lived through ei­ther or both of the world wars, or walked through the ceme­ter­ies where sol­diers lie who were left be­hind by those ter­ri­ble con­flicts, un­der­stands the im­por­tance of Euro­pean unity, at the heart of which is the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ger­many and France and their abil­ity to get on with Rus­sia.

In that, Merkel demon­strates both am­bi­tion and strength. She has not shrunk from tack­ling Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin over his coun­try’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea, or de­cry­ing Trump’s with­drawal from the Paris Ac­cord on cli­mate change, or call­ing out Turkey’s Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan over hu­man rights. I n May, Merkel de­clared that the time when Ger­many could rely on oth­ers was partly over. “We Euro­peans must re­ally take our fate into our own hands,” she said. Her com­ment ­fol­lowed the G7 meet­ing in Italy, which she de­clared ­un­sat­is­fac­tory and dif­fi­cult, and also Bri­tain’s Brexit vote, which her­alded the start of its ­dif­fi­cult sep­a­ra­tion from the ­Euro­pean Union.

Bri­tain’s lead­ers talk as though their na­tion is still a ma­jor power, even though the ­Com­mon­wealth ex­ists only as a relic of his­tor­i­cal at­tach­ment and ­nos­tal­gic good­will, demon­strated more by the view­er­ship of royal wed­dings than any ­prac­ti­cal trade or mi­gra­tion ben­e­fits. ­Com­mon­wealth coun­tries al­ready knew what Europe learnt in Brexit: Bri­tain’s hand of friend­ship is not ex­tended in per­pe­tu­ity.

Ger­many’s size and eco­nomic power mean that the Western world in­creas­ingly looks to Merkel for lead­er­ship. Her im­me­di­ate ­chal­lenge is to build a coali­tion from the hand that Ger­man vot­ers dealt – a Bun­destag in which her base is eroded, the Greens and Free Democrats rarely see eye to eye, and a far-right party has seats for the first time since World War II.

The suc­cess of that party, ­Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD), is a sig­nal that the Chan­cel­lor’s open­ing of Ger­many’s doors to hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees was too fast and too loose. It is al­ways a risk for politi­cians to get too far ahead of their peo­ple; lead­ing in­cre­men­tally is the art of pol­i­tics. So this elec­tion has de­liv­ered her the op­por­tu­nity for a fourth term, but it has come with a warn­ing.

The rest of the world, in­clud­ing New Zealand, will be hop­ing that she suc­ceeds. If the need for Euro­pean lead­er­ship that is mod­er­ate, prin­ci­pled and hu­mane, while at the same time sta­ble and fear­less, was not ob­vi­ous be­fore, the ag­gres­sive pos­tur­ing of the US Pres­i­dent has made it so now.

The Western world in­creas­ingly looks to Merkel for lead­er­ship.

An­gela Merkel in Kabul in 2007; and with a Syr­ian refugee this year.

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