Can German Chancellor Angela Merkel pick up the banner of the West, now that Donald Trump has dropped it to wave the America First one?
That’s certainly the hope of a growing number of people around the world. A Pew Research Center poll among citizens of G20 countries finds that only people in Russia and India have more confidence in the American president than the German Chancellor. In key American allies France, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and Australia, two-thirds or more say they trust Merkel while only 30% or less express any confidence in Trump. In recent months, the claim that Merkel is now, by default, “leader of the free world” has been made by countless pundits.
Never mind that many of the people championing Merkel as de facto leader of the West are now attacking Trump for defending it last week in Warsaw, claiming the very concept of “the West” to be code for white supremacy. As for Merkel herself, she humbly rejects the nomination, and for good reason: in no way is Germany qualified or even interested in assuming the mantle of global leadership.
It’s not hard to understand why so many people, dejected American liberals in particular, would look to Germany in these trying times. According to a 2013 BBC poll, Germany is the most admired country in the world. Merkel’s open door policy to migrants, no matter how ill-conceived in retrospect, endeared her to manh, and contrasts sharply with an American president cruelly attempting to close America’s doors to the tired, the poor and the weak. Add in the country’s commitment to green energy, diplomatic multilateralism, and a host of other altruistic initiatives, and you begin to understand how the land that once embodied the depths of human evil has transformed itself – at least in the eyes of many – into being the world’s most moral nation.
However much she may embody the values of the West – pluralism, openness, democracy – Merkel leads a country that is no position to defend them on the world stage, certainly not to the same extent as the United States. The liberal world order that Washington constructed with its allies in the wake of the World War II is ultimately undergirded by America’s enormous and unmatched military power and reach. Seven decades after that devastating conflict, Germany remains a nation wedded to pacifism. For all the well-deserved grief Trump has received for denigrating NATO and equivocating over America’s commitment to the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense clause, it was a German Social Democratic Foreign Minister who last year referred to the alliance’s military exercises in Eastern Europe as “warmongering” and “saber-rattling.” Today, it’s another Social Democratic Foreign Minister who has decided to make NATO a campaign issue, labelling as “totally unrealistic” Trump’s demand that Germany spend 2% of its GDP on defense, despite the fact that a coalition government including Social Democrats agreed to the spending increases at a 2014 NATO summit. While Trump was assailed for suggesting, during the presidential campaign, that America’s commitment to Article V be contingent upon member states’ payment of non-existent NATO “dues,” a majority of Germans express the opinion that their country should not use force to defend a fellow NATO ally under attack. Indeed, among 8 NATO countries polled, Germans are the least willing to defend an ally using military force.
Germany’s penchant for peace, entirely understandable given its history, alas makes it unsuitable for leading the free world at a time when authoritarian powers are using military might to enforce their will. Berlin’s decision to abstain from the 2011 United Nations Security Council vote establishing a no-fly zone over Libya as Muammar Ghadaffi’s troops threatened to destroy the city of Benghazi, and its refusal to cooperate with NATO’s efforts to protect civilians, put it at odds with American and European allies. Though Merkel has led the European Union in sanctioning Russia over its annexation of Crimea and ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, she has adamantly opposed sending defensive weapons to Kyiv. In those rare occasions when Germany does deploy its military abroad, as in Afghanistan, it’s with rules of engagement so constricted that its soldiers rarely engage in battle.
For all the justified fear that Trump will upset global politics by fashioning some sort of “grand bargain” with Moscow, Germany is the last country anyone valuing the virtues of “the free world” should want leading Western policy toward Russia. War-era guilt, extensive business ties, and the aforementioned pacifism have long made Germany Europe’s weakest link in resisting Russian influence-peddling. The German government is currently lobbying to construct the Nordstream 2 pipeline which would bypass Ukraine and other vulnerable states in Central and Eastern Europe to transport Russian gas directly to Germany. Such an arrangement would not only deprive those middleman states of vital transit revenue, it would also enable the Kremlin to exert greater political influence over Europe through politically motivated energy blackmail. Weakening European Union attempts at energy diversification, abandoning smaller countries to Moscow’s whims, and thwarting a common policy toward Russia and Ukraine, Nordstream 2 is the epitome of foreign policy unilateralism, the sort of short-sighted and selfish undertaking that Germans love to bemoan when practiced by the United States.
Proclaiming Germany the new leader of the free world feeds into a particularly noxious German trait: self-righteousness. “Many in the land of Goethe and Schiller never got over the fact that it was a gum-chewing GI who brought us democracy,” writes Jan Fleischhauer of Der Spiegel, referring to the American soldiers of World War II. “Now we are the ones who have the task of facing fascism and wrestling the new leader in the White House—what a punch line to the story!” America’s geography, sheer size, military prowess, and unique history as a propositional nation of immigrants with universal values make it the only country capable of leading the community of democratic nations against the free world’s many and determined enemies. This is why Trump’s abdication of America’s traditional leadership role is so dangerous and so grave: there is no one, not even a well-meaning German Chancellor, prepared to replace it.