As Americans were coming to terms with their election of Donald Trump, a New York rabbi was conferring an honor on another world leader.
“Many nations are confronted with instability, turbulence and are drifting in a sea of conflict,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor, said in the central Munich synagogue on Nov. 9 after handing over the gold medal. “You have not drifted.”
The recipient was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for her commitment to fighting anti-semitism. More tellingly, she was also praised for her resolve during 11 years in office, steering not just Germany, but the European Union and society as a whole “to uphold the basic human values of civilization.”
Faced with an isolationist U.S., Britain convulsed by Brexit and France burdened with the most unpopular president in history, the 62-year-old Merkel has never stood out more as a beacon of liberal, western authority. The question is how far she will go — or can go — to embrace that mantel as she fights to stop the tide of populism engulfing her.
Merkel hasn’t said whether she will run in next year’s federal election. Hemorrhaging votes to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party and besieged by opponents of her open-door stance on refugees from her own side, a fourth term isn’t guaranteed.
The threat of Trump abandoning the post-World War II order has made Merkel’s decision, expected before her Christian Democratic Union party’s conference in early December, a pivotal event for more than just Germany and Europe. The paradox is that Trump’s victory after deriding her policy on refugees as “insane” and saying she had no chance of re-election might just tip her hand.
“There are other liberal leaders in Europe, but she’s the most prominent one standing up for these basic values,” said Daniel Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “She’s the last prominent upholder of these values, which means there’s more pressure on her to run again.”
The chancellor and president-elect spoke by phone on Nov. 10, and she came away with little insight into his plans, according to a government official with knowledge of the conversation. The previous day, she had left little doubt where she stood.
Whereas British Prime Minister Theresa May was at pains to stress the “special relationship” between the U.K. and the U.S., Merkel reminded Trump of his global responsibilities and laid down the terms of Germany’s co-operation.
“Germany and the U.S. are tied by values, democracy, freedom, respect for the rule of law and the dignity of humankind — independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” the chancellor told reporters in Berlin. She offered Trump close cooperation “on the basis of these values.”
As if to pass on the baton of ground the U.S. is vacating, President Barack Obama will spend two nights in Berlin this week during his final European visit before stepping down in January. Merkel will host the leaders of the U.K., France, Italy and Spain for a mini-summit with the president in the German capital on Nov. 18. Merkel has “probably been my closest international partner these past eight years,” Obama told reporters in Washington ahead of his trip.
During an initially slow-burning chancellorship, Merkel took time to rise to the fore of global policy making, feeling her way through the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the ensuing recession.
As leader of Europe’s biggest economy, she came to real prominence during the debt crisis that spread from Greece throughout the euro area. Germany quickly began to call the shots as the largest contributor to bailout funds, and Merkel learned to be the focus of international criticism for her policy decisions. Even in Greece, which bore the brunt of Germany’s insistence on austerity in return for aid, there is a realization that few other countries can fend off the protectionism that rides on the back of populism.
“Germany is the most extroverted major economy in Europe and the most dependent on exports, meaning that it has a vested interest in keeping the borders of Europe and the world open,” said Gikas Hardouvelis, a former Greek finance minister and now professor at the University of Piraeus. “Merkel is fully aware of this.”
Keeping the euro together is one thing. It’s another to convert Merkel’s support for multilateral institutions from the World Trade Organisation to NATO into the guise of the world’s moral guardian.
It’s not a role Merkel is likely to embrace. Germany is reluctant to act unilaterally, preferring the cover of working within the EU. What’s more, her electorate is already wearied by the demands made on them amid growing international expectations of German leadership.
Her humanitarian stance on refugees gained her a spot on the shortlist for last year’s Nobel Peace Prize, but alienated many Germans. So did the EU accord with Turkey she brokered and there’s the prospect of more such deals during Germany’s presidency of the Group of 20 next year. She was instrumental in applying unpopular sanctions on Russia and is holding the EU-27 line on Brexit.
The German government falls well short of NATO’s 2 percent-of-GDP target for military spending, though is making noises about raising defense outlays, a taboo for many voters given Germany’s history. The country’s first military combat since World War II came in 1999 when it joined the airstrikes on Serbia during the Kosovo conflict.
Chancellery officials acknowledge there’s a risk that Merkel is demanding too much of voters as she presses them to step out of their postwar shadow and assume a greater global responsibility beyond economic clout.
Germany is changing in profound ways and “the German public is thinking about this: do we like this? Do we not like this?” said Karen Donfried, president of the Washington-based Marshall Fund of the U.S. “Clearly many Germans have been sending the signal that she’s asked too much of them,” she said. It’s “pulling apart that domestic political fabric.”
There is, of course, an irony that some are looking to a German chancellor to become the guarantor of the postwar consensus.
Domestic commentators including Nikolaus Blome, deputy editor of the best-selling Bild newspaper, said in an op-ed published Nov. 11 that Merkel must now make clear whether she will run again, since “in these crazy, confused times, we could use some clarity.” Nico Fried said the same day in the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung that he was sure Trump’s victory would give Merkel the final impetus she needs to run.
Presenting Merkel with the Ohel-Jakob Medal in the Munich synagogue rebuilt after it was razed during Adolf Hitler’s Kristallnacht, Schneier, the senior rabbi of East Park Synagogue in New York, urged the chancellor to hold fast to her course.
“You represent hope, confronting every storm with courage, not with defeatism and not succumbing to the ways of demagogues that bring havoc and destruction,” he said. “You don’t blow with the wind.”
As Christoph Amend, an editor at Die Zeit newspaper, tweeted immediately after Trump’s election: “Angela Merkel now really is the leader of the free world.”