Reviews | Angela Merkel was underestimated and she became her superpower
Almost every article written about Angela Merkel’s tenure as German Chancellor points out that one of her greatest political strengths is that she is so often underestimated. In this, she is not unique: Helmut Kohl, who launched Ms Merkel into politics and spent even more time in the Chancellor’s office, once said: “I earn my living by being underestimated.
There are many differences between Ms Merkel and Mr Kohl – she came from a Protestant family in Communist East Germany, he from the Catholic Rhineland; she was a serious scientist before entering politics, he a politician almost from the start. But it is a reflection on modern German politics, and Germany’s place in the world, that for more than 30 tumultuous years – years in which Germany and the world were radically reorganized – the country was led by two conservative leaders who made it a virtue of being decidedly not very charismatic in style, demeanor and speech.
This may be due in part to the fact that Germany’s Nazi past discouraged demagoguery, passion and self-glorification in politics. Whatever the reason, it worked for Germany. Although Mr Kohl exited politics under the guise of a political finance scandal – an exit for which Ms Merkel, his former protégé, gave him the final impetus – the world has given him a firm place in it. history as a statesman who played a central role in the peaceful reunification of Germany and Europe.
Ms Merkel, widely regarded as the true leader of Europe and the most powerful woman in the world, is already reaping greater praise. Certainly, serious questions continue to loom over its tight approach to the eurozone debt crisis, its refusal to scuttle the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, Germany’s continued reluctance to increase military spending and its failure to take serious action against the rise of authoritarian populists in Central Europe.
But when millions of Syrians began to flee their war-torn land for Europe’s security, Merkel refused to close the doors. “Wir schaffen das” – the German equivalent of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” – was his signature way of countering the fears of the wave of asylum seekers, a phrase that has become a sort of motto for his leadership.
There will be many more assessments of his 16-year rule after Sunday’s election that will determine his successor, and what will follow, and many will focus on the uncertainties facing German and European politics in the post-era era. -Merkel. The Economist wrote on “the mess Merkel leaves behind”; The Guardian’s take on Europe that Merkel brings out was “issues managed, not resolved”; The German Wall Street Journal correspondent writes that his international legacy will be “cooler transatlantic relations”.
Yet at a time when American democracy appears crippled by deep polarization, when elected leaders of many Western democracies are looked down upon and autocrats multiply, it might be useful to also consider what enabled Merkel to profit from the consistently high approval ratings and for Germany to enjoy a high degree of prosperity and political harmony under his leadership.
Part of this is due to the real political competence behind Ms Merkel’s lack of interest in power traps. Her demeanor may be that of a naturally modest woman raised in a Protestant home in a police state, and her non-confrontational style may be a response to having to function in a conservative male-dominated political party. But pity those who have taken his blandness for weakness, or his calm for lack of calculation.
Friends say that in private she has a keen sense of humor. She does her homework with the impartial attention of a scientist before negotiations or meetings, and she has never flinched at the crass macho antics of adversaries like Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump. The photo of Merkel, with Group of 7 leaders in line behind her, staring fiercely at a seated US president is an icon of resistance to the infuriating Mr Trump.
After Mr Putin, knowing that Ms Merkel is afraid of dogs, deliberately summoned his black lab to the room where they met, she offered a biting explanation: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove that he is a man. He is afraid of his own weakness.
This is one of the very few quotes from Ms Merkel, but it is not for lack of things to say. A few years ago, she explained in an interview that she just never believed that “a person can touch others so much with words that he changes his mind.” As a result, she has always focused more on actions than words. She hardly ever gives interviews to foreign media outlets, and those she does to German media are rarely exciting. She never gave the tabloids the slightest hint of scandal.
These traits of honesty, modesty, discipline, perseverance and reserve would seem almost strange elsewhere, for example in New York. But when someone facing almost insurmountable political difficulties – as a woman, East German, and scientist – reaches the pinnacle of German power and stays there for four terms, there is something for America and the United States. other democracies, where honest people increasingly shy away from politics, learn and imitate.
Merkel’s tenure has not been flawless, and the Germany she leaves to the next Chancellor, who may not be known for weeks, will continue to float cautiously in a world of perpetual crises. Its true legacy is proof that effective politics does not necessarily mean losing humanity or steadfastness, and that being underestimated can be the real key to political longevity.