Why Germany's Merkel gets four hours at the White House

President Obama will spend four hours with German leader Angela Merkel at a White House summit this Friday. Her leadership style shows a new way for 'rising powers' to operate in a multipolar world.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they attend a news conference after their meeting in Berlin April 30.

When Chancellor Angela Merkel visits President Obama at the White House on Friday, she will be seen as more than just the leader of Germany and the economic leader of Europe. Ever since the Ukraine crisis began last November, Ms. Merkel has emerged as the leading decider on Europe’s foreign policy.

Her preferred mix of hard diplomacy and soft sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine has been the dominant position of the European Union, and one largely followed by Mr. Obama. Germany’s mediating role in the crisis shows that it not only has the capacity to balance the traditional big powers of Russia and the United States but that it can also act as a “rising power” on its own, much like China and India try to do.

Merkel’s style of patient, humble, step-by-step diplomacy befits the changing global scene. As the US reconsiders its role in the world, rising powers may be forced to adopt Merkel’s style of seeking cooperation over confrontation, stability over quick action.

Many German leaders make this point. In an April 11 speech, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said: “Today’s process of globalization has made it impossible to build empires in the traditional sense. We no longer have a situation where traditional centers of power dominate the countries in their periphery.”

Globalization, adds Dr. Schäuble, “can be successfully shaped only on the basis of integration, cooperation, and the recognition that our partners are our equals and not on the basis of hegemonic or imperial attitudes and actions.”

In fact, he makes this interesting argument: “If we want freedom, democracy and the rule of law to be spread on a sustainable basis, the best way to do this is through integration, not intervention.”

Resolving the frictions of a multipolar world requires better skills in consensus-seeking, something Merkel first proved for herself in Germany, then within the EU, and now on a global stage. A good example: She has talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin more than a dozen times by phone during the Ukraine crisis, far more than Obama has. She told her German political party that she will “work every day to ensure that we continue to speak with Russia,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The world is now witnessing many clashes because of rising powers (such as China), recovering powers (Russia), and would-be powers (Iran). Many of these powers are motivated by past humiliations. China resents the treatment it received by the West in the 19th century. Russia resents the post-cold-war period. In Germany’s case, however, the postwar period was one of self-imposed humility, not humiliation. This gives it a special strength today as it tries to be a “normal” nation that can be an accepted leader.

Obama will be spending four hours with Merkel this Friday. If power and diplomatic style were measured in time, those hours show how Germany’s role in the world has been welcomed.


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