Why Germany’s Merkel finds it hard to retire

Crisis after crisis has called for her approach, one based more on values than force.

Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel holdsa news conference in Berlin, Germany, Aug. 28.

When it comes to her style of leadership, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has long preferred to rely on values more than power. “You can’t solve the tasks by charisma,” she says. Nor, in the case of postwar Germany, by military force. Values like rule of law and respect for one’s opponents are her trademark. This approach has made Ms. Merkel the most admired democratic leader in the world. And as she prepares to leave politics in 2021, her leadership is in demand more than ever.

This year in Europe and along its borders, crisis after crisis has tested the world’s most powerful woman. When the coronavirus struck, she saw it as the “biggest challenge” in the European Union’s history and coordinated an inclusive and firm approach across the Continent. Then when the United States pulled out of the World Health Organization, Germany filled the void with new funding for the agency.

When Turkey challenged the maritime borders of EU member Greece over oil rights – threatening a war between the two NATO members – she forced deliberation between the two neighbors. When Russia escalated its military role in Libya, she was on the phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin to quell the violence.

When the EU needed to borrow money to get Europe out of its pandemic recession, Germany set aside its aversion to debt and, as Ms. Merkel said, decided to put itself “in the other person’s shoes and consider problems from the other’s point of view.”

With Mr. Putin, she has demanded transparency and accountability for the suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. As a defender of human rights, Germany airlifted Mr. Navalny to a Berlin hospital, confirmed that indeed he had been poisoned, and offered him asylum.

After a rigged election in Belarus, Germany pushed for transparency in the vote count and prepared to impose economic sanctions if the regime killed any more pro-democracy protesters. Ms. Merkel has warned Mr. Putin not to use force in Belarus. She has also stood firm in keeping sanctions on Moscow for its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

For all of the West’s woes with Russia, “we have to keep talking,” she told reporters Aug. 28.

Germany keeps showing respect to Russia even as it disagrees with it. Ms. Merkel has not ended the construction of a gas pipeline from Russia. And in a further move toward reconciliation, Germany is funding a center in St. Petersburg for citizens of both countries to record their memories of World War II and talk together about them.

“The world should thank the Germans – and ask them for more global leadership,” wrote Elisabeth Braw of the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security thinktank, in April. True to her style, Ms. Merkel would probably not want such gratitude. She’s too busy doing good in Europe and for its neighbors.

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