More than seventy years after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, 2017 should be the year when Europe’s richest country reasserts its influence over the globe. Germany should act as a leader for all liberal and democratic nations.
Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century, the United States was expected to play this leading role, but the past year has revealed a series of important transformations across the western political world. The snowball began rolling on 23 June when Britain voted to leave the European Union. Since the summer, this snowball has picked up seemingly unstoppable momentum with the victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election. In France, Francois Fillion emerged victorious in the French Republican primary race. The historic stalwarts of the West are moving ever closer to the right.
That these previous bastions of the global liberal order have all taken a step, or several, towards a more authoritarian style of government should compel Germany, and its chancellor Angela Merkel, to assume the responsibility of ‘leader of the free world’, in spite of any reservations that she holds. The dearth of global-liberal leadership is problematic when contentious issues such as immigration, Syria and aggressive Russian behaviour are threatening to divide previously united nations.
However, on all these issues, Merkel provides morally-orientated leadership. Despite opposition from across Europe she has steadfastly stood behind her ‘open-door’ refugee policy for those fleeing the civil war in Syria. Criticised for creating chaos in Europe by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and then dubbed ‘self-destructive and naive’ by Viktor Orban, the right-wing Prime Minister of Hungary, Merkel is not giving up hope of being able to provide refugees with a better life. Earmarking three billion Euros for refugees in Turkey in an attempt to provide them with a better quality of life is an indication of the role Merkel feels she should be playing in the current crisis. Speaking publicly about this assumed responsibility feeds perfectly into the narrative of German leadership.
Employing rhetoric of ‘responsibility’ is perfectly commendable, although it takes a strongly held fundamental belief in the equal rights of all to continue this rhetoric in the face of dangers to national security. In the course of six days in July, Germany fell victim to four separate terror attacks. Two of the attackers, a Syrian and an Afghani, were legal refugees with a third blowing himself up outside a bar in Ansbach having had his refugee application declined. The formidable German chancellor refused to allow domestic unrest and sentiments of xenophobia to alter her thinking and strongly rebuffed those who thought the attacks could legitimise closer controls of Germany’s borders: ‘The terrorists want to make us lose sight of what is important to us… and our willingness to take people in who are in need… They see hatred and fear between culture and they see hatred and fear between religions. We stand decisively against that.’
Merkel has also proved herself to be a staunch defender of the principle of self-determination with no fear about speaking out against any ill-conceived actions of a less than friendly government. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Germany has been one of the most prominent and strongest supporters of bringing tough economic sanctions against the Russian government. In spite of disagreements among the European powers as to the genuine effectiveness of sanctions, Germany was one of the countries to push for broader and more powerful sanctions against Russia’s defence, energy and banking sectors.
The German government has also been outspoken over the alleged actions of Russia in Syria, calling them to account for propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime which is bombing civilians in the besieged city of Aleppo. On 21 November Steffen Seibert, the government spokesman, issued a statement declaring that: ‘It’s obviously the Russian and Iranian support for the… Syrian regime, which has caused a dramatic worsening situation for the public.’
Militarily, Germany could fill the void left by an isolationist America. Merkel has urged Europe to build a European Defence Union to deepen military cooperation throughout the continent in light of Trump’s comments which have spread doubt around the continent about the United States’ commitment to NATO and its member states. Yet, she has also promised to increase the military spending of Germany to facilitate more of a leadership role in NATO missions. Germany has already pledged to provide 800 troops in Lithuania for the NATO Quick Reaction Force (QRF) set up to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic region.
In light of Trump’s election, Merkel stating that future cooperation between the nations is resting on ‘common values- democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views’ can be viewed as an acceptance that the liberal democratic world needs a leader, and the US president cannot be expected to play that role for the next four years.
Simon Tilford, the deputy director Centre for European Reform in London, believes that not since before the twentieth century’s two world wars ‘has so much ridden on the Germans. We’re very fortunate that Germany is led now by Merkel, because there is a chance she will step up and do what Europe needs her to do.’
Although, there is a note of caution. Merkel has announced that she plans to run for a fourth term of office but there is no guarantee of success. The strong showing of Germany’s far-Right party, the Alternative for Germany (Afd), in March’s local election demonstrated that re-election in 2017 will be no easy feat. There is a chance the snowball hasn’t stopped rolling through Europe.
With her words and deeds, Merkel has shone a spotlight on the strength of Germany’s liberal democracy. Should she achieve re-election, over the next four years— as the United Kingdom, the United States, and France wrestle with the contradictions of a new political landscape and traditional international policies— the German chancellor must continue Germany’s transformation since 1945 to once again become a dominant leader on the world stage.