When Donald Trump was born in the summer of 1946, barely a year after the surrender of Nazi Germany, it would have been inconceivable that as president one day, he would cede U.S. leadership of the free world to a German, much less one raised behind the Iron Curtain.
But here we are. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, may not command the raw military and economic might of post-war U.S. presidents. She has never been what you’d call an inspirational leader. It’s hard to argue, however, that there is anyone more central now to preserving the values that define the West — and the network of alliances that maintain it.
Trump is trying to pull everyone in the opposite direction. Britain is willfully narrowing its focus by withdrawing from the European Union. And while France may boast a dynamic young president, the country chronically underperforms. There is no one else.
Merkel, known widely in Germany as “Mutti,” or “Mommy,” won ugly in national elections last Sunday. While Germans didn’t go as far as Americans in electing Trump, or the British in turning away from the EU, they made their dissatisfaction clear. In a country hypersensitive to any resurgence of right-wing nationalism, a far-right party finished third, and will enter parliament for the first time since the immediate aftermath of World War II.
More than anything, Merkel, the Protestant pastor’s daughter from East Germany, was punished by voters for an act of moral clarity: her decision in the midst of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 to open her country to nearly a million newcomers. It’s not that Germans are less generous than other Europeans – they have actually been better than most.
But a strong moral stance does not always make for good politics. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reports that an estimated one million voters deserted Merkel and her closest ally for the hard-right Alternative for Germany. For most, Merkel’s immigration policy was the reason.
To start her fourth term in office, Merkel will have to build a coalition with two smaller parties that agree on almost nothing – a process that may take months. Then she must confront public frustration over immigration and out-of-touch mainstream politicians. She will have to help focus efforts to reform the European Union, and continue providing leadership on climate change, the future of NATO and countering Russia.
Alternative for Germany, which won 13 percent of the vote, will be able to exploit its new status in parliament to complain, continually and loudly, about immigration and the EU.
Germany already has been drawing a harder line between political refugees from countries like Syria and economic migrants, who are expected to go home. Finding jobs for those allowed to stay is likely to take years. Merkel herself says that refugees and domestic security are key issues for the coming years. If she is successful in managing the nuts-and-bolts problems, she may be able to put the problem behind her, and hope the far right implodes. On the other hand, few things could be more damaging politically than a major terror attack in Germany.
It will be even more difficult to show voters that Germany’s political elites understand and care about them. Already in the chancellor’s office for 12 years, Merkel is unlikely to suddenly find a common touch. And if Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats are in trouble, their traditional foe, the center-left Social Democrats, are in even worse shape. Their share of the vote Sunday dropped to only about 20 percent.
The European Union presents related problems of values and national sovereignty. Merkel has not been shy about using Germany’s status as the EU’s economic powerhouse to impose austerity on troublesome members such as Greece. But now, a host of existential questions are looming. They include a continuing flow of new arrivals from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the departure of Britain, efforts of governments such as those of Poland and Hungary to curtail political pluralism, and a referendum in Catalonia planned for Sunday that raises the prospect Spain may break in two.
Merkel, as first among equals, will have a major role in rethinking what it means to be a member of the EU. Should it continue to press for more integration, as President Emmanuel Macron of France proposed this week? Or would that further limit sovereignty and lead to more resentment among voters? Should there be more flexibility? Perhaps different tiers of membership? And what are the EU’s essential values?
As if that’s not enough, she needs to stay focused areas where she already has been quite good. They include filling some of the vacuum left by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, speaking up for NATO and ensuring that Europe doesn’t go all wobbly about sanctions imposed on Russia for its meddling in Ukraine.
If Mommy can accomplish even half of that, she will provide Americans and their allies some time to renew the Western alliance, one of the most successful political enterprises of all times. That would be a very big deal.