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Foreign Policy

The plain pessimism of Angela Merkel’s worldview

Ten years ago, in June 2011, US President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for Chancellor Angela Merkel. At a state dinner in the White House, he anointed Merkel as the European standard-bearer of freedom, presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised her as an “eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world”. A moving chancellor was committed to freedom and emphasized: “Living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of the same coin, because the precious gift of freedom does not come by itself, but has to be fought for, fostered and defended again and again.”

Merkel comes to Washington this Thursday in a completely different role: as the archenemy of President Joe Biden’s China policy. That the free world is in a crucial battle against an authoritarian China is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Merkel has decided not to adhere to this cross-party consensus. In the last year of her term in office, Merkel invested all of her energy in deepening economic relations between Germany and Europe and China, and at the end of last year she pushed through an investment agreement with China. This was the Chancellor’s welcome gift to the Biden government, signaling its rejection of a united transatlantic front against Beijing. It is even more telling that Merkel remained silent in March when Beijing took an unprecedented step in imposing sanctions on German and European parliamentarians and researchers.

Ten years ago, in June 2011, US President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for Chancellor Angela Merkel. At a state dinner in the White House, he anointed Merkel as the European standard-bearer of freedom, presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praised her as an “eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world”. A moving chancellor was committed to freedom and emphasized: “Living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of the same coin, because the precious gift of freedom does not come by itself, but has to be fought for, fostered and defended again and again.”

Merkel comes to Washington this Thursday in a completely different role: as the archenemy of President Joe Biden’s China policy. That the free world is in a crucial battle against an authoritarian China is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Merkel has decided not to adhere to this cross-party consensus. In the last year of her term in office, Merkel invested all of her energy in deepening economic relations between Germany and Europe and China, and at the end of last year she pushed through an investment agreement with China. This was the Chancellor’s welcome gift to the Biden government, signaling its rejection of a united transatlantic front against Beijing. It is even more telling that Merkel remained silent in March when Beijing took an unprecedented step in imposing sanctions on German and European parliamentarians and researchers.

It is not just “mercantilism” that made Merkel tolerate when Beijing attacked the core institutions of European democracy. At the center of Merkel’s stance towards China is a deep-seated pessimism about Germany’s and Europe’s path to power. In a world where the US is no longer a reliable ally, she believes that a fragile Europe simply doesn’t have what it takes to hold its own against Beijing. If her successor has a chance to reverse Merkel’s China policies, she must begin with a psychological shift – a belief that Europe can develop what it takes to thrive in a more hostile and competitive international environment.

Merkel’s accommodating China stance is the result of a remarkable development in her thinking. She confidently started her chancellorship with Beijing. In 2007 Merkel received the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery in Berlin. Targeted by Beijing’s anger and domestic political critics, Merkel did not budge. “I decide who I will receive as Chancellor and where,” she shot back. And the Chancellor had a sharp piece of advice ready for China’s rulers: “The best thing would be for Beijing to hold talks directly with the Dalai Lama, who is concerned about cultural autonomy and the protection of human rights.”

During her annual trips to China during her chancellorship, Merkel was one of the few European leaders who clearly raised human rights concerns and presented lists of worrying cases to Beijing. She also visited human rights lawyers and dissenting attorneys. She has no illusions about the realities of Beijing’s repressive apparatus and the tightening of the screws under Xi Jinping. Merkel seems genuinely concerned with human rights, and she certainly doesn’t seem to have any fruits of her close ties with China in mind during her post-chancellorship. Unlike her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, who now earns his living serving Russian President Vladimir Putin as chairman of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Merkel is by no means driven by personal wealth, and it is very unlikely that she would pay a cent the Chinese or Russian government or corporations will adopt after leaving office this fall.

Concern about Germany’s short-term economic interests is also driving her China policy. The fate of some major German corporations such as Volkswagen and Daimler, which have become too dependent on the Chinese market, is very important to Merkel. The CEOs of these companies listen to Merkel’s ear and influence her China policy, even when it comes to national security concerns. The fear of retaliation against German companies has definitely motivated Merkel’s fight against all efforts to exclude Huawei from Germany’s critical 5G infrastructure.

But the fear goes deeper. Merkel is deeply pessimistic about the development of Germany and Europe as well as the United States in competition with Beijing. Merkel did not talk about it much in public. As her biographer Stefan Kornelius explains in Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and her world, Merkel fears that open social systems “cannot survive, that democracy and the market economy could prove to be too weak in the end”.

Sometimes the public gets a glimpse of Merkel’s gloom. After a meeting in Berlin during the euro crisis, the then Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov reported that Merkel had told him that “the Maya and many other civilizations have disappeared from the face of the earth”. She chose this dramatic example to underline her view of the fragility of Europe. While Merkel does not fail to recognize China’s many domestic political challenges, on her numerous trips to China she is deeply impressed by the speed and determination with which the country is pursuing its development goals. As the German magazine Der Spiegel reports, Merkel believes that “everything has to go much faster, in Europe and in Germany”.

But internal blockades and satisfaction with the status quo prevent Germany and Europe from doing so. One of Merkel’s biggest failures is that after her election as Chancellor, she never quite shared her gloomy attitude with the German public, let alone tried to gain political support for the unpopular measures that could turn things for the better.

In Merkel’s view, Germany and Europe’s inevitable decline in competitiveness and power will be exacerbated by the development of the United States. Merkel has long been concerned about the domestic political dysfunction in the US. It was the Trump years that fundamentally shook her belief in the US’s reliability as a partner for Europe. She very plausibly does not see Donald Trump as an accident and believes that another US President who turns away from Europe or who turns fire on Europe is imminent. In 2017 she expressed this in a campaign speech in a beer tent in Bavaria: “The time when we could fully rely on others is partly over. … We Europeans really have to take our fate into our own hands. “

Given their bleak outlook on the future of Europe, it is not a call to arms to invest in European capabilities to ‘take our fate into our own hands’. It mainly boils down to trying to maximize the room to breathe and act by finding a middle ground between the US and China and avoiding a confrontation with Beijing. If you do not see yourself as a competitive actor, there is little more than a quasi-neutral approach by “Greater Switzerland” in the struggle of the great powers.

But this major Swiss approach usually only works if it is surrounded by friendly powers. Otherwise, there is a risk that your fate will more closely resemble that of Switzerland during World War II, only with what a Swiss opposition vote in 1940 called the “surrender course”. If, like Germany and Europe, you are practicing preventive self-dwelling, led by gloom, you may wake up and find that you are completely out of breath.

A better German China policy does not mean chaining the country to Washington’s policy. Rather, the most important ingredients of a better post-Merkel China policy are ambition and self-confidence that Europe can be a successful power in its own right. Germany and Europe must believe that they can develop what it takes to defeat the authoritarian state capitalism of China and, if possible together with allies, to oppose Beijing wherever political, economic or security interests are at stake. That would be the real meaning of “taking our destiny into our own hands”.

In contrast to the doomsday researchers, Germany and Europe are not yet too dependent on China for this. Both Germany and Europe as a whole have a trade deficit with China, which makes it clear that Europe also has leverage. There is no reason to have such a lack of ambition towards Beijing. Germany and Europe may fail, but we have to part with Merkelism and at least try.

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