Merkel’s Moment

10 minute read
Catherine Mayer/Berlin

Diminutive in the imposing vastness of her office, Angela Merkel appears surprisingly frail for someone who’s spent the past 20 years upending political norms. Now 55, Merkel, Germany’s first Chancellor raised in the communist East, is the head of a democratic form of government and the guardian of individual freedoms that she was denied until her 30s. She outsmarted phalanxes of gray-haired, gray-suited machine politicians to set two other precedents, becoming the first woman to occupy the Chancellery as well as its youngest incumbent. Then in September, after four tricky years helming a coalition that yoked her conservative Christian Democrat bloc with the Social Democratic Party, she won a new mandate, with center-right coalition partners of her choosing. Now, as the emboldened leader of Europe’s most populous nation and most powerful economy, Merkel has the ability to make her personality and priorities count on a global stage. But what, exactly, does she want to do with her power? And how will she go about doing it?

Merkel has spent decades being underestimated. There are still plenty of observers of the German political scene who regard her myriad achievements as flukes. “Merkel has never given a speech that stayed in the memory,” wrote her most recent biographer. She can indeed seem reserved and self-effacing at times, but there should be little doubt that she has confidence and ambition aplenty. “You could certainly say that I’ve never underestimated myself,” she says with a smile that in another context could only be described as kittenish. “There’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.”

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The daughter of a Protestant pastor who settled in the East German state of Brandenburg, Merkel excelled at math and science and originally pursued a career as a physicist. But growing up where she did, she discovered early on that there were limits to what she would be permitted to do. “In East Germany,” she says, “we always ran into boundaries before we were able to discover our own personal boundaries.”

Paradoxically, Merkel’s life under communism may have helped when it came to starting a political career as the Iron Curtain began to crumble. She knew how to navigate around blockages and when to keep a low profile. Her rise to prominence went all but unnoticed, except by the rivals she deftly derailed along the way. Elected to the first parliament of the reunited Germany, she was appointed a Cabinet minister by Chancellor Helmut Kohl just one year later. He called her das Mädchen, “the girl.” She was used to sexism. “There was no real equality in the German Democratic Republic,” she says. “There were no female industrialists or members of the politburo.” So she smiled her feline smile and made no protest but quickly distanced herself from her patronizing patron once he became entangled in a party finance scandal.

(Read: ‘Much Work’ Ahead for German Chancellor Merkel.)

Childless and twice married, Merkel was cast as an indulgent mother to the electorate during the 2009 campaign. Though she claims to bake the occasional plum cake, she doesn’t exactly match the ideal of a German hausfrau. Her second husband, an eminent chemist, often ducks out of official events. “He needs the working day for his science,” says Merkel. Such attitudes may have annoyed traditionalists, but her quiet determination has helped her gain broad support well beyond the Christian Democrats’ core voters. Even among those who identify themselves as Social Democrats, Merkel’s unstuffy pragmatism, social liberalism and commitment to fighting climate change — a key issue in Germany — have made her surprisingly popular. A December poll by Germany’s Infratest Dimap Institute showed Merkel was Germany’s favorite politician, with 70% of Germans proclaiming themselves satisfied with her work.

The Quiet Giant
So what will she do now? Given Germany’s modern history, it is hardly surprising that the nation — and whoever leads it — rarely seeks to thrust itself into acrimonious global issues. German political debate overwhelmingly concerns itself with sustaining and extending the widely shared prosperity and personal security that was a hallmark of the old West Germany. When the Great Recession began at the end of 2008, Merkel initially drew fire for her handling of the crisis, and in 2009, the German economy contracted 5% overall. Critics said she was doing too little, too slowly and that her efforts were targeted at the wrong industries. She argues that her response has been vindicated. The German economy began to rebound in the second half of 2009, and helped by an aggressive “short time” work program, its unemployment rate has steadily declined to 7.5%, compared with 10% in the U.S. No economy is free from the threat of backsliding yet, however, and the head of Germany’s federal labor agency has predicted joblessness will rise again this year. But as world trade picks up, the mighty German export machine should click into gear once more, delivering decent growth.

(See pictures of the dangers of printing money in Germany.)

While Merkel may be able to look at Germany’s domestic conditions with some confidence, there are profound international challenges ahead. Some sense of Merkel’s priorities can be gleaned from her Nov. 3 speech to Congress. (She is only the second German Chancellor accorded the honor.) The speech, with its heartfelt and moving thanks and tributes to the U.S., could have been made only by someone who grew up in a Soviet satellite state. Throughout, it was easy to see how her past had shaped her view of the world. There should be, she said, “zero tolerance towards all those who show no respect for the inalienable rights of the individual and who violate human rights.” That is one reason she has taken a tough line on Iran’s nuclear program, criticized its crackdown on protestors after last summer’s elections and risked the ire of China by meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Read: “Anger Mounts in Germany Over Its Afghan Air Strike.”

See pictures of East Germany making light of its past.

With such commitment to humanist and democratic values, Merkel has declared herself willing to pursue policies that could cost her country dearly. Germany is Iran’s largest trading partner in Europe, and many German businesses oppose any restrictions on trade with the country. But she has recently suggested that she would back new sanctions if the government in Tehran does not curtail its nuclear ambitions. In the past, U.S. officials doubted whether Germany’s actions on Iran would match its tough words, but they seem to have confidence that Merkel means what she says. “When it comes to crunch time” on Iran, says a senior U.S. State Department official, “we’ll be looking closely at what Russia and China are willing to do. But we have no concerns about Germany.”

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For Merkel, Afghanistan is an even trickier diplomatic and economic mire. Germany is a generous donor of humanitarian aid there — as it is elsewhere in the developing world. But at 4,300 troops, Germany also provides the third largest contingent of forces in the theater, after the U.S. and Britain. In December the German parliament voted to extend the deployment in Afghanistan for another year, and the European allies — as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged — have reduced the number of so-called caveats that limit when troops may be deployed in combat. (Most German troops, for example, have been based in the north of the country, which has been relatively safer than the south. As of mid-December, 36 German troops had died in Afghanistan in 2009, compared with 935 Americans in the same period.)

But even comparatively low casualty figures are shocking for many in Germany — a country that eschewed armed conflict for more than 50 years — who had persuaded themselves that their nation’s role was solely humanitarian. Then in September, German forces called in a U.S. air strike in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to destroy oil tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Some 140 people were killed, many of them civilians. That changed the perception of the mission among the German public and politicians alike. Franz Josef Jung, who was Defense Minister at the time of the bombing, resigned over the controversy, but other German officials declared that the event galvanized the country’s commitment to being a full partner in the conflict, despite the inherent brutality of any war. “We have made clear,” said Merkel’s new Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, on a visit to Washington in November, “that German soldiers are not any longer in the north only to dig holes for water and to wave at children. More and more, we are also in combat situations.”

(Read: “German Court Upholds Ban on Extra-Long Names.”)

That view did not go down well at home. Most Germans — 69% in a recent poll — want their troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Merkel is now under growing pressure from Washington and other contributors to the Afghanistan mission to boost the German presence as part of Barack Obama’s surge strategy. As a genuine Atlanticist, she will not want to snub the U.S. call for help. But as an arch-pragmatist, she knows that public opinion in Germany will not blithely countenance a significant increase. She refuses to comment on her plans until she attends an international conference on Afghanistan in London on Jan. 28. Many German political analysts think she may compromise by keeping the number of troops steady but pledging a bigger role for Germany in training Afghan security forces.

Giving Up Power
However Merkel chooses to settle policy on Iran and Afghanistan, her style of decision making will remain her own. Merkel, like Obama, believes that nations cannot tackle an issue like economic turmoil, terrorism or climate change by themselves. Where she differs from most other leaders is in the direction this analysis takes her: that true leadership involves the surrender of power. Again, history is important; Germany’s past has convinced its leaders that trouble beckons when the country acts alone and that happiness comes from working with others. “With the European Union,” Merkel says, “we Europeans have realized a dream for ourselves. We live in peace and freedom. That naturally entails giving up some powers to Brussels, which isn’t always pleasant. But it’s necessary. The greatest consequence of globalization is that there aren’t any purely national solutions to global challenges.”

(See TIME’s coverage of the climate change conference in Copenhagen.)

It might seem odd that a woman whose climb to power was so arduous should contemplate giving away even a smidgen of it. But for a politician, Merkel keeps her ego remarkably in check. Indeed, to people who have never tamed their impulses for fear of drawing the attention of malign authorities nor tempered their dreams before an authoritarian state can trample them, her self-control can seem inhuman. On Nov. 9, 1989, as East German authorities gave up the struggle and opened the Berlin Wall, Merkel kept her regular appointment at a sauna. But the Chancellor’s poise and self-confidence cannot obscure the question that the challenges of Afghanistan and Iran pose to her nation: When you are as rich and secure as modern Germany now is, what are your obligations to the world outside?
— With reporting by Tristana Moore / Berlin and Mark Thompson / Washington

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