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Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (Part XI): Strategy, or slip-up? The Willkommen that was heard round the world

It was the invitation heard around the world. And maybe that’s the problem.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a so-called "Diesel Summit" with mayors of large German cities in the chancellery in Berlin on Nov. 28, in order to look at ways of improving air quality. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a press conference following a so-called "Diesel Summit" with mayors of large German cities in the chancellery in Berlin on Nov. 28, in order to look at ways of improving air quality. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)


By Ellen Scholl
Best Defense office of strategic affairs

Amid the flow of refugees to Europe just over two years ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel did something unprecedented. She publicly proclaimed that Germany would admit refugees fleeing war-torn homelands (namely Syria) who were stuck in Hungary. It was a pronouncement substantiated by temporary suspension of the Dublin regulations governing migration to Europe, in effect opening the border of West Europe.

Then the flow turned into a flood, and the flood became a deluge.

Merkel has since been blamed for everything: the rise and relative success of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the Brexit vote, and even the disintegration of the European Union. She has also been called brave and courageous. Time magazine called her the Chancellor of the Free World. They also named her Person of the Year.

The moment in question marks both the high point of Chancellor Merkel’s (and perhaps Germany’s) international reputation and the eventual low point of Merkel’s domestic career. While there is deep disagreement as to whether she should be respected or criticized, there is little question that this will go down as a defining moment of her Chancellorship.

What drove her decision: was it strategic, or emotional?

Merkel’s record of leadership is, in part, what makes this question so confounding. Known more for reacting to public opinion than shaping it, Merkel’s governing strategy is perceived as a mixture of pragmatism and dogged avoidance of controversial decisions. Indeed merkeln (think: merkeling), a new addition to the German lexicon, is synonymous with approaching problems with plodding sobriety. Other definitions are less generous.

All of this makes her seemingly rash announcement all the more surprising. The decision has been called Merkel’s emotional moment, her singular lapse in judgment, a brief flirtation with ad-hockery. It is hailed as her first true demonstration of leadership and mourned as her abdication from it. It is her solitary break from strategy, the manifestation of her Christian upbringing and empathy cultivated during her early years living under the oppressive East German regime.

But was it?

Maybe not. While many read into the decision the motivations they wish, it is likely that Merkel made a decision which was not the rupture in her overall governing strategy many perceived and, in fact, was guided by the same pragmatic calculation she is known for. But she did not sell her decision in those terms. Arguably, she did not sell her decision at all.

When she allowed refugees stranded in Hungary to enter Germany, Merkel had surveyed her surroundings and selected what she saw as the best of bad options. The status quo was untenable and the potential implications for the EU catastrophic. For Germany, the alternative was to actively prevent refugees from entering the country, a course of action with its own set of difficulties and moral ambiguities.

Merkel also likely only did what she considered was within the will of her electorate. Based on evidence suggesting German society had grown more open and the German people more positive about immigration, her wir schaffen das — “we can do it” — was likely less an aspirational exhortation than a staunch assessment of German attitudes. And based on the initial outpouring of willkommenskultur, she was in some sense right.

However, her decision rested on two faulty assumptions: first, that the flow of refugees would remain manageable; second, that other European nations would share responsibility. Merkel underestimated the pull of her words and miscalculated the response of her allies, encountering a larger crisis with less support than anticipated. And amid the avalanche that followed, she failed to communicate the contours of a plan to manage the issue both abroad and at home.

Though Merkel did what circumstances required, she received little credit from European peers for the strategic pragmatism she displayed. Rather than recognized for doing what was necessary, perhaps even inevitable, she was blamed for doing what was unpopular. Merkel was left with what some European leaders unfairly labeled as Germany’s problem. Her resolute insistence that Germany could manage encouraged other leaders to retort that while Germany might be up to the task, they were not.

While many in Germany still welcome refugees and support Merkel’s decision, the domestic backlash has been substantial. The anti-immigrant AfD received 13 percent of the vote in September, marking the first time a far-right party has entered the Bundestag since World War II. Following that election, migration remains one of the most contentious issues standing in the way of the formation of a stable coalition between Merkel’s CDU, the Green Party, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP).

A lack of communication with conservative members of her own party bred dissension and discord, leading to accusations that Merkel established a more liberal immigration stance than many in her party were comfortable with. Meanwhile, many in the German public who looked to the government for both a rationale and a roadmap came away wanting.

Beyond declaring, “We can handle this.” Merkel needed to explain, “This is why, and this is how.”

In moments of profound change, communication of strategy is often as important as the strategy itself. At another critical juncture in history, Franklin Roosevelt was similarly faced with an unavoidable decision and an anxious public. So he talked to the people, not once, not twice, but thirty times in order to foster trust and understanding, to dispel rumors and concerns, to coax and reassure.

As Germany grapples with long-term fallout from the most disruptive decision of Merkel’s tenure, Germany’s biggest change since the wall came down, it is time the Chancellor engage in a fireside chat of her own. A strategic invitation deserves a strategic explanation. And, as populist and anti-immigrant sentiments gain steam in Western countries from Europe to the United States, it is time for leaders to not only devise, but effectively communicate a more strategic — and empathetic — response.

Ellen Scholl is the Associate Director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. She was also a 2015-2016 Robert Bosch Fellow based in Berlin.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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