Argument

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The Undeniable Pessimism of Angela Merkel

Hovering over Germany’s China policy is a cloud of gloom and fear.

By , a co-founder and the director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel grimaces on stage during a campaign rally on September 26, 2009 at the Treptow Arena in Berlin.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel grimaces on stage during a campaign rally on September 26, 2009 at the Treptow Arena in Berlin. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images

Ten years ago, in June 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At a White House state dinner, he anointed Merkel as the European standard-bearer for freedom, presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praising her as an “eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world.”  A moved chancellor committed herself to standing up for freedom, intonating that “living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of one and the same coin, for the precious gift of freedom doesn’t come naturally but has to be fought for, nurtured, and defended time and time again.”

This Thursday, Merkel comes to Washington in a very different role: as nemesis of President Joe Biden’s China policy. That the free world is in a decisive struggle against an authoritarian China is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Merkel has chosen not to abide by this bipartisan consensus. During the last year of her term, Merkel has invested all her energy into deepening Germany’s and Europe’s economic ties with China, pushing through an investment agreement with China late last year. This was the chancellor’s welcome present for the Biden administration, signaling her opposition to a united trans-Atlantic front against Beijing. Even more tellingly, Merkel chose to remain silent in March when Beijing, in an unprecedented move, slapped sanctions on German and European parliamentarians and researchers.

It is not just “Merkantilism” that led Merkel to choose acquiescence when Beijing attacked the core institutions of European democracy. At the heart of Merkel’s approach to China is a deep-seated pessimism about Germany’s and Europe’s trajectory of power. In a world where the United States is no longer a reliable ally, she thinks a fragile Europe simply doesn’t have what it takes to stand up to Beijing. If her successor stands any chance of reversing Merkel’s China policy, it will have to start with a psychological shift—a conviction that Europe can develop what it takes to thrive in a more hostile and competitive international environment.

Ten years ago, in June 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out the red carpet for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At a White House state dinner, he anointed Merkel as the European standard-bearer for freedom, presenting her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and praising her as an “eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world.”  A moved chancellor committed herself to standing up for freedom, intonating that “living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of one and the same coin, for the precious gift of freedom doesn’t come naturally but has to be fought for, nurtured, and defended time and time again.”

This Thursday, Merkel comes to Washington in a very different role: as nemesis of President Joe Biden’s China policy. That the free world is in a decisive struggle against an authoritarian China is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Merkel has chosen not to abide by this bipartisan consensus. During the last year of her term, Merkel has invested all her energy into deepening Germany’s and Europe’s economic ties with China, pushing through an investment agreement with China late last year. This was the chancellor’s welcome present for the Biden administration, signaling her opposition to a united trans-Atlantic front against Beijing. Even more tellingly, Merkel chose to remain silent in March when Beijing, in an unprecedented move, slapped sanctions on German and European parliamentarians and researchers.

It is not just “Merkantilism” that led Merkel to choose acquiescence when Beijing attacked the core institutions of European democracy. At the heart of Merkel’s approach to China is a deep-seated pessimism about Germany’s and Europe’s trajectory of power. In a world where the United States is no longer a reliable ally, she thinks a fragile Europe simply doesn’t have what it takes to stand up to Beijing. If her successor stands any chance of reversing Merkel’s China policy, it will have to start with a psychological shift—a conviction that Europe can develop what it takes to thrive in a more hostile and competitive international environment.

Merkel’s accommodationist China stance is the result of a remarkable evolution in her thinking. She started her chancellorship with self-confidence vis-à-vis Beijing. In 2007, Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the chancellery in Berlin. Targeted by Beijing’s fury and domestic critics, Merkel did not budge. “It’s me who decides whom I receive where as chancellor,” she shot back. And the chancellor had some biting advice for China’s rulers: “The best thing would be for Beijing to directly pursue talks with the Dalai Lama, who is concerned about cultural autonomy and safeguarding of human rights.”

During her yearly trips to China throughout her chancellorship, Merkel was one of the few European leaders to raise human rights concerns in a clear manner, presenting Beijing with lists of cases of concern. She also made a point of visiting human rights advocates and dissident lawyers. She does not have any illusions about the realities of Beijing’s repression apparatus and the tightening of the screws under Xi Jinping. Merkel seems to genuinely care about human rights, and she certainly does not seem to be eyeing any payoffs of her close ties to China during her post-chancellorship. Unlike her predecessor Gerhard Schröder, who now makes his money serving Russian President Vladimir Putin as chairman of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Merkel is not at all driven by personal wealth, and it’s very unlikely that she will accept a cent from the Chinese or Russian government or companies after leaving office this fall.

It’s also not just concern about the short-term German business interests that drives her China policy. It is true that Merkel deeply cares about the fate of a few large German companies, such as Volkswagen and Daimler, that have become overly dependent on the Chinese market. The CEOs of these companies do have Merkel’s ear and do influence her China policy even when national security concerns are at stake. Fear of retaliation against German companies definitely motivated Merkel’s fight against any efforts to exclude Huawei from Germany’s 5G critical infrastructure.

But the fear goes deeper than that. Merkel has a deep pessimism about the trajectory of Germany and Europe, as well as of the United States, in their competition with Beijing. Merkel has not spoken about this much in public. As her biographer Stefan Kornelius details in Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World, Merkel fears that open-society systems “might not survive, that democracy and the market economy might ultimately prove to be too weak.”

Sometimes the public gets a glimpse of Merkel’s gloom. After a meeting in Berlin during the eurozone crisis, 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 emphasize her view of the fragility of Europe. While Merkel doesn’t fail to recognize China’s many domestic challenges, in her many trips to China she has come away deeply impressed with the speed and determination with which the country pursues its development goals. As the German magazine Der Spiegel reported, Merkel feels that “everything needs to move much faster, in Europe and in Germany.”

But in her view, internal blockades and a satisfaction with the status quo stop Germany and Europe from that. One of Merkel’s biggest failures is that after being elected chancellor she never fully shared her gloomy outlook with the German public, let alone tried to win political support for the unpopular measures that might change things for the better.

From Merkel’s view Germany’s and Europe’s inevitable decline in competitiveness and power is made worse by the trajectory of the United States. Merkel has long been concerned about domestic dysfunction in the United States. It was the Trump years that fundamentally shook her belief in the reliability of the United States as a partner for Europe. Very plausibly, she does not see Donald Trump as an accident and thinks another U.S. president turning away from or turning the fire on Europe may be just around the corner. In 2017, she expressed this during a campaign speech in a beer tent in Bavaria: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. … We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”

Given her gloomy outlook about Europe’s future, taking “our fate into our own hands” does not amount to a call to arms to invest in European capabilities. It mostly amounts to trying to maximize breathing space and room for maneuver by pursuing a middle path between the United States and China, and avoiding confrontation with Beijing. When you don’t see yourself as a competitive player, all that is left at the core is little more than a “big Switzerland” approach of quasi-neutrality in the contest between great powers.

But that big Switzerland approach tends to only work well when surrounded by friendly powers. Otherwise, your fate risks being more like that of Switzerland during World War II, only left with what one Swiss opposition voice in 1940 called a “course of capitulation.” If, like Germany and Europe, you engage in preemptive self-dwarfication, guided by gloom, you might wake up and realize that you are left with no breathing space at all.

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

Contrary to the doomsayers, Germany and Europe are not yet too dependent on China to do just that. Both Germany and Europe as a whole run a trade deficit with China, making it clear that Europe also has leverage. There is no reason whatsoever to have such a deficit in ambition vis-à-vis Beijing. Germany and Europe may well fail, but we have to part ways with Merkelism and at least try.

Thorsten Benner is a co-founder and the director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.

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