Angela Merkel just wanted to be German Chancellor. No one asked if she would like to be Leader of the Free World. Yet she’s stuck with that title, whether she likes it or not.
The so-called ‘Leader of the Free World’ has almost exclusively described the U.S. president, but there is now a slight problem with this tradition. The president-elect Donald Trump isn’t much interested in leading the free world. He has chosen a more isolationist path. Simultaneously, the rest of the free world isn’t much interested in following The Donald. So where do we look for a new leader?
The U.K. would be an option, but they have chosen isolationism as well. Even if they hadn’t, prime minister Theresa May (I like to call her interim prime minister) doesn’t seem to be up for the challenge. French president Francois Hollande isn’t even liked by the French, much less the rest of the world. Narendra Modi leads the world’s largest democracy, but India has traditionally not helped the West on security issues. Japan’s Shinzo Abe doesn’t want to be a world leader, and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull is too far removed geographically.
Angela Merkel is the obvious choice. Political pundits across America, Europe and Asia are already calling her the new leader of the free world. She certainly has experience in global leadership. She led the response to the European sovereign debt crisis as well as the opposition to Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Much of this response was based upon Germany’s power as the world’s fourth largest economy, which Merkel is increasingly willing to use.
Merkel has also laid claim to moral leadership of the free world in a rather dramatic fashion. Her ‘congratulations’ to Donald Trump was a stern message that she would cooperate with him on the basis of democracy, freedom, and respect for law and human dignity.
Jaws dropped around the world that Merkel would speak to Trump like he was some third-world despot, but she had no qualms about it. Merkel has the right and the responsibility to impose conditions on Trump and lecture him about human rights. While Trump grew up a coddled trust fund baby in a Manhattan penthouse Merkel cut her teeth under the Stasi. Merkel has a cold steeliness that the soft Trump can never hope to match.
The German Chancellor has the economic and moral authority to be the leader of the free world, but there is still one major problem with her new position. The leader of the free world needs to have military might, and this Germany does not have.
Germany has had extremely limited armed forces for decades because of the ghosts left by Hitler and the Holocaust, but that might be about to change. European foreign ministers have already discussed what to do if America’s retreat leaves a security vacuum in Europe. We don’t want that vacuum filled by Russia, so we need to bolster our own military. Defence budgets for conventional forces will almost certainly be increased, and there are even whispers of a greater nuclear deterrent.
There will undoubtedly be some global concern about Germany becoming a military powerhouse again. Even Germans are uneasy about the idea. They do, after all, have a troublesome history. Yet Germany has paid for their sins for four generations now, and it is time all of us start looking to the future instead of the past. The free world has chosen its new leader, and now Angela Merkel must act like one.