PARIS — Henry Kissinger once famously summed up Germany's problems by saying that it was "too big for Europe, too small for the world." It's a good turn of phrase, albeit not entirely accurate. Could the same be said nowadays about the German chancellor herself?
After 12 years in power, Angela Merkel will, in all likelihood, be re-elected on Sept. 24 for a fourth and probably final term. It's a testament to her strength and importance, but it doesn't mean she's "too big for Europe." And if it seems that way, it's only because her successive partners in power, be it in Paris, Rome, Warsaw, Madrid, London, didn't know how to — or simply couldn't — rise to her level.
This observation also applies to the current election campaign in Germany. It's not that there's been too much of Merkel. It's that there hasn't been enough of her opponent Martin Schultz, the Socialist Party candidate.
It's also wrong to consider Merkel "too small for the world." Germany intends to be gauged on its economy and moral leadership, rather than its military might. The country's history has immunized it against the viruses of extreme nationalism and xenophobia more efficiently than any other country.
Germany's strength and good fortune comes from leaders whose messages will also be linked to their names: Konrad Adenauer and reconciliation with the West, Willy Brandt and reconciliation with the East, Helmut Kohl and Germany's unification, Gerhard Schröder and structural economic reforms. Merkel will probably be remembered for her political longevity but also for placing ethical considerations above ideological concerns.
Shutting Greece's access to credit and opening Germany's borders to the flow of refugees are two measures that fit this puritanical and moral vein. You cannot recklessly keep on accumulating debt. There is also a form of redemption in opening yourself up to "Others" in absolute need, especially if by doing so you can also meet the demographic demands of a German economy in need of hands.
For her pragmatism and prudence, and most importantly, her capacity to follow her moral instinct, Merkel will be remembered by her country, and by the entire European Union, as the reassuring face who was in the right country at the right time.
Angela Merkel during an election campaign event in Hamburg — Photo: Omer Messinger/ZUMA
There is, of course, room for criticism regarding Merkel's 12 years worth of leadership decisions: her sometimes excessive caution, her procrastination regarding the Greek crisis and her constant need to "buy time." But let's imagine for a second a Merkel-less Germany and Europe, at a time when a crisis grows inside the EU, when Britain is leaving the bloc and when France isn't exactly in its best political shape.
In terms of international politics, Germany suffers from structural disadvantages. It isn't a member of the UN Security Council or even likely to become one. Only a few years ago, one of France's great ambassadors told me, almost with greed in his eyes, that, "France, of course, supports Germany's candidacy but it's only because we know that it will never enter the Security Council as a permanent member."
Moreover, spending more on military involves considerable effort for Germany, and it will take a while to happen. Germany won't become a replacement for Britain overnight.
And yet, despite being an essentially one-dimensional power, Merkel's Germany still makes its voice heard on the international stage. Berlin was able to speak firmly to Vladimir Putin's Russia. It reinforced its moral stature by using wisdom and standing by its principles when faced with U.S. President Donald Trump's provocations. China sees Merkel not just as the leader of Europe's biggest economy but also as the "mother if not grandmother" of all of Europe.
Germany's strengths and handicaps must be seen in a wider European context. There is a de facto natural partnership between Germany and France, one that seems even more obvious in light of Emmanuel Macron's victory in France and Merkel's probable re-election. This partnership doesn't exist just between the two countries but also between the two leaders, as much in culture as personal style. The new French president is sometimes said to be "overdoing" it, while the German Chancellor is criticized for not doing enough.
Macron's election has come to reinforce Merkel's candidacy. And Merkel's re-election will be an asset to Macron. Germany acts as a form of reassurance as France finally heads towards reforms. France incites Germany to show more boldness and imagination at the European level. A culture of hope and a culture of caution can, if put together, make for an excellent remedy for Europe as it seeks its place in a changing world.
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