Headlines were predictably caustic when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House recently. “Leader of the Free World Meets Donald Trump,” said one. Over the 12 years Merkel has governed Europe’s most important country, she has proven to be a calm and compassionate leader. She is well established as the dominant political figure in Europe. Now, thanks to the vacuum in Washington, many look to her to lead the defense of global freedom.
They should not. Merkel has well served her country and Europe, but rather than run for a fourth term, as she is doing, she should step down. She is part of the group of leaders that set off the populist rebellion now shaking the world. Hers is the generation of globalization, free trade agreements, austerity, migrant surges, and endless war. Its other leading figures have passed from the scene. Barack Obama left office to a shocking repudiation at the polls. Britain’s David Cameron was forced to resign. Francois Hollande is among the least popular French leaders in history and is not running for reelection. Merkel should follow them into retirement.
The German election is set for Sept. 24. Merkel’s chief opponent is a dynamic Social Democrat, Martin Schulz, a policeman’s son without a high school diploma who campaigns unabashedly for social justice and pan-European values. Neither is likely to win outright, so the result may be continuation of two-party rule with Merkel as chancellor. That will encourage the image of Europe as the fief of an encrusted elite. It leaves the banner of change in the hands of populist demagogues. Many Germans realize and fear this. According to one recent opinion survey, 59 percent of them want “a change in leadership at the top.”
I was a correspondent in Bonn when, in 1991, Chancellor Helmut Kohl plucked Merkel from obscurity and set her storied career in motion. She had grown up in East Germany, become a chemist, and, in the first election after German unification, run successfully for a seat in the Bundestag. Kohl was looking for a woman from the East to balance his Cabinet. After considering various candidates, he chose her. The day Kohl presented Merkel to us as his new minister of women and youth — a job in which, as she told one of my colleagues, she had no interest — marked the beginning of her remarkable rise.
Merkel showed a sharp instinct for power. She helped bring down her mentor, Chancellor Kohl, and then out-maneuvered her chief party rival to become chancellor herself in 2005. In office, her most outstanding quality has been pragmatism. She is never impulsive or emotional. Instead she coolly assesses what Germans call the gegebene Bedingungen — the conditions that actually exist — and sets her policy accordingly. Her sudden decision last year to allow more than 1 million migrants to pour into Germany contradicted this image. It shook some people’s confidence in her. Her popularity has recovered, and she is still widely respected. Yet she is inescapably a pillar of the old European order. That order needs a shot of vitality and renewal, not the same old faces.
In the corridors of Western power and the salons where Davos Man gathers, Merkel is revered as a vital voice for reason and an invaluable bulwark against populism. A dose of populism, however, is precisely what the pro-European political movement needs. Voter anger in Europe, as in the United States, is based on genuine grievances and will not be contained by traditional politicians. Advocates of openness and European unity will only triumph if they manage to harness some of this anger. That is only possible with new leaders. Merkel was once the ideal exemplar of European values, but her phlegmatic, technocratic approach to politics does not fit the combative new age.
A more promising political campaign is unfolding in France, where a new president is to be elected in a few weeks. Three candidates from the bosom of the political establishment were cast aside in preliminary votes. The right-wing, anti-immigrant Marine Le Pen poses as the populist outsider, but a 39-year-old upstart, Emmanuel Macron, is seeking to woo the unquiet masses away from her. Macron has called for a pro-European “democratic revolution,” condemned harsh economic measures that the European Union imposed on Greece, and even broken with patriotic catechism by condemning France’s long intervention in Algeria as “barbarous” and a “crime against humanity.” Voters are thirsting for leaders who challenge orthodoxy and speak boldly. It is dangerous to entrust the defense of democracy and open societies to tiring leaders from a bygone era.
Merkel has accepted the Christian Democratic Union nomination for reelection, and by the conventions of German politics it is too late for her to abandon her candidacy. She is likely, though by no means certain, to win. Completing her term would place her near Kohl and Konrad Adenauer for longevity in the chancellor’s office. It will be a long and uninspiring slog. Merkel represents what many voters consider the failings of the past. New leaders would better convey the passionate sense of mission that today’s political environment demands.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.