Is Merkel the new “leader of the free world”?

Angela Merkel is not a fan of flashy titles, but she has already started to build support at home for a stronger Germany in Europe and the world.

Angela Merkel has been widely praised for her principled response to Donald Trump’s election as the new ‘leader of the free world’. “Germany and America are bound by values”, she said, speaking to the press on 9 November, “– democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of the individual, regardless of their origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. On the basis of these values, I offer close cooperation to the future president of the United States of America, Donald Trump.”

“Magnificient”, historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a Guardian op-ed. “I’m tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now Angela Merkel.” Knowing the German soul as well as Garton Ash does, there was a degree of caution in his conclusion. And he is right. No doubt, the German Chancellor herself will find the term rather alien. She is not known for her pathos, and her style during her many years in office has instead been to knuckle down and get things done. She is not a great orator either, and while she might admire the eloquence of President Obama, who came for his farewell visit to Germany last week, she builds any emotive statements into her speeches with great care. As has been argued by ECFR’s Josef Janning, the term “liberal order” also doesn’t resonate much in Germany. Rather, it is the social market economy ― the link of economic freedom with social responsibility ― that is better understood.

Having said that, there is no doubt that Germany has the potential to make a difference in international affairs now. The stakes for Germany have risen with the election of Trump, making action not a question of choice, but of interest.

So instead of the romanticised accolade of “leader of the free world”, how does Angela Merkel herself understand her job in the aftermath of the US election, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the refugee management crisis? The budget debate in the Deutscher Bundestag this week gave a strong flavour of the Chancellor’s thinking.

Remarkably, most of her 40 minute long speech was outward looking, reflecting on international developments, the state of the European Union, and, ultimately, the implications of those developments for Germany. Her core question? How can we as Germans and Europeans give a human face to globalisation at a time when there is a growing reflex among citizens to withdraw, to look inwards, and to long for stability rather than change? Merkel’s answer was clear: certainly not by closing off the world, but by embracing the opportunity to shape it.

Angela Merkel is fighting for Germans to embrace the world

With the confidence of a leader who knows how much it matters for Germany to have a seat at the table, she wants to prepare Germans to be out in the open, and not to fear the unknown. Instead of promising protection or shelter, Merkel argued for openness. This has been a pattern in her speeches for quite some time now, and is no doubt a message carefully crafted by her advisors, and tested for its impact on the public, in particular in Merkel’s own constituency.

Angela Merkel is well aware that this is an approach that comes with risks. There has been a growing sense in the public that the federal government has been doing a lot of things for “others” (“the Greeks”, “the refugees”) – but what about “us” Germans? Merkel took care to allay the concerns of those who follow this line of thinking, diligently arguing that there is no longer a clear demarcation between “inside” and “outside”, and by engaging with Europe and the world, the government is working for the interest of the German people. To balance her message of openness, she argued that the security of German citizens has been of paramount importance to the government.

Merkel’s speech entwined German prosperity with EU prosperity, meaning that those who wanted to hear Merkel’s vision for her own country found themselves listening to ideas about how to strengthen Europe, and how to shape globalisation through the EU as well as other international organisations and alliances.

Ahead of the most difficult election she has been facing during her mandate, and having just announced that she is going to run, once again, as her party’s candidate for the federal chancellery, Merkel is fighting for Germans to embrace the world. After the election of Donald Trump and the unpredictability that will come with it, this will be an even more demanding job for Germany, and for the chancellor herself.

When Merkel stepped out that morning on 9 November in Berlin, her message was not to the US in the first place. Nor was it an expression of her determination to confront Donald Trump as the ‘leader of a free world’. It was a statement first and foremost addressed to the German people themselves.

Donald Trump has a big spoiler potential in Germany

Anti-Americanism has been an existing undercurrent for a long time on both the left and the right, and the election of Donald Trump is seen by more than 80 percent of Germans as a “bad” or “very bad” thing. Merkel knows that she is particularly vulnerable to an active, policy-making President Trump, because the US is Germany’s most important partner, after the EU. What Trump does or does not do will also affect Germany, and Europe at large. There is a strong interest in cooperation. But there are also worries about what happens if Trump starts implementing the controversial programme he outlined in his campaign?

Trump will take the reins in January 2017 and will start doing foreign policy at a time when Germany will be getting into the midst of its federal election campaign. Trump has a big spoiler potential in Germany. Angela Merkel knows that. And from Trump’s very first day as president-elect, she drew her line in the sand. While she is not a fan of flashy titles, she has already set the engine in motion to build support at home for a stronger Germany in Europe and the world.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.