Remember the good old days? Back in the early twenty-first century, after China had joined the World Trade Organization, the Tom Friedmans of the world told us that before you could say “Jack Robinson” in Mandarin, China’s integration into the global economy and the free flow of goods and the Internet into the Middle Kingdom would create a new middle class that would unleash the forces of political freedom and transform the communist dictatorship into, well, not a Jeffersonian democracy, but perhaps the foundations of a flourishing “civil society.”
We’re all still waiting. But that hasn’t prevented Western pundits from engaging recently in what could be described as a form of dialectical thinking run amok. Some of them have suggested that communist China could replace the United States as the guardian of the liberal international order.
So after Chinese president Xi Jinping delivered an address in front of the business and political elites gathered in Davos early this year, in which he seemed to be defending “globalization”—depending on how you define the term—and even tried to make a joke about “Schwab-onomics” (Klaus Schwab was the founder of Davos. Get it? Ha!), the Financial Times posted a report titled “Xi Jinping Delivers Robust Defense of Globalization at Davos.” The speech by the Chinese president is in sharp contrast to the rhetoric from Donald Trump in recent days.
Yeah. Right. And how do you say, “Peace out, man,” in Chinese? Well, the Chinese communist boss only forgot to wear his Adam Smith necktie. Bummer! But otherwise, he made it clear that he likes what goes for the “liberal international order.” After all, that order has allowed for his country to get rich and powerful, and for its products to flood the entire global economy. It has attracted foreign investment to the economy and made business deals with dictators worldwide, while the Americans spread democracy in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. All things considered, not a bad order, or whatever you want to call it.
OK. So associating the term “liberal” with a ruthless dictatorship, which has repressed the Tibetan people and other ethnic and religious minorities, and actually violated almost every human right (except the right to get rich), was a bit too much to swallow—even for those with a bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
It makes more sense to state the obvious: China doesn’t want to change the current global economic status quo that seems to be aligned with its national interest, which is Making China First Again. Also prioritized are the interests of those business executives and politicians who have congregated at Davos to make deals with the Chinese.
But not to worry, Friedmanites! There is a nation that has been ready since the end of the nineteenth century—and for the first part of the next one—to fill geostrategic vacuums and exert its leadership role here, there and everywhere. And no one would deny that post–World War II Germany has become a beacon of liberal democratic principles and a force for peace in Europe and elsewhere, and that its current chancellor, unlike you-know-who, is committed to the Enlightenment project and its recent manifestation in the form of globalism.
Yes: for those members of Washington’s chattering class who imagine that the West is being dragged into the Dark Age of nationalism, protectionism and despotism—that Trump and Bannon are controlling the press, and curtailing immigration and religious freedom—Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as the anti-Trump, or the “this could have been us if Hillary had been elected” option.
Indeed, Trump bashers have been employing the Hitler analogy nonstop, and turned Merkel’s recent visit to Washington, DC into an opportunity to compare the American president to the German chancellor. The Economist magazine appeared to be leading the charge in a commentary titled “Angela Merkel and her press corps show how big democracies are supposed to operate.” It contrasted Merkel, who was “every inch the cool, reserved physicist-by-training,” with Trump, who was “dyspeptic, defensive and visibly irritated by press questions.”
The Economist, it should be recalled, served as a cheerleader for President George W. Bush when he decided to “liberate” Iraq and “democratize” it and the entire Middle East—a demonstration of American hubris and executive overreach. The magazine also criticized former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder for opposing what turned out to be a historic strategic fiasco that opened the Pandora’s box of the Sunni-Shia conflict. Not only did interference from the West destabilize Iraq—and eventually Syria—but it created the conditions for the current refugee crisis that ended up threatening German interests, not to mention Merkel’s own political survival.
The contrast drawn by the Economist and other media between Merkel and Trump goes beyond personalities or even specific policies. In the narrative the magazine created, which was captured in a New York Times headline: “As Obama Exits World Stage, Angela Merkel May Be the Liberal West’s Last Defender,” the German chancellor is portrayed as standing up to right-wing nationalist parties in Europe and assaulted by proponents of illiberal democracy. That list of opponents includes Russian president Vladimir Putin and his alleged admirer, Donald Trump.
From that perspective, Merkel’s efforts to preserve the unity of the European Union, and the decision to open Germany’s doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, are seen as reflecting the German commitment to preserving universal liberal principles. Meanwhile, Trump and his buddy Putin, joined by the collection of identitarian movements in Europe, represent an historic challenge to those values.
But as in the case of President Xi’s celebration of globalization, Chancellor Merkel’s policies are rooted in her country’s national interests and her efforts to, well, Make Germany Great Again, to ensure that Berlin will be in a position to achieve its long-standing objective of bringing much of Europe under its control—albeit this time (hopefully) through peaceful means.
The reason why there are no major German political movements supporting a German exit from the EU or the ending of the project to merge its economies is because the existence of the EU benefits German diplomatic and economic interests. This is reflected in the strong consensus in Berlin and Brussels, which are in support of safeguarding Germany’s leadership role.
There is nothing liberal or democratic about a regional economic colossus dictating economic policies to weaker EU members, like Greece or Spain, who remain dependent on it, by forcing them to make structural reforms to their economies while simultaneously cutting down on spending and borrowing—policies that are opposed by the majority of their citizens.
It is therefore ironic that Merkel is now being celebrated as a liberal-democratic icon, given that she is responsible for the policies that led to recession and economic turmoil as well as the eventual rise of anti-EU parties on both the political right and the left.
Similarly, Merkel’s catastrophic decision to allow a flood of Muslim immigrants to enter into Germany, and to press other EU members to also allow them in, was driven mostly by the German self-interest—the need to reverse Germany’s looming demographic decline. But the decision only played into the hands of the far-right political parties in Europe, including British supporters of Brexit.
Merkel may be “every inch the cool, reserved physicist-by-training,” but she has also proved to be a failed political leader. The notion advanced by the media that she now has the moral authority to criticize President Trump is absurd.
Moreover, there is one small problem with the notion of Germany’s role as a European hegemon, and that is that it lacks the military might to help it advance its interests, especially when the balance of power in the continent is under challenge. Unwilling or unable to transform itself into a major military power, Germany has relied on the U.S.-led NATO for its protection while adopting a creative modus operandi under which Berlin draws in NATO and, by extension, the United States, to help it advance its strategic interests.
Hence, the role that Germany played in the events leading to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, when it decided to recognize Croatian and Slovenian independence in December 1991, a move that was followed by an active diplomatic campaign led by then German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to press the then European Community (EC) to also recognize Croatia and Slovenia. Its members eventually did, resulting in Serbian countermoves that eventually sparked the civil war.
The decision to recognize Croatia and Slovenia was made without consultations with Britain and France—not to mention Washington—and favored a more cautious response to the declaration of independence, despite the fact that Germany did not have the political-military muscle to pay for the costs the policy eventually produces.
It was the United States and its NATO allies that ended up paying the military costs of the war, which almost led at one point to a military confrontation between the West and Russia.
This clever German policy benefited, yes, German long-term interests by drawing the United States, which at the time was reassessing its post–Cold War military commitments in Europe and considering shifting its attention to East Asia, into a geopolitical trap, leaving it no other choice but to spend its resources on a conflict that had a limited impact on U.S. interests and affected Germany’s interests more directly.