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Angela Merkel, the G-Zero chancellor Germany does not lead the world. But it exemplifies the future of international relations


Jul 7th 2017  


IT WAS a tableau to sum up an age. Leaders of the world’s 20 main industrial powers, plus a dusting of international institutions and secondary powers, posed for a photo at the Hamburg Congress Centre. In the middle, among the testosteroid ranks of Putins and Trumps, Erdogans and Xis, was Angela Merkel; calm and composed, her fingers bridged in their distinctive rhombus. Look back over the past years of global turmoil—terror, wars, financial crises, political upheavals—and that rhombus is one of the few constants. A sturdy pinnacle in an uncertain age; a bridge in more senses than one.

The photo taken, the G20 leaders spilled into the conference room. Mrs Merkel bustled through the throng, talking first with Vladimir Putin, then with Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump, then with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk. She called the company to order and opened the discussion, stressing that Hamburg (where she was born) is a maritime city, a symbol of the “networked world” at stake in the coming talks. She explained the symbolic value of the summit’s icon, the reef knot: “The more strain on its ends, the tighter it becomes.”

Surveying the scene it was tempting to conclude that a unilateralist America, a withdrawing Britain, a still-recovering France, a revisionist Russia and a not-yet-dominant China make Mrs Merkel not just the chair of this particular summit, but something more: the new leader of the free world. Recent pieces in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles TimesNewsweek, the IndependentUSA Today and Politico have all floated or even endorsed the designation. When Barack Obama paid a final presidential visit to Berlin in November, it was said that he was unofficially anointing Mrs Merkel his successor as guardian of the global order.

My piece in this week’s issue of The Economist challenges the label, for which Berlin has neither the appetite nor the means. For one thing, even booming Germany lacks America’s economic weight. That its welcome “Marshall Plan for Africa” is so modest compared with both the scale of the task and the original Marshall Plan makes that much clear. Moreover, the country is still hamstrung by its history. As Jan Techau of the American Academy in Berlin puts it to me: the Nazi past still causes Germans to “lack faith in their own good intentions”. Partly for this reason, the country remains relatively allergic to military force; it spends just 1.2% of it GDP on defence (as Mr Trump likes to complain) and so cannot undergird its diplomatic positions with hard power.

The G20 summit dramatises these realities. The final statement is likely to be vague. It may carry asterisks exempting America from environmental passages. There is even a chance that Mr Trump will not sign it at all. Whether other rich countries will commit meaningfully to Mrs Merkel’s plan for Africa is still uncertain. Unlike the chancellor, most still see turbulence on that continent primarily as a security rather than a development issue.

Most significant will be the bilateral meetings. Will Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping find common ground on their border disputes and China’s contentious “One Belt One Road” trade plan? Will Turkey and Saudi Arabia make any progress on Syria? Will Theresa May reach new understandings with her EU counterparts on Brexit? Will Mr Trump’s first meeting with Mr Putin prompt a deal on Ukraine? Progress on such questions—unlikely to feature among the concluding annoucements here in Hamburg tomorrow—matters so much because we are in what the political scientist Ian Bremmer calls a “G-Zero” world; one in which no country or bloc can shape or direct global events. The era of the cacophony is upon us.

This, not some overblown and oversimplified notion of nascent dominance, explains why Germany is now so relevant. As a top exporter embedded in the Eurasian continent and thus without the geographic buffers of Britain, America or Australia, it is perhaps uniquely invested in the architecture of globalisation. Environmental, trade and regulatory disruptions hurt it more than most. Its historically-rooted scepticism about hard power (slowly waning, as the country’s deployments in Mali, Afghanistan and Lithuania and rising defence spending show) prompt it to build other sorts of defences: geopolitical alliances, diplomatic compromises, long-term development investments. The result is a country whose power flows not from dominance but from a dense, finally balanced and endlessly recalculated web of economic, cultural and diplomatic links. It convenes. 

All of which is on show in Hamburg, if you know where to look. Mrs Merkel is the leader who led Western defiance to Mr Putin, yet also the one who can engage him in frank conversation (whether they were talking Russian or German earlier is not clear). She has moved closer to China in response to America’s recent political turn, but has kept her options open. She is constructively ambiguous. Even her now-famous comments in a Munich beer tent in May, rebuking Mr Trump, were cryptic: “the times in which we can rely entirely on others are somewhat over.” She speaks the emphemeral language of a G-Zero world. But she can move fast and surgically when international events demand it; flipping positions on nuclear power in 2011, on refugees in 2015 and last month rewriting her position on EU treaty-change in support of Mr Macron (albeit without making any firm commitments).

To Mrs Merkel’s critics this can look like so much game-playing: the values-free manoeuvring of a country doing nicely out of a lopsided European order facilitating the sale of cars and machinery to imperfect democracies in the developing world. But to take in the international landscape is also to witness the merits of this approach. Germany makes no pretence of self-sufficiency. It accepts its own vulnerability, its own lack of a reliable protector, its own inextricability from mutually compromising alliances and sub-alliances. It is what Ulrich Speck, a leading expert on German foreign policy, calls a “postmodern” power.

Who knows what the next years will bring? Perhaps China will start taking the lead. Perhaps America will suddenly abandon Trumpism in favour of old-school, Rooseveltian internationalism. Perhaps Europe will get its act together and start acting as one on the world stage. Perhaps some new coalition of Asian dragons will emerge as a new locus of power. But in the absence of such developments, G-Zero is here to stay. Journalists looking for a new superpower will still cast around for examples, including Germany, which will continue to fall short of the excitable billing. But for better or worse, others may increasingly emulate Berlin’s distinctive blend of idealistic multilateralism and case-by-case pragmatism. Germany is less a leader than a foretaste. 


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