Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has come to Washington to be honored at a state dinner at the White House tonight, will be welcomed as a loyal ally, a very competent leader and the representative of a successful nation. No doubt, President Obama has reason to envy her capacity to exploit the weaknesses of her situation to stay on top. It is not, however, the kind of thing that is decently said aloud. Commentators instead will remind Germany of its moral obligations: to accept US initiatives, large and small. Otherwise, after all, we might not defend it against Russian invasion or Iranian missiles.
In Washington the chancellor will pretend to agree with a worldview that in Berlin she ignores, since it is dismissed as preposterous by much of her citizenry as well as by intelligent bureaucrats and politicians. Once home, she will preside over the shrinkage of the German army and keep it out of disasters like the stalled NATO intervention in Libya. Before the next general election, two years hence, she will certainly recall German forces from Afghanistan. Since 1945, war has become deeply unpopular in Germany, and the Afghan war is viewed as especially senseless.
History counts for the chancellor. She grew up as a pastor’s daughter in Communist East Germany, became a physicist—and left criticism and resistance to others. After reunification in 1990, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, recognizing her gifts of timing and ideological flexibility, made her environmental minister. In the end she replaced him (none too elegantly) as leader of the Christian Democratic Party. She became chancellor in 2005, outmaneuvered her Social Democratic coalition partners and since the 2009 national elections has governed with the party of the market, the Free Democrats.
Recently, however, the ruling coalition has suffered large losses in both polls and state elections. This past March Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost to the Green Party the governorship of Baden-Württemberg, a wealthy and conservative southern state they had ruled for decades. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the German public forced her to reverse her own coalition’s policy and declare that Germany would end the use of nuclear power in ten years.
Merkel’s coalition and party are riven by recriminations. The chancellor has profited from the indecision and vacuity of the Christian Democrats’ traditional adversary, the Social Democrats. She has blocked the deregulatory and tax-cutting projects of the Free Democrats and the business wing of her own party. She judges, correctly, that the new German capitalism is undermining the power and reach of the welfare state. She allows its silent shrinkage to proceed somewhat shamefacedly, since she does think social solidarity is a necessary task of the state.
Everywhere in Western Europe, the political agents of capital are reclaiming for the market the ground they lost to the state over the past half-century. The resistance of the parties of the left, and of the social Christian parties with traditions of attachment to social justice, has been weak. Recently, the technocratic elements of the left (proclaiming themselves “modern”) have joined in reducing the welfare state—and that includes Germany’s Social Democrats. Under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, ostensibly to provide incentives to work, they cut disability, unemployment and retirement benefits, and introduced obligatory low-wage employment.
Merkel, not unlike Obama, presents herself as above or beyond party. She turned the recent loss of her majority in the second chamber of the Bundestag, in which the states are directly represented, to her advantage—by telling her own coalition that it had to compromise. Her domestic message is that there is little need to vote for the Greens or the Social Democrats, since she is committed to environmental regulation and the retention of as much of the welfare state as an effective capitalism will allow.