Merkel, and Germany, show the world what leadership means
For the third consecutive year, an annual poll in 135 countries has found Germany to be the world’s most admired country for its global leadership, way ahead of the US, Russia and China. Germany’s consolidation as a world leader should not come as a surprise, although the change of fortunes for a country that 75 years ago was the most detested in history and lay in ruins after the defeat of the Nazi regime is a remarkable turnaround.
At the end of the Second World War, Germany not only had the task of reconstructing country and nation from scratch, but it was also split in two, under occupation, and with severe restrictions on its sovereignty. It had to battle with its own demons, as well as rebuild its reputation in the world arena, first as no longer posing a threat, and then as a constructive member of the international community. Furthermore, by the end of the Cold War, reunification of West and East presented an immense social, economic, and not least psychological challenge to the German people; no wonder, then, that most German leaders throughout this period, and Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular, have commanded international respect.
The poll’s approval rate of Germany at 44 percent is all the more impressive because it was an increase on the 2018 figure; because the gap between Germany and the US in second place is 11 percentage points; and because the survey was conducted even before the coronavirus pandemic battered the entire world and distinguished the true leaders of our world, such as Merkel, from lesser ones in the mold of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Merkel, like other female leaders from Iceland to Taiwan and from New Zealand to Finland and Denmark, has stepped up to set an example of how to manage humanity’s worst health crisis in living memory. Considering the manner in which Merkel has dealt with COVID-19, one can only expect that next year’s survey will only reinforce Germany’s position as the most trusted world power.
For many years after the end of the Second World War, Germany was ostracised for its wartime crimes against humanity and excluded from any say in international affairs. The aftermath of the Nazi period was a long and arduous journey that first required healing the wounds of war at home, and then mending fences with the rest of the world. More than any other country Germany took to the task with great dignity, taking full responsibility for the holocaust of the Jewish people, and outlawing any activity or expression of hatred toward minority groups.
Merkel, like other female leaders from Iceland to Taiwan and from New Zealand to Finland and Denmark, has stepped up to set an example of how to manage humanity’s worst health crisis in living memory.
In recent years it is not only Germany as a country that has rebuilt its society and economy and greatly enhanced its international reputation; much of this global respect is due to Merkel herself, who has been at the helm for 15 years. In a world plague-ridden with populist-nationalist leaderships more interested in scoring cheap points on Twitter than looking after the interests of their people, Merkel’s old-fashioned style of leadership stands out. She defies the zeitgeist of leaders who acquire and maintain power by being slick, divisive, brutal and shallow in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. She is the antithesis of these modern leaders with her no-nonsense, analytical approach, true to her scientific background.
Rather than pander to some mythical support base, she is ready to lead from the front; on tough issues, to eschew shortcuts or the easy route, and instead take the path she truly believes is right for the country and the world. Merkel once articulated clearly that her core beliefs were “freedom, respect for the law, and the dignity of man independent of origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views.” It is these values that guide her in leading Germany and in engaging with the world, and she hasn’t flinched even when under severe pressure.
Merkel’s Germany acted as a responsible and caring world leader when it opened its doors to refugees when many other countries failed to do so. Germany is now home to more than 1 million refugees, about two thirds of whom have fled the horrors of the Syrian carnage, while the rest have arrived from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the highest number of refugees made welcome by any Western industrialised country, significantly one that does not border those refugees’ countries of origin. The US, for instance, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, admitted just over 12,000 asylum seekers, while the UK took in about 17,000.
It is not that Merkel did not know she would pay a heavy political price for her government’s principled stand at a time when xenophobia was rife across Europe, but she still took the moral high ground, because the history of her country and her own experience of being brought up under East Germany’s totalitarian regime shaped her and her wish to utilise her power to make her country and the world a better place, rather than wield power for its own sake. And instead of perceiving refugees and asylum seekers as a burden on society, Germany embarked on what it does best — training and retraining people while looking after their basic needs and helping them to learn the language; in other words, supplying all the ingredients for successful integration, though admittedly not without difficulties and friction.
Merkel’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic only underlines her exceptional leadership qualities; these stand out on their own merit, but are also shining examples compared to the incompetent and self-serving approaches from so many governments. Instead of denial, hesitation and wilful ignorance of the facts and the science, all ruled by wishful thinking and hyperbole, the German leadership lets scientific evidence guide it and acts with decisiveness and a measured reassurance of the public.
We can only hope that certain people of influence in Beijing, London, Moscow and Washington are watching and learning.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg