Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Obama passes the torch to Merkel

For the past 70 years the US President has been known as the 'leader of the free world'. Tomorrow Barack Obama arrives in Berlin to hand that title to the German chancellor.

Barack Obama's European farewell tour, which is kicking off in Athens today, was meant to be a triumphant farewell to a continent where he remains enormously popular.

Instead, the trip has become a crisis tour. The US president must urgently reassure the European public that the continent is not about to be plunged into war by a Donald Trump presidency, and that American moral leadership remains intact. In his private meetings, however, he will have to acknowledge that he cannot assure any such thing. He will have to urgently plan with European leaders for how to peacefully transition to a post-Trump world.

The most important of these meetings will come tomorrow in Berlin, when he meets with the reluctant new leader of Western liberal democracy - Angela Merkel.


In Berlin, Obama will also be meeting with the leaders of Britain, France and Italy. But Britain is in Brexit chaos and the government, which was put into power by right-wing populists in the UK, has given indications it will ally with the Trump regime in a move away from liberal democracy. 

The French president is currently at a 3% approval rating, and it looks increasingly likely that he may be toppled by far-right leader (and Trump ally) Marine Le Pen in April next year. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi could be toppled next month by a constitutional referendum.

Last woman standing

That leaves German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is the only European leader who did not give the incoming American president a boilerplate diplomatic welcome (or, as was the case in the UK and Hungary, a fawning welcome). In a carefully-worded statement, she congratulated Trump but warned that Germany would not tolerate fascist impulses.
“Germany and America are bound by common values: democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation or political views,” she said. Cooperation with the United States, she said, must be “based on these values.”
It was highly unusual for a post-election congratulatory message, and she was the only leader of a major Western country to offer such a warning. 

But she can afford to be so bold. She is the most powerful leader in Europe by far. During her decade in power she has watched the other national leaders around her fall like dominos. She's still here. And now, she's all we've got.

Of course, Germany also has a small, but growing, far-right party - Alternative for Germany (AfD). And like France, Germany also has elections next year. The American media has been mentioning this election in the same breath as the French one, as if they are equally likely to result in a far-right government. 

But in reality there is zero prospect for a far-right takeover in Germany. France has a presidential system, like the US, meaning governments can change as the result of a single nationwide vote. Germany has a parliamentary system, where governments are formed by MPs and there are therefor more protections against sudden upsets.

The AfD is rising in the polls in recent months - but it's a rise from 8% to 14%, nothing comparable to the support for UKIP in the UK or the Front National in France. The kind of 'victory' for the AfD feared in Germany right now is simply that they enter the parliament - not that they grab hold of the chancellorship. Germany's protections against a fascist takeover now look to be among the strongest of any country in Europe.

Before last week's Trump win, there was ambivalence among Germans I talked to in Berlin about whether Merkel should run for another term. Since last Tuesday, I am hearing a universal consensus: she must run. Even my left-wing f
riends say they will vote for her (she is a centre-right Christian Democrat). If Angela falls, the West falls with her.

Leader of the free world


Obama will be aware of all this as he arrives in Berlin tomorrow. He will seek to convince British Prime Minister Theresa May not to throw her lot in with Trumpism, even though such a move will be tempting for her because it may be the only way to make Brexit work.

He will try to convince French President Francois Hollande to rule out a run for president immediately and open the way for a different Socialist candidate. He will implore Renzi not to resign if his proposal for fixing Italy's constitution is rejected by populist forces in next month's referendum.


But all three of those conversations will be simply to keep those countries above water. The conversation with Merkel will be far more serious. With America descending into darkness, Angela Merkel is now the only world leader to turn to for leadership. She is the free world's last hope. And so, she is now the free world's new leader.

It's a delicate and unwanted situation for Merkel, and for Germans as a whole. After all, how can the leader of the free world be someone with effectively no military? Germany relies almost entirely on the United States for its defence (there are more American soldiers stationed in Germany than German ones - although Trump has suggested he wants to pull them out).

Germans did not ask to be thrust into the position of world leadership. They have shunned any kind of leadership role since World War II. But now there is no choice.

The end of the American century


That America's moral authority over the world is now over seems self-evident. Even Francis Fukuyama, he of 'end of history' fame, admits it.

Trump has suggested ending the NATO alliance that provides European military defence. He has promised to end all US efforts to fight climate change and pull the country out of the Paris Accord reached last year. He has appointed a white nationalist as the most powerful advisor in the White House. 

Perhaps most damning, the fact that so many Americans backed his appalling behaviour, his outrageous moral failings, signals to the world that Americans themselves are no longer fit to run things. The American people can no longer be trusted.

This creates a leadership vacuum. The US has been 'leader of the free world' for 70 years. It's a title that was always rather pompous, but reflected America's status as the most powerful defender of liberal democracy, particularly in the face of authoritarian Communism and Fascism. 

Whether America was truly a 'moral leader' during this period can be argued, particularly if you look at the country's behavior propping up fascism and dictatorships in Latin America and the Middle East. But through it all it was still the 'indispensable nation', the world's most powerful and most determinative liberal democratic voice. Even when it didn't live up to its purported values, it never lost this status as the bedrock of liberal democracy.

Through the Cold War it was one of two superpowers vying for influence, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall it became the world's sole superpower. This situation was untenable, with the whole world order becoming overly reliant on one country whose citizens were becoming increasingly disinterested in the world they ran.

But even though this was obviously not sustainable, nobody was in a rush to adjust to the new reality. Not China, which has superpower ambitions but is not quite ready to implement them. And not Europe, which has stayed in its child-like relationship with America despite all signs that this era was coming to an end.

Now Europeans are scrambling. Germany does not have a viable military and it would take years to build one. If NATO collapses it leaves Europe with no military defence. But the European Union could pool the national militaries of the EU countries into one effective fighting force. As I wrote well before the election, an EU military is the only rational response to Trump's NATO plans (and should have happened even if Clinton had been elected).

Now Federica Mogherini, the EU's high representative for foreign affairs, is trying to urgently implement the plan put forward earlier this year by the leaders of Germany, France and Italy for EU military co-operation. But the UK has opposed any such move for years, and incredibly, they are still opposing it after Trump's victory. London is saying that in the next two years before they 'brexit' the EU, they will veto any move toward EU military co-operation bypasssing the United States.

I'm in Brussels today, where Mogherini has convened an emergency meeting of Europe's foreign ministers to react to last week's developments. She is insisting that the plan for EU military capability must be urgently sped up. The UK's foreign minister, Boris Johnson has refused to attend, saying the summit is alarmist. But the Eastern European countries who previously expressed concern about such a plan weakening NATO, such as Poland, seem to be changing their mind after the Trump vote.

It's going to be a totally new world, and right now nobody can predict what it will look like. But if it is to be a world in which liberal democracy clings on, then it has to be a world with a strong Germany. Tomorrow I fly to Berlin, and all eyes will be on the German capital to see if Obama and Merkel can stem this tide of fascism.


For Obama, he has signalled that there is no other leader more deserving to take over his mantle. Before he left for Europe, the US president said in a press conference at the White House that Merkel, "has probably been my closest international partner these last eight years". (Just in case there was still any mystery about how Obama views the long-dead "special relationship" many Brits still they have with the US).

For Americans, this must all seem very strange - ironic even. For Europeans, it's less surprising. American (and British) conceptions of Germans may be stuck in old tired stereotypes, based on the only history that Anglo-Saxons learn in school (WWII). But for those of us who know modern Germans, it is not surprising that they have emerged as the last sane voice in the Western world.

For the past ten years, as I've watched so many Europeans self-harm with their backward-looking nationalism and their infantile dependence on America, it has seemed like Germans were the only ones who could see the forest for the trees. I've often called Germans "the only adults in the room" in Europe.

Now those adults are our last hope.

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