Merkel's Moment

A trailblazer and the unchallenged leader of Europe's largest economy, Germany's Chancellor now faces an uncomfortable question, How should her country use its power?

  • Oliver Mark / Focus

    Angela Merkel

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    With such commitment to humanist and democratic values, Merkel has declared herself willing to pursue policies that could cost her country dearly. Germany is Iran's largest trading partner in Europe, and many German businesses oppose any restrictions on trade with the country. But she has recently suggested that she would back new sanctions if the government in Tehran does not curtail its nuclear ambitions. In the past, U.S. officials doubted whether Germany's actions on Iran would match its tough words, but they seem to have confidence that Merkel means what she says. "When it comes to crunch time" on Iran, says a senior U.S. State Department official, "we'll be looking closely at what Russia and China are willing to do. But we have no concerns about Germany."

    For Merkel, Afghanistan is an even trickier diplomatic and economic mire. Germany is a generous donor of humanitarian aid there — as it is elsewhere in the developing world. But at 4,300 troops, Germany also provides the third largest contingent of forces in the theater, after the U.S. and Britain. In December the German parliament voted to extend the deployment in Afghanistan for another year, and the European allies — as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged — have reduced the number of so-called caveats that limit when troops may be deployed in combat. (Most German troops, for example, have been based in the north of the country, which has been relatively safer than the south. As of mid-December, 36 German troops had died in Afghanistan in 2009, compared with 935 Americans in the same period.)

    But even comparatively low casualty figures are shocking for many in Germany — a country that eschewed armed conflict for more than 50 years — who had persuaded themselves that their nation's role was solely humanitarian. Then in September, German forces called in a U.S. air strike in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to destroy oil tankers that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Some 140 people were killed, many of them civilians. That changed the perception of the mission among the German public and politicians alike. Franz Josef Jung, who was Defense Minister at the time of the bombing, resigned over the controversy, but other German officials declared that the event galvanized the country's commitment to being a full partner in the conflict, despite the inherent brutality of any war. "We have made clear," said Merkel's new Defense Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, on a visit to Washington in November, "that German soldiers are not any longer in the north only to dig holes for water and to wave at children. More and more, we are also in combat situations."

    That view did not go down well at home. Most Germans — 69% in a recent poll — want their troops out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Merkel is now under growing pressure from Washington and other contributors to the Afghanistan mission to boost the German presence as part of Barack Obama's surge strategy. As a genuine Atlanticist, she will not want to snub the U.S. call for help. But as an arch-pragmatist, she knows that public opinion in Germany will not blithely countenance a significant increase. She refuses to comment on her plans until she attends an international conference on Afghanistan in London on Jan. 28. Many German political analysts think she may compromise by keeping the number of troops steady but pledging a bigger role for Germany in training Afghan security forces.

    Giving Up Power
    However Merkel chooses to settle policy on Iran and Afghanistan, her style of decision making will remain her own. Merkel, like Obama, believes that nations cannot tackle an issue like economic turmoil, terrorism or climate change by themselves. Where she differs from most other leaders is in the direction this analysis takes her: that true leadership involves the surrender of power. Again, history is important; Germany's past has convinced its leaders that trouble beckons when the country acts alone and that happiness comes from working with others. "With the European Union," Merkel says, "we Europeans have realized a dream for ourselves. We live in peace and freedom. That naturally entails giving up some powers to Brussels, which isn't always pleasant. But it's necessary. The greatest consequence of globalization is that there aren't any purely national solutions to global challenges."

    It might seem odd that a woman whose climb to power was so arduous should contemplate giving away even a smidgen of it. But for a politician, Merkel keeps her ego remarkably in check. Indeed, to people who have never tamed their impulses for fear of drawing the attention of malign authorities nor tempered their dreams before an authoritarian state can trample them, her self-control can seem inhuman. On Nov. 9, 1989, as East German authorities gave up the struggle and opened the Berlin Wall, Merkel kept her regular appointment at a sauna. But the Chancellor's poise and self-confidence cannot obscure the question that the challenges of Afghanistan and Iran pose to her nation: When you are as rich and secure as modern Germany now is, what are your obligations to the world outside?
    — With reporting by Tristana Moore / Berlin and Mark Thompson / Washington

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