Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, listens to a question during a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin. (Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg)

Merkel Confronts a Defining Moment as the Global Order Realigns

(Bloomberg) -- Ask Angela Merkel to reflect on her political legacy and she’ll tell you she’s got too much on her plate to worry about it.

“I’m totally busy,” Merkel said on RTL television when quizzed on life after politics in an interview aired Thursday. “I haven’t thought about that question.”

Merkel Confronts a Defining Moment as the Global Order Realigns

After nearly 13 years in office, the German chancellor may be under pressure at home but her international standing has rarely been higher. Just ask Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Eighteen months ago, the Turkish president derided her as a terrorist supporter; now he’s set to visit Berlin as he seeks allies in a dispute with the U.S. that’s helped crash the Turkish economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin answered an invitation to visit Merkel last month for their first bilateral meeting in Germany since 2013. Even Donald Trump’s constant needling is an indication of her continued global clout.

One year after a dismal election win that marked the stuttering start to her fourth and presumably final term, a majority of the public say they are displeased with Merkel’s government. Yet the political winds shifting behind the nationalist camp make Germany’s internationalist leader even more of a pivotal figure as she stands up for free trade and a more coherent Europe. It’s a clash of beliefs that’s shaping up to be a legacy-defining moment for Merkel, whether she wants it or not.

“Merkel is by default the only leader with the experience, influence and stature -- and with the resources -- to make a difference,” said Daniel S. Hamilton, senior fellow at John Hopkins University’s Foreign Policy Institute in Washington. “The Germans realize they have the most to lose from a fractured European order as anybody.”

Trump Attacks

With the U.K. consumed by Brexit and French President Emmanuel Macron experiencing his own domestic difficulties, Merkel’s multilateral approach looks increasingly exposed. The 64-year-old chancellor may face the next crisis soon enough as Italy’s populist government clashes with the European Union -- and targets Berlin -- over migration and the country’s deficit.

The latest warning sign is Sweden, where a nationalist party took almost a fifth of the vote in a national election on Sunday. The ballot produced a political deadlock after Prime Minister Stefan Lofven led his Social Democrats to their worst election result since 1921.

Looming over Merkel’s international agenda is Trump, whose personal attacks show no sign of abating. He took aim again in a Bloomberg interview, blasting the chancellor for “buying oil” from Russia while spending far less than the U.S. on defense. “You know, I have a lot of disagreements with her,” Trump said.

Merkel Confronts a Defining Moment as the Global Order Realigns

Such hostility only seems to be spurring Merkel. She and Macron discussed moves to strengthen Europe’s role in the world at a meeting in Marseille on Friday. From there she traveled to Skopje -- capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia that’s vying to settle a dispute with Greece over the country’s name -- seeking to expand German diplomacy in the Balkans, in part to counter Russian and Chinese influence.

Putin, Erdogan

While accepting that Trump views her as an adversary, she’s re-engaging with Putin and Erdogan. She’s kept lines of communication open to both leaders even as relations soured, over Russia’s incursions in Ukraine and the detention of German citizens as part of Erdogan’s crackdown on alleged threats. Both he and Putin are crucial to ending the war in Syria and avoiding another refugee crisis in Europe.

“Nothing happens in the EU without Germany,” said Erik Nielsen, global chief economist at Unicredit Bank. “Angela Merkel remains the crucial figure.”

Yet her leverage is finite and her dealings with Putin remain unpredictable, despite their shared understanding of Europe’s Cold War history -- he as a KGB officer in East Germany, she as a Russian speaker whose science background took her from East Berlin to Moscow.

Merkel Confronts a Defining Moment as the Global Order Realigns

When she hosted Putin three weeks back at the German government’s Meseberg retreat outside Berlin, she asked him to restrain Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad in Idlib -- the last holdout against Assad’s Russian-backed forces in the seven-year war -- and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. Putin didn’t commit to anything, but instead focused on the need for money to rebuild Syria. Days later, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called Idlib a “festering abscess” that would have to be drained, crushing hopes in the Chancellery that the coming assault can be mitigated -- and the refugee columns curbed.

Global Stage

After winning the chancellorship by the narrowest of margins in 2005, Merkel soon realized that while the domestic arena is the foundation, the global stage is the place to get things done, said an associate familiar with her thinking.

Yet the home front, inflamed by three years of political strife over migration, is where Merkel is most vulnerable. Her decision in 2015 to leave Germany’s borders open to refugees, including hundreds of thousands from Syria, is now an indelible part of her legacy.

Merkel was in Africa on Aug. 30 on a mission to limit migration and promote growth when hundreds of anti-immigrant marchers roamed through Chemnitz after two suspected asylum seekers fatally stabbed a German man.

The days of far-right unrest in the eastern German city before and after her trip probably spurred support for the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which jumped to 17 percent in one poll, an all-time high that signals the scope of nationalist revulsion against Merkel. It’s the latest sign of how exposed she remains on the topic -- increasingly the key dividing line in European and international political debate.

Her AfD detractors tar Merkel with the label “traitor,” saying she’s deliberately weakening Germany from within. In reality, she’s leading a European push to take on more responsibility for the broader global order as Trump displays hostility toward the EU and the NATO military alliance. German power since World War II has always been more economic than diplomatic, but Merkel’s gambit would mean Germany finally stepping out of its postwar shadow and playing a bigger role in the world to defend European values.

“The Germans have to explore this space in which Germany steps up, takes part of Europe with it and preserves the European experiment,” said Hamilton of Johns Hopkins. With Trump in the White House, “they don’t have the luxury of not doing it.”

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