Well, I suppose it was inevitable.
After President Obama's performance in Brisbane over the weekend, whenever a foreign leader now talks about climate change on Australian soil — as German chancellor Angela Merkel did this morning in her 2014 Lowy Lecture — it will be read in the media as an attack on Prime Minister Abbott.
All quite avoidable, of course. As Mike Callaghan explained in his G20 wrap-up yesterday, if the Government had taken a little more care in its public messaging in the lead-up to last weekend's G20 summit, the stories might not have been framed that way. But it's also a bit tiresome and reductionist, as if the issue matters primarily for how it affects the PM's fate.
What's more, climate change wasn't the only important thing Merkel talked about this morning. We will have a transcript available soon, but for now, my thoughts on the highlights of the speech:
- Merkel of course referenced Germany's dark past in the first half of the twentieth century, and said the creation of the EU was a guarantor that this would never happen again in Europe. Whether the memory of two world wars can serve any longer as a justification for European unification is a question we addressed recently on The Interpreter.
- She said Europe's economic crisis is 'under control', but that its effects are not behind us.
- Merkel said that, as Asia's big powers grow economically, inevitably they will throw their strategic weight around. She added that Asia was the only region to consistently record increases in military spending since the end of the Cold War, but she offered little about how great-power competition in the region can be managed, suggesting only that for Asian states taking the rocky road to political pluralism, Europe can help.
- If every reference to climate change is going to be read as a criticism of Abbott, one could do the same about Australia's record in the UN Security Council. In opposition, of course, Abbott criticised the campaign to win the non-permanent seat, but Merkel praised Australia's record richly, particularly on Syria. As Nick Bryant has written, Australia's role has been somewhat overlooked at home.
- I think that what we tend to look for in political leaders is not so much intelligence but wisdom, and Merkel's was on display in the Q&A, where she cautioned patience on Europe's response to the crisis in Ukraine. As someone who saw Germans give up hope of their country ever being reunified, she said we ought not to be too pessimistic about future change in Russia's attitude. But it might take some time for Europe's most powerful tool, its economic might, to take effect. The only danger for Europe is that it becomes divided in the meantime.
- Another piece of folk wisdom from Merkel: we are never well advised to listen only to our worries. This was in response to a question about Germany's position on Britain's place in the EU. Recently Merkel was reported to have said that she would accept the UK's exit from the EU, but today she sent an altogether warmer signal. She said the UK gave continental Europe a broader perspective on the US and Asia, and prevented the EU from being too inward-looking. She said Germany will do all it can to persuade the UK to remain in the EU.
- On Europe's economic crisis, Merkel warned that there must be more centralisation, because it is difficult to run a single currency with 18 central banks and 18 economic policies. The slowest member of the currency union cannot set the pace.
- Merkel's China answer was fascinating. What sort of world order do China's leaders want? They see their country as part of a 2000-year story of Chinese world leadership, punctuated by 200 recent years of decline and now a massive resurgence. China's current leaders want to be part of that story, and will do everything they can to restore China to its leading place in world affairs.
- Merkel's answer to the last question, about US spying on her telephone and those of other German officials, was a delight. She seemed baffled by the logic of it all: if Americans want to know what the German political class is thinking, why not just take them to lunch? Dead right, and it's an observation that could just as well be made about Australian snooping on Indonesia's leaders.
- One personal observation: I'm not sure Merkel was fully aware of the goodwill in the room today. She strikes me as a highly popular figure in this country (witness coverage of the Brisbane selfie), and I got the sense that the audience was waiting for her to open up and let her guard down a little bit. As a female political figure with global standing, her stature is similar to that of Hillary Clinton, who since losing the 2008 presidential primary to Barack Obama and then serving as Secretary of State has developed a whole new level of global popularity. But whereas Clinton seems aware of her new-found hipness (and is ready to exploit it), Merkel shows no sign of responding. It seems like a missed opportunity.