As regular Interpreter readers have no doubt heard by now, the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, gave the 2014 Lowy Lecture last week in Sydney.
Sam Roggeveen has already outlined the main elements of what Merkel said, but the rest of world now seems to be catching on. That speech, and her words particularly on the crisis in Ukraine and Russia, are now being called a 'major shift in European geopolitics.' Indeed, Der Spiegel ran an editorial this week saying 'It was a clear challenge and turning point after a year of diplomatic efforts that, while not useless, now appear to have been exhausted.'
It has taken Chancellor Merkel some time to speak publicly about what she says are the 'forces which refuse to accept the concept of mutual respect' and who 'believe in the supposed law of the strong and disregard the strength of law.' President Obama argued something very similar in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September, where he said that Russia's aggression was 'a vision of the world in which might makes right — a world in which one nation's borders can be redrawn by another.' Aside from the significance of the leader of Germany (and to a large degree, Europe) coming around to speaking forcefully about Putin and Russian violation of international law, what is interesting about Merkel's speech is that it was given by Merkel herself.
A recent and lengthy New Yorker profile by George Packer paints a picture of someone who is coolly detached from her ego and who did not come to politics naturally. She is a triple threat in German politics:
Among German leaders, Merkel is a triple anomaly: a woman (divorced, remarried, no children), a scientist (quantum chemistry), and an Ossi (a product of East Germany). These qualities, though making her an outsider in German politics, also helped to propel her extraordinary rise. Yet some observers, attempting to explain her success, look everywhere but to Merkel herself. “There are some who say what should not be can’t really exist—that a woman from East Germany, who doesn’t have the typical qualities a politician should have, shouldn’t be in this position,” Göring-Eckardt, another woman from East Germany, said. “They don’t want to say she’s just a very good politician.” Throughout her career, Merkel has made older and more powerful politicians, almost all of them men, pay a high price for underestimating her.
And on her analytical qualities:
People who have followed her career point to Merkel’s scientific habit of mind as a key to her political success. “She is about the best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine,” a senior official in her government said. “She looks at various vectors, extrapolates, and says, ‘This is where I think it’s going.’ ” Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.
Packer puts particular emphasis on Merkel's political maneuvering and her ability to play a long game. Speaking about the Chancellor and one of her long-time and trusted political advisers, Beate Baumann:
Fed up with Kohl’s smug bullying, the two women practiced a form of “invisible cruelty”: they played hardball but relished their victories privately, without celebrating in public and making unnecessary enemies. Their style, Ulrich said, is “not ‘House of Cards.’ ” On one rare occasion, Merkel bared her teeth. In 1996, during negotiations over a nuclear-waste law, Gerhard Schröder, two years away from becoming Chancellor, called her performance as environment minister “pitiful.” In her interview with Herlinde Koelbl that year, Merkel said, “I will put him in the corner, just like he did with me. I still need time, but one day the time will come for this, and I am already looking forward.” It took nine years for her to make good on the promise.
Early on in the Ukraine crisis, Merkel, who speaks fluent Russian, was said to be the closest to Putin and the Western leader who knew him best. A last extract for those that doubt her resolve:
John Kornblum, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who still lives in Berlin, said, “If you cross her, you end up dead. There’s nothing cushy about her. There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”
The piece is also littered with great anecdotes about a leader who rarely gives personal interviews:
In off-the-record conversations with German journalists, she replays entire conversations with other world leaders, performing wicked imitations. Among her favorite targets have been Kohl, Putin, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, former Pope Benedict XVI, and Al Gore. (“Ah have to teach mah people,” she mimics, in a Prussian approximation of central Tennessee.) After one meeting with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, during the euro crisis, she told a group of journalists that Sarkozy’s foot had been nervously jiggling the entire time.