2017 Daily Maverick International Persons of the Year runners-up: Axis of Reason – Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron

The “Persons of the Year” title has been awarded to the “Silence Breakers/Me Too” women who have handed out a whole pack of red cards to men in politics, the arts, entertainment, and news and communications who have made use of their power and positions to inflict sexual predation upon women, “because I can”, as Donald Trump has said. Nonetheless, J. BROOKS SPECTOR also makes a case for applauding two critically important people on the world stage – Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron – who, collectively, are offering a larger, more expansive vision, rather than the crabbed, cramped one being purveyed by too many others now on the global scene.

In the years immediately after World War II, a vast, destructive war had left most of the nations of Western Europe shattered economically, politically, or in terms of their industrial infrastructure – or all three simultaneously. Amazingly, a secular miracle was about to come about. Instead of yet a newer cycle of animosity, territorial squabbles, military build-ups and destructive competition among politicians and so-called statesmen, as had happened after World War I, a group of imaginative yet supremely realist politicians, lawyers and economists found another way forward for Europe.

People like Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, and Konrad Adenauer from France and West Germany helped kick-start the economic integration of Western Europe, leading up to the European Economic Community (West Germany, Italy, France and the Benelux trio). The ECC’s success then eventually led to the formation of a 28-member European Community. Yes, Britain is now breaking ranks with that impulse towards economic unification, but we’ll get to that soon enough.

Concurrently, and increasingly fearful of the roiling economic and political chaos in Western Europe (as well as the likelihood of the increasing impact of far left political movements in France and Italy), successfully pushed for an economic recovery plan that would include most of Western Europe – including the three western occupation zones of a vanquished Germany. To get there, American leaders like Dean Acheson, George Marshall and Harry Truman had to push hard against isolationist sentiment among many in Congress, and – importantly – to create a programme that would only deliver American aid under this newly named Marshall Plan, if Western European nations would co-operate on its multinational design and implementation. The result was a serious push towards economic recovery, and eventually in tandem with that still-nascent European Union.

At the end of the Second World War and as the European Community began to evolve, British politicians and statesmen continued to see their fortunes tied firmly to that special relationship with the US (and to their role as an imperial power with a seat at the head table of the UN Security Council) that had been forged in the conflict. British leaders continued to dream that they could play Greece to America’s Rome, providing intellectual and political leadership to the new giant, even if their economic fortunes had palled. With that approach, it took years before Britain would finally take the plunge to join the European Community.

In the nearly three quarters of a century that followed the end of the war, the appropriateness of these leaders’ collective vision for Europe was strongly validated by the economic boom that had followed. For many others around the world, the idea of greater economic integration, the reduction of nationalistic economic management, and establishment of rules of behaviour has come to have a kind of special magic about it.

The establishment of common markets and free trade zones in regions around the world has become a kind of sine qua non of international economic diplomacy. This has been true even if there has also been real pushback by some critics – especially voices from among nations like China and other emerging economies – that the current international trading system, as it has come to be, has that globalisation deck firmly stacked against those emerging nations and in favour of the traditional big trading and exporting nations.

In the past several years, however, the increasingly integrated global system seems to have hit some real speed bumps – or worse. Following the end of the Cold War, it initially seemed the Russia that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union would gradually become ever more like the rest of Europe, rather than look backwards in history for its inspirations. Simultaneously, as China’s economic heft continued to grow, and its participation in global trade advanced, its accession into the World Trade Organisation seemed to herald the integration of that nation as well into the global economy – largely on the terms of the western globalised model.

But things have in fact evolved rather differently with both China and Russia. As far as Vladimir Putin’s Russia is concerned, a return to czarist authoritarian political ideals and an expansionist foreign policy seem so much in the cards that a recent Putin profile cover story in The Economist was entitled, “A Tsar is Born”, with Putin in the uniform of a 19th century Russian czar, with a few modern touches. One only has to recall the advances against Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s sophisticated electoral meddling in the US and other nations (despite Donald Trump’s obdurate denialism), and Russia’s major insertion into the ongoing Syrian civil chaos to get a real sense of this approach.

And, as far as China is concerned, in detailing the Chinese approach to reasserting a global impact that was last seen a couple of centuries ago, this week’s edition of that same news publication commented, “China’s approach could be called ‘sharp power’. It stops well short of the hard power, wielded through military force or economic muscle; but it is distinct from the soft attraction of culture and values, and more malign. Sharp power is a term coined by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a think-tank in Washington, DC, funded mainly by Congress….”

In the face of these developments, then, it is astounding to watch the retreat from engagement, and a shucking off of any embrace of the ideals at the core of the post-World War II landscape, now being fostered by the current leadership of both the US and UK. In Britain, Theresa May’s prime ministership, aside from its inability to forge a stable majority in parliament sufficient to pass important legislation, is now notable largely for its withdrawal from the European Union, the awkward negotiations with the EU of the terms of that divorce, and the consequent fussing over whether traffic along the Irish/Northern Irish boundary should be fully or partially open as a result of the split.

Meanwhile, in America, Donald Trump has managed to narrow down American vital foreign policy issues – and the shucking off of any idealism about the global society – to four bullet points. The first of these is that a crazy man runs North Korea and he will blow up the world with his latest nuclear toys, unless something dire happens to his cosy world first. The second is that the Middle East is composed of three issues: Iran is like a North Korean mini-me, only worse; ISIS is the single most important threat to the world except for Iran and North Korea, and American support for Israel is dependent on moving an embassy to placate the religious fundamentalists that are a core element of the Trump support base. And finally, the remaining article of faith is that Russia is the right ally for America and that the rest of the world’s business is in trying to crush America with all that global climate nonsense, or worse.

Into the resulting leadership gap in the West, this lacuna of a larger vision, have stepped a veteran German politician, Angela Merkel, and the new bright spark of French politics, Emmanuel Macron. Between the two of them, there is a partnership that takes on board the deeper reality of European unity and the ideas that animate it, as well as the need for such advocates for this to aspire to global – or at least regional – leadership.

In defining Macron’s emerging position, The Economist argued this week,

Does his activism amount to something substantial? Other new presidents showed similar rushes of interest in world affairs, before disappointment set in. Nicolas Sarkozy, early in his term, proposed a ‘union for the Mediterranean’ and put himself forward as a Middle Eastern peacemaker. Neither effort bore fruit. He and François Hollande readily used military force, for example in bombing Libya. In Syria, France first opposed the government of Bashar al-Assad, but then failed to act decisively. Mr Macron calls actions in both those countries “cruel failures”.

Two elements appear different today. One is context. Mr Macron stands on a remarkably empty field, alone as a Western leader with some diplomatic and military [italics added] clout who seeks a bigger international role. Britain’s preoccupation with Brexit has diminished its influence. German leaders are also distracted and anyway enjoy limited influence beyond Europe. ‘France is filling a vacuum,’ says François Heisbourg, a security analyst in Paris.

The second factor is his personality. ‘He is a talented, charming opportunist, able to size up people and build personal relations,’ argues Adam Plowright, a presidential biographer. He points to Mr Macron’s skilful extraction last month of Saad Hariri from Saudi Arabia, where Lebanon’s leader was, in effect, being held captive by his hosts. The intervention let the Saudis save face. Mr Macron may now feel emboldened to try more such mediation.

France has capital to spend, especially in the Middle East, argues Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr Macron is vocal, ready to break with old practice (for example in his gambit in offering to visit Iran) and can draw on France’s historic ties in the region. But Mr Hokayem warns against exaggerated expectations of the sort that were (briefly) associated with Mr Sarkozy.

After all, France’s military might has not increased under Mr Macron. ‘He can start discussions, but he realises that the Americans have the muscle,’ says Mr Hokayem. France can help in crisis management or de-escalating problems, as with Mr Hariri, but Mr Macron must ultimately recognise that ‘what matters is getting Americans on board’, he suggests.”

Macron is, of course, also attempting to keep the momentum on the world climate pact signed in Paris previously, going forward, even if the US has declined further participation (although many states and cities have pledged continuing support, despite the national government).

Merkel’s political position is more complex, of course. While Macron won convincingly in a stunning entry into French politics, vanquishing all others in two rounds of voting, in Angela Merkel’s newest election victory, her party failed to achieve a full majority. To govern effectively, they will ultimately almost certainly be forced to form an alliance with some other smaller parties or somehow reunite uneasily with the Social Democratic Party in a grand coalition. Moreover, she now must contend with the ability of the far right party, Alternatives for Germany, to cause a stir in the Bundestag, with the first entry of a far right party into the national legislature since 1945.

There is also the continuing reluctance on the part of many Germans to support their nation in having its power projected militarily beyond the Nato alliance, a hangover from the baleful effects of that earlier global conflict. Nevertheless, German economic and financial weight remains the motor for the entire European project and, so far at least, it has largely been used to steer the continent’s nations into greater economic integration and cautious financial policies (although the Greeks, given their struggles to ward off financial collapse, would demur).

But, as long as the Macron/Merkel axis can guide European events; as long as Macron can somehow work out a way to tether Donald Trump to Europe, despite the US president’s “America First” invocation; and as long as Merkel can – in tandem with the transnational institutions of European co-operation – build some sort of viable relationship with a UK outside the EU perimeter, the two leaders have a shot at defining the western vision, especially with both May and Trump listed as MIA on the manifest. But it would be nice to have the US and the UK put some skin in the game once again. DM

Photo: French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive for the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair at Messe Frankfurt, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 10 October 2017. EPA-EFE/ARMANDO BABANI


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted