Janan Ganesh: Liberals must learn lessons of the Merkel years

Politics: German leader’s gradualism on Russia proved to be its own kind of dereliction

George W Bush has never issued a mea maxima culpa for his botched war in Iraq. The central bankers who oversaw the credit bubble of the early 21st century have not abased themselves and begged for their reputations. Why, then, should Angela Merkel? The gas dependence on Russia, the turn against nuclear power, the inadequate defence spending: parts of her record as German chancellor have aged as well as milk. But it doesn’t matter whether someone who will never hold office again learns from or even admits their errors.

That is not so true of those who cheered her on. Western liberals still have votes and, through preponderance in the media, opinion-forming clout. It matters that they are skirting around their lionisation of the “Queen of Europe” (a title she didn’t court or like) for much of the past decade. It implies that they will not learn the lessons of her tainted legacy. Here are just three.

Liberals are not always the best defenders of liberalism

Consensus and compromise are not ends in themselves. Merkel’s style of leadership was what endeared her to liberals, not just her (nominally centre-right, remember) beliefs. In a piece of silly guesswork that was never applied to Margaret Thatcher BSc, her scientific training was even hailed as the basis of her pragmatism.

True, her contrast with Donald Trump’s bullheadedness and Britain’s confrontational politics was pleasing. But there was a price in prevarication and half-measures. A leader with no domestic or even continental peer could have shaken German consensus more, as she did by waving a million refugees in during 2015-2016. Instead, it fell to her successor to, for example, chivvy the nation out of its aversion to military power. Gradualism has turned out to be its own kind of dereliction.

Sorry not sorry: Merkel's Putin policy under the spotlight

Listen | 00:00
For the first time since retiring, former chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel spoke out about how her government treated an increasingly aggressive Russia - treatment that is now under the spotlight. Derek Scally was there when Merkel spoke and tells Conor Pope about how she justified those decisions and whether her excuses stand up to scrutiny. In part two: what is the new chancellor Olaf Scholz saying and doing about Russia and the war in Ukraine?

Another moral of the Merkel years is that trade is not always, or even generally, a force for peace between nations. She says that she always had an empiricist’s doubt about the likelihood of Wandel durch Handel (“change through trade”) in Russia. But she too often acted otherwise. The wonder is that such faith in the civilising properties of capitalism continues to survive the historic evidence against it. Europe was a picture of economic integration when four years of mechanised slaughter began in 1914. US-China relations are worse than they were before the two countries were entwined through commerce and sovereign-debt holdings. Trade is not even a guarantee of enlightened reform within a nation. Poland and Hungary elected illiberal governments after their economies bedded into the EU market.

Of all the lessons to be taken from Merkel’s waning reputation, though, the last will sting the most. Liberals are not always the best defenders of liberalism. There is no evading the fact that lots of supposed right-wing polecats — Trump, his then secretary of state Rex Tillerson, Boris Johnson in his stint as UK foreign secretary — saw clearly the danger of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia. Or that politicians as enlightened and house-trained as Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, her former foreign minister, didn’t.

The late philosopher Roger Scruton said that conservatism is now a defence of liberalism by those who don’t trust liberals to do it. That is generous. But his point shows up from time to time in public life. The US Republican Mitt Romney, for whom Russia was “our number one geopolitical foe” as far back as 2012, stands enhanced now. Barack Obama, who beat him to the White House that year, doesn’t. It takes a cynicism about human nature, even a certain roughness, to comprehend the threat posed by the enemies of the west. Liberalism can lack this reptilian vigilance.

Obama, Justin Trudeau, Jacinda Ardern, Greta Thunberg, two or three Kennedys, the fictitious Jed Bartlett of The West Wing: in its need for heroes, liberalism is as messianic as the strongman-toasting right. But the Merkel fandom went beyond Warhol-lite posters and schlock TV. It was a worked-out belief that she, in manner and content, was the geometric opposite of populism. Even as a more realistic sense of her record took hold in her valedictory years, she was a “giant among pygmies” and other cliches.

There is a natural urge to sheepishly forget all that hype, or to stress that Merkel oversaw an ever richer and more open country. It won’t do. The misjudgments were too important. The risk of repeating them in other contexts — China, most obviously — too serious. Merkel herself is entitled to a retirement of peaceful Baltic walks and memoir-writing. For her admirers the world over, there are recriminations to have. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022