Angela Merkel's New Momentum


Published: Project Syndicate, 21 November 2018


Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she will not seek another term and will step down as her party's leader at the end of this year, political obituaries have been rolling in. But far from bowing out quietly, Merkel will use her remaining time in office to cement her legacy as a defender of the European project.

MADRID – Upon Albert Einstein’s death in 1955, the New York Times published a letter to the editor with a marvelous anecdote. Shortly after the atomic bombs had fallen on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein was asked, “Why is it that when the mind of man has stretched so far as to discover the structure of the atom we have been unable to devise the political means to keep the atom from destroying us?” His answer was timeless: “That is simple, my friend. It is because politics is more difficult than physics.”

As a former student of physics in East Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to confirm the truth of Einstein’s quip firsthand when she went into politics. I humbly believe that I can attest to the same, as my own life has followed a somewhat similar path. Just as I had done in Spain a few years before, Merkel reacted to the collapse of the dictatorship she lived in by leaving physics to embrace public service. Eventually, she got caught up in the whirlwind of European politics.

In her various public roles, and throughout 13 years as chancellor, Merkel has always maintained a methodical and reflective style that suits her scientific background. But world politics seems to be diverging from that style, and increasing agitation in Germany has taken a toll on her standing.

Last month, Merkel announced that she would not be seeking another term as chancellor, and that at the end of this year, she would step down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The race to replace her has already begun. Merkel’s successors may well be worthy of filling her shoes, but there is no doubt that Germany and the rest of Europe will sorely miss her composure and steadiness.

Much has been said about Merkel’s achievements and failures. The greatest blot on her record may be the austerity policies that her government promoted in the European Union after the global financial crisis. Those policies increased inequality, deepened the divide between northern and southern member states, and slowed economic recovery. Since then, populists – particularly the governing Five Star Movement/League coalition in Italy – have seized on the painful legacy of austerity for their own political gain.

Similarly, some blame Merkel for the rise of far-right parties, including the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) within Germany itself. After welcoming over one million refugees in 2015, Merkel became the bête noire of nationalist anti-immigrant forces across Europe. Needless to say, however, there is a stark contrast between her advocacy of austerity and her decisions at the height of the refugee crisis. In the latter case, Merkel put her own political future on the line to defend European solidarity at a time when other countries no longer seemed willing to do so.

In a recent address to the European Parliament, Merkel once again stood up for the EU’s foundational values. She joined French President Emmanuel Macron – with whom she showed great rapport at the commemoration of the Armistice Day centennial in Paris – in his call to form a European army. As both Macron and Merkel have made clear, such a force would not only be compatible with NATO; it would actually strengthen the organization. Predictably, however, Merkel’s ambitious speech elicited scorn from Euroskeptics, who would much rather see the EU succumb to despair and political opportunism.

In light of her announced departure, some already regard Merkel as a “lame duck” whose legacy will now be debated in political obituaries. Yet these eulogies are premature: there is good reason to believe that she is not yet done forging her European legacy.

To be sure, Merkel’s successor at the head of the CDU may not be closely aligned with her positions, and could inject more instability into the coalition government with the Christian Social Union (the CDU’s Bavaria-based sister party) and the Social Democrats (SPD). But even under those circumstances, Merkel would have a few cards up her sleeve. For starters, a no-confidence vote in Germany cannot succeed unless an alternative candidate wins the backing of an absolute majority in the Bundestag. That has happened only once – when Helmut Kohl of the CDU replaced Helmut Schmidt of the SPD as chancellor in 1982 – and it would be extremely unlikely in a parliament that is as fragmented as the current Bundestag.

A scenario in which Merkel finishes out her term, staying on for another three years, should therefore not be ruled out. She remains very popular on the international scene. And, liberated from electoral pressures, at least of a kind focusing on her directly, she may feel freer to pursue a more proactive foreign policy. Recall that it was during his final years in office that US President Barack Obama achieved some of his biggest milestones in foreign policy. In addition to restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Obama administration concluded the nuclear deal with Iran and signed the Paris climate agreement. Though President Donald Trump has sought to reverse these accomplishments, he has not been able to consign them to history.

For the EU, it would be healthy if Merkel were to continue revitalizing the Franco-German axis, thereby opening the door to EU-level reform. Nevertheless, there are significant obstacles ahead. In this day and age, it is abundantly clear that politics is more difficult than physics. However, we would do well not to underestimate Merkel, and to heed another timeless Einstein quote: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”


Published: 20 April 2018


The material and moral progress made possible by the Enlightenment is evident across a wide range of metrics, from human rights to life expectancy. But today's political leaders seem inadequate to the task of managing the Enlightenment's more troubling legacies.


MADRID – The opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities retains its universality to this day. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens writes, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Dickens’s classic novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, decries both the social injustices of the despotic ancien régime and the excesses of the French revolutionaries. When asked his opinion of the French Revolution almost two centuries later, former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly answered that it was “too early to say.” That quip – though possibly the result of a misunderstanding – perfectly captures Dickens’s own ambivalence about the period of which he wrote.

The Enlightenment ideals that inspired the French to rise up against Louis XVI also drove the American Revolution. And both were set against the backdrop of another sea change: the onset of industrialization. The combination of more liberal political regimes and transformational scientific advances inaugurated the most prosperous period in the history of humankind.

The late British economist Angus Maddison once estimated that whereas global per capita GDP did not even double between 1 AD and 1820, it increased more than tenfold between 1820 and 2008. And this spectacular growth has been accompanied by equally extraordinary improvements in a wide range of socioeconomic indicators. Global average life expectancy, for example, has risen from 31 to almost 73 years in just two centuries.

Two centuries ago, the science and medical communities had not yet accepted the germ theory of disease, and the smell of beef was commonly thought to cause obesity. Today, such beliefs seem grotesque, owing to rapid progress in our scientific understanding. Not only can we now read the human genome; we are also learning how to edit and write it.

For Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, such achievements are signs that “the Enlightenment is working.” Moreover, Pinker argues that more moral progress has been achieved in the last few centuries than most macroeconomic measurements can reflect. For example, he points to the expansion – both geographic and substantive – of protections for individual and collective rights, as well as an overall reduction in violence.1

The sheer magnitude of the Enlightenment’s achievements tends to be undervalued, because we are prone to remembering and normalizing catastrophes rather than quotidian improvements. But while this bias is detrimental to decision-making, so, too, is excessive complacency. After all, there are plenty of reasons – many of which are secondary effects of the Enlightenment – for people to feel uneasy about the future.

In his 2013 book, The Great Escape, Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton shows how progress in reducing aggregate privation, famine, and premature death over the past 250 years has left many social groups behind. While inequality at the global level has recently been mitigated by the economic rise of countries like China, numerous studies find that inequality within countries has been increasing. In countries such as the United States, broad segments of the population lack access to adequate medical treatments, and even democracy seems to be eroding.1

Today’s conventional wisdom links the emergence of populist movements around the world, including the election of President Donald Trump in the US, to the people who have missed out on the benefits of globalization. Yet many of Trump’s policies – not least slashing taxes for the rich – are intended to perpetuate the privileges of the economic elite. Trump has done very little to address the fears of those who feel left behind, but he is attempting a classic bait-and-switch to disguise this fact. Accordingly, he singles out China as the source of Americans’ economic woes.

The result of Trump’s “America First” approach and fear mongering about all things foreign has been to undermine global cooperation. Nationalism, one of the potentially harmful legacies of the late-eighteenth-century social revolutions, has made a comeback on the heels of rising nativist and xenophobic fears.

Likewise, the Enlightenment’s scientific and technological legacy has not been wholly positive. The theories of Albert Einstein and the discovery of fission in 1938 made nuclear power possible, but also led to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Similarly, technological progress has left critical national infrastructure potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. And, as the 2008 crisis revealed, financial engineering carries many risks of its own.

All of these dangers are accompanied by what is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced: climate change. The peculiarity of this threat lies in the fact that it has not manifested in the form of a single, sudden shock. Rather, it is a cumulative phenomenon, which we might still be able to mitigate. Just as technological advances got us into this predicament, so might they rescue us from it. After all, technological innovation, along with an international effort to adopt the 1987 Montreal Protocol, is how the world put a stop to the erosion of the ozone layer.

Fortunately, scientific rationality is capable of creating tools to remedy its own excesses. Unfortunately, however, the state of political leadership today may mean that these tools remain unused. The world is in desperate need of leaders who are willing to maximize the benefits of science and technology through collective management and international cooperation. Without such leadership, what is quantifiably the best of times could very well become the worst.

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