“We Europeans really must take our destiny into our own hands.” With this short sentence, uttered in a sweaty and overcrowded beer tent in Munich in May 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel implied that the most successful relationship in modern political history was at an end. In doing so, she also laid claim to leadership of the West.
That position used to be occupied by the president of the United States, who sometimes invoked the British prime minister as a junior partner. But as the US loses its bearings under Donald Trump and the UK succumbs to a new provincialism after its Brexit vote, the mantles of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are now being worn by a very different power couple: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. They have vowed to defend the core values of the West against an onslaught of populism and nativism, and to strengthen Europe’s common currency, manage its borders, and invest in a common defense.
It is a remarkable turn of events: After the twentieth century, who would have thought that Britain and America would turn their backs on the liberal world order while the German chancellor would be spoken of as the leader of the free world and a French president would emerge as the champion of an open trading system? Who would have thought that this new momentum would come from the European Union at the very moment when many predicted its collapse? Most of all, who would have thought that Angela Merkel would lead it?
Merkel is not someone who shoots from the hip. She does not do the “vision thing.” And according to her biographer, Stefan Kornelius, “she does not have an anti-American bone in her body.” So why is she now putting herself in a position that requires vision, leadership, and a will to replace the Americans?
In part, it is because she had no choice. The European Union was in danger of being torn apart by internal and external threats. The Brexit vote followed deep divisions over refugees and the euro. EU leaders were terrified that other member states could succumb to the same combination of economic uncertainty, cultural anxiety, and political alienation that propelled Britain toward the exit. They were right to fear contagion but wrong about where it would erupt. Rather than another EU member state, it was the US that succumbed.
From the birth of the Marshall Plan, through the cold war, to the unification of Germany, the US was crucial to the project of European integration. The US made access to its financial aid dependent on European reconciliation, provided military protection for Europe’s civilian governments through NATO, and backed the EU’s mission to create a legal and institutional foundation for the liberal world order. In the days and months after his election, Trump threatened all of this. His proxies compared the European…
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