Did you know that there were German elections in late September? Were you aware that the German socialists were soundly defeated? Had you realized that there was now a new government in Germany? No? Then give the credit—for both the victory and the fact that you haven’t heard about it—to Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who will address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. And even if you did know all of that, you might as well cheer anyway, because Merkel’s achievement is far greater than it seems. She is a soft-spoken, even-tempered, and frankly dull pragmatist who has compared her economic program to that of a “Swabian housewife.” Her election campaigns are the most boring anyone can remember. Despite the decisiveness of her recent victory, she humbly declared that she “respected those who did not vote for me.” To underline that point, she celebrated her new term as chancellor with a lunch of potato soup and sausages, an event that the Financial Times called “so low-key it resembled an atonement rite more than a celebration.” She is, if you like, the anti-Obama: zero charisma, zero glamour, beige pantsuits, and a spouse who rarely appears in public.
And yet, partly by default and partly by design, Merkel is now the de facto leader of Europe. Over in Britain, Gordon Brown’s Labor Party is self-immolating. Over in France, President Sarkozy’s attention-deficit issues propel him from one project to the next, to the irritation of everybody. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is under endless investigation, and everyone else is too small or too preoccupied to compete. Even when the European Union chooses its new president later this year, he (and it will almost certainly be a he) will find it extremely difficult to do anything that contradicts the wishes of Merkel, who regularly tops lists of the world’s most powerful women.
In fact, the more I watch her, the more I am convinced that her femaleness holds the key to her success. Under her watch, Germany has continued to grow more powerful, more influential, and more dominant than ever before. Yet not only has no one noticed, they applaud and ask for more. If a bull-necked Helmut Kohl or a flashy Gerhard Schröder were running Germany, there would be rising anxiety and mumbling about the Fourth Reich—just as there was at the time of German reunification 20 years ago, when Kohl was still in charge. But Merkel provokes no jealousy or competitiveness among the alpha males who run large countries, and she inspires no fear among the citizens of smaller ones.
On the contrary, Germany even has good relations with most of its neighbors to the east, many of whom are inclined to distrust Germans as a matter of principle. This is partly because she is so willing to show up when asked and offer mild-mannered words of friendship and apologies for World War II. After which she returns home and works to make Germany stronger and more dominant in the region. And everyone smiles.
This is not to say that she has been an entirely successful chancellor or that she has fulfilled everyone’s expectations. Though she has kept Germany on a relatively even keel throughout the current recession—among other things by refusing to spend what the U.S. administration wanted her to spend—she hasn’t been nearly as forceful about economic reform as she once said she would be. Nor has she fulfilled her foreign-policy promise. At the moment, she is probably the only politician capable of uniting Europeans behind a common energy policy and a common Russia policy. So far, she hasn’t even tried.
Until now, Merkel’s various failings have often been attributed to the fact that she was in a “grand coalition,” one of those dysfunctional, only-in-Europe parliamentary governments, the result of a coalition between the socialist left and the Christian Democrat right—somewhat as if the White House were shared out evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Every tiny issue had to be negotiated between the two major parties, every step in foreign or domestic policy elaborately discussed. But as of October, her coalition partner is another center-right party, the Free Democrats, and she has no more excuses. Perhaps that is why she has suddenly started talking about cutting taxes, which in Germany counts as genuinely radical.
If, in the coming months, she wants a bigger, louder role outside Germany, she can probably have that too. Though I’m not sure that “big and loud” is quite her style. It’s equally possible that she will take over European foreign policy—but so quietly and so politely that no one will notice.