Friday, November 28, 2014

Angela Merkel - model Centrist? (!!?!)

George Packer is a good reporter, though not one much inclined to share the boat on conventional wisdom assumptions. Still, in his reporting on the Iraq War he tended to privilege facts over the official line on the war. And that was saying a lot given the mainstream press' performance on that war.

Model Centrist Angela Merkel repairs the eurozone and promotes international goodwill

The New Yorker has now published a long profile by Packer on Angela Merkel, The Quiet German: The astonishing rise of Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world. (12/01/2014 issue; accessed 11/25/2014) It's good to see the biographical sketch available in English. Her Majesty Herself declined to grant Packer a direct interview. She's more accustomed to dealing with European reporters. So she may not have realized that with an American reporter she could expect more softball questions and have her answers printed with minimal critical commentary, except in the form of the obligatory this-side-says-the-other-side-says stenography so favored by American reporters now.

It's a very informative piece. And since he's sketching out Merkel's life and career, there's not much time to go in-depth on the problems of the eurozone.

I would recommend skipping the first ten paragraphs and read them last. They're fluff at best and are bad framing for the story. Start with the paragraph beginning "The historian Fritz Stern ..."

One of the more interesting moments in the piece is this:

Evelyn Roll, one of Merkel’s biographers, discovered a Stasi document, dated 1984, that was based on information provided by a friend of Merkel’s. It described Merkel as “very critical toward our state,” and went on, “Since its foundation, she was thrilled by the demands and actions of Solidarity in Poland. Although Angela views the leading role of the Soviet Union as that of a dictatorship which all other socialist countries obey, she is fascinated by the Russian language and the culture of the Soviet Union.”
I believe this is important in understanding Merkel's current conduct. Because I've believed for a while that Merkel views Germany's proper role in the European Union and even more so in the eurozone is similar to that the Soviet Union played in the Warsaw Pact.

He talks about her exceptionally fortunate break in becoming the secretary of East Germany's first freely elected Prime Minister, Lothar de Maizière. But he doesn't mention her accompanying him to Moscow for the "4-plus-1" talks that finalized the agreement for East Germany to become part of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany. I also believe her experiencing how the East German delegation became irrelevant once that key decision was made must have deeply impressed her. Packer describes well her instinct for power; one hardly becomes the Chancellor of Germany without it. That experience as part of the East German delegation surely impressed her greatly at that stage of her involvement in politics.

Packer describes her backstabbing style, in this case in relation to Helmut Kohl when a scandal about party finances involving him broke:

In a gesture that mixed Protestant righteousness with ruthlessness, Kohl’s Mädchen was cutting herself off from her political father and gambling her career in a naked bid to supplant him. She succeeded. Within a few months, Merkel had been elected Party chairman. Kohl receded into history. “She put the knife in his back—and turned it twice,” Feldmeyer said. That was the moment when many Germans first became aware of Angela Merkel.

Years later, Michael Naumann sat next to Kohl at a dinner, and asked him, “Herr Kohl, what exactly does she want?”

“Power,” Kohl said, tersely. He told another friend that championing young Merkel had been the biggest mistake of his life. “I brought my killer,” Kohl said. “I put the snake on my arm.”
He doesn't describe how she later pulled a similar back-stabbing on Wolfgang Schäuble, once also a kind of mentor for her and currently her Finance Minister.

Packer talks about her nationalism:

Merkel’s commitment to a united Europe is not that of an idealist. Rather, it comes from her sense of German interest — a soft form of nationalism that reflects the country’s growing confidence and strength. The historic German problem, which Henry Kissinger described as being “too big for Europe, too small for the world,” can be overcome only by keeping Europe together. Kurbjuweit said, “She needs Europe because—this is hard to say, but it’s true—Europe makes Germany bigger.”
But he doesn't seem to appreciate how extreme her nationalism is, nor how it relates to her East German past. For East Germans, nationalism - national unification with West Germany - was a cause that meant resistance to Soviet domination and military occuption and an affirmation of Western-style freedom. Though Merkel's early politics are vague in the public record, she seems to have shared some form of this hope. She certainly embraced it in the transition in 1989 and after.

But her rule of the eurozone hasn't been "soft" nationalism. It's been a cold, hard nationalism that extracted benefits for Germany at the expense of her eurozone partners. And she did so in consistency with an inherently nationalistic economic doctrine known as ordoliberalism. And so far as I can tell, she really believes it it dogmatically. As an "idealist" holding on to a destructive ideal.

But Packer is right that, "Merkel’s commitment to a united Europe is not that of an idealist."

Merkel's pragmatic restraint in the escalated confrontation with Russia seems to puzzle Packer:

A gap opened up between élite and popular opinion: newspapers editorializing for a hard line against Russia were inundated with critical letters. Merkel, true to form, did nothing to try to close the divide. For most Germans, the crisis inspired a combination of indifference and anxiety. Ukraine was talked about, if at all, as a far-off place, barely a part of Europe (not as the victim of huge German crimes in the Second World War). Germans resented having their beautiful sleep disturbed. “The majority want peace and to live a comfortable life,” Alexander Rahr, a Russian energy expert who advises the German oil-and-gas company Wintershall, said. “They don’t want conflict or a new Cold War. For this, they wish the U.S. would stay away from Europe. If Russia wants Ukraine, which not so many people have sympathy with, let them have it.” In a way, Germany’s historical guilt—which includes more than twenty million Soviet dead in the Second World War—adds to the country’s passivity. A sense of responsibility for the past demands that Germany do nothing in the present. [Bernd] Ulrich, of Die Zeit [on whom Packer relies heavily in this article], expressed the point brutally: “We once killed so much — therefore, we can’t die today.”
"The majority want peace and to live a comfortable life." This is hard to understand? Packard seems to think there's some at least mildly contemptible about in in the case of Germans.

Packard creates an appealing picture of Merkel in the terms our star journalists and pundits tend to use: i.e., by making her sound like a master conciliator and centrist.

The problem with putting Merkel into the Good Centrist box is that Packer has to make Merkel's nationalistic policy within the eurozone into "soft nationalism," though in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain there's nothing "soft" about the ugly results. And since the Good Centrist in Beltway terms is supposed to be non-ideological, it's not surprising that the word "ordoliberalism" doesn't appear in Packer's article. That's the authoritarian, hard-right, nationalistic economic doctrine to which she appears to have a dogmatic, true-believer's attachment. And which has led her to successfully insist on the eurozone pursuing Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies during a protracted depression that has not end in sight. Unless you believe in her magical economic dogma. Also, the consequences of that doctrine are almost certain to be her main historical legacy and a very destructive one. But you can't get to that by forcing her into the box of Good Centrist.

Packard seems aghast at this story: "When eight members of a European observer group, including four Germans, were taken hostage by pro-Russian separatists in April — practically a casus belli, had they been Americans — the German government simply asked Putin to work for their release." Merkel had a chance to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia and she failed to take it? Those Germans have a really weird way of thinking, huh? (Would George Packer really think it would be a good idea for the United States to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia in such a situation? Seriously?)

Packard near the end writes, "The German media, reflecting the times, are increasingly centrist, preoccupied with 'wellness' and other life-style issues." Translated from Beltway-speak, it means they are descending toward the American level of frivolity, lack of real analysis of important public issues, and mindless idolatry of Centrism. And I'm sure Packer means it as a compliment!

And, obviously meaning it as praise, he writes, "Merkel’s Germany is reminiscent of Eisenhower’s America." I suppose that's fair if you ignore both the real existing Germany and the actual Eisenhower Administration, the latter with three recessions, an open-ended arms race and Massive Resistance against racial desegregation of public institutions in the South.