In the past yearish, the Brits have voted themselves out of the Union, Italy’s banking system has started to melt down, the Russians are on the march, the French right and left more or less dissolved, the Americans have unofficially pulled out of NATO, and now we’ve had the German general elections.
There has been hope among many that with the Trump administration removing itself from being the guarantors of the global order, that Frau Merkel would become the new leader of the free world. That hope died last night.
Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrat alliance did come in first, but both they and their coalition partners – the center-left Social Democrats – racked up their worst showings since 1949 according to official preliminary results. The pro-Soviet (not a typo) Left Party remains in Bundestag, while the neo-neo-Nazi Alternative For Germany has entered as well (its rise is partially responsible for the mainstream parties’ poor showing). With the Social Democrats refusing to consider renewing the coalition government, Merkel’s only option is an unprecedented three-way alignment with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats, who are nearly diametrically opposed on issues ranging from Brexit to bailouts to Ukraine to the military to NATO to the environment to refugees (i.e. every issue of note that has mattered to Germans in the past four years).
The labor required to assemble a new government out of such pieces will only be eclipsed by the labor required to maintain it.
So yes, Merkel will remain the German chancellor, but any room she had to maneuver domestically has vanished.
Then there’s the “free world” bit. What has long enabled that free world to exist is the post-WWII American security over watch which allowed countries of all sizes to escape the fear of their bigger neighbors. The Americans outlawed war among the participating members of the international system, and for the first time in world history imposed security upon the global commons so that anyone could purchase any resource from anywhere as well as export any product (most notably to the open, ravenous U.S. market). That requires a global military presence – and since the United States Navy is the only one that can patrol the oceans, there simply is no option of a replacement. Germany’s navy isn’t even one of the top five in the Baltic Sea. It isn’t regionally deployable in any meaningful sense, much less globally.
And while I personally find it mildly amusing that anyone thinks a country that is a massive net exporter can lead Europe in the first place, Merkel’s bandwidth to do so has more or less evaporated. So now the Europeans have to figure out how to manage issues as diverse as the Syrian refugee crisis, Russian encroachment onto Europe’s eastern periphery, democratic devolutions in Poland and Hungary, civilizational collapse in Greece, Turkey’s increasing belligerence, and financial collapse in Italy not just without the Brits, NATO or the Americans, but in all likelihood without all that much input from Merkel as well.