As for foreign policy, Merkel has been much less transformative in this area, certainly when compared with the 1998-2005 "red-green" government of Social Democrats and Greens, which oversaw a vast expansion of German military involvement across the country's borders, for example in Kosovo and Afghanistan. In the Middle East, Germany's tentative reaction to the Arab Spring and hands-off position on military intervention in Libya and Syria have elicited strong criticism, not least from the United States, which would like to see Germany take a stronger global leadership role. But for her part, Merkel seems perfectly content with Germany's mocked-at "checkbook diplomacy," namely staying put until the dust has settled and then paying for postwar reconstruction.
Likewise, Merkel's reaction to the eurocrisis has been anything but proactive -- though enormously successful in the eyes of average Germans. She waited and dithered and waffled as the financial crisis in 2008 turned into the eurocrisis and eventually brought both the common currency and the European Union itself to the brink of collapse. Despite her initial promises to the contrary, Germany made concession after concession to its European partners. The list of flip-flops includes the creation of a permanent bailout fund, a significantly broader mandate for the European Central Bank, and the direct recapitalization of eurozone banks, among others. A third Greek rescue package, which now seems inevitable, would come on top of these back-downs.
Yet at home, Germans see Merkel as tenaciously defending their interests on the European stage. The buzz terms in her campaign ads -- stability, security, continuity -- are cryptic references to the way she has managed the eurocrisis, ensuring prosperity in Germany while bailing out the Southern Europeans and rescuing the European Union. This, at least, is the way many Germans see it.
Merkel's modernization of German conservatism is one of the main reasons that she has been able to get away with such a blatantly Germany-first approach in the eurocrisis. The nationalism of the old CDU was tainted with bloodline definitions of Germanness and the radicalism of the expellees, who saw their real Heimat in a Germany east of the Oder-Neisse. Merkel's progressive CDU has not only distanced itself immeasurably from such relics of the Bonn Republic, but it has gone much further. Critics may fear the economic clout and monetary stinginess of a "German Europe," but gone -- perhaps forever -- is the fear of Germany breaching their borders.
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The fresh face of the CDU doesn't necessarily look like a fully fledged revolution here in Germany because most of German society had already undergone these changes: Germany was multicultural; women worked; gays lived with one another; most people opposed nuclear power -- and so on. Merkel, ever the mediator, adjusted to the realities of modern Germany with as little pomp as possible -- the Merkel way. One upshot is that the Social Democrats are now pressed to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the chancellor's party.
Rubbing salt in these wounds, the conservatives have also occupied the economic policies of the last Social Democratic administration, led by Gerhard Schröder. Schröder's adjustments to the social welfare state, as well as his pro-business labor and tax reforms, made him deeply unpopular within his own party. A decade down the road, however, even Merkel admits that Schröder's measures paved the way for Germany's recovery and deserve credit for its stellar showing in the depths of the eurocrisis. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, don't know what to do with the legacy of the Schröder reforms, at times criticizing them as too draconian, while at others praising them as visionary.
This has made life very difficult for the Social Democrats' candidate, Peer Steinbrück, a center-of-the-road figure who served as Merkel's finance minister in the grand coalition of 2005 to 2009. The two figures got along quite well, certainly better than do Merkel's CDU and its current partner in office, the free-market-minded Free Democrats. This has led to rampant speculation that what both Merkel and Steinbrück want is another grand coalition, which opinion polls show could be a possibility. Most probably, this is as much as the Social Democrats can hope for.
One development worth keeping an eye on is the Alternative for Germany, an anti-euro party to the right of the CDU. Merkel's seizure of the center has been possible because there has been no far-right party in Germany since her ascendance. Almost every other country on the continent has a jingoistic, hot-headed nationalist party in its legislature -- except Germany. This is probably more a result of happenstance -- the absence of the right person with the right slogans and money to boot -- rather than a testament to Germany's democratic culture. (Opinion polls show Germany having proportions of Islamophobia, racism, and anti-EU sentiment equal to those in countries with vibrant far-right parties.) But whatever the explanation, Merkel could shift far to the left without worrying about losing her ideological conservatives; they had nowhere else to go. But this is no longer the case, and disgruntled rightists have defected, though not in large numbers -- yet.
As frustratingly gradual and tempered as Merkel's conservative revolution has been, it has helped make Germany as a whole more modern and, ultimately, more powerful. The German economy's fortunes, called by some a second Wirtschaftswunder, have only augmented this clout.
Yet, this is power that Merkel has yet to wield for any real purpose other than sentencing the Southern Europeans to a future of austerity and mounting debt. In Europe and beyond, statesmen are calling for Merkel to step up to lead Europe out of the economic crisis and become more active on the global stage. Even on topics that don't require force of arms, like global warming, Germany has become almost mute; once a pioneer in clean energy production, Merkel has now backed off, cowed by the implications of its success. Today, Germany's foreign minister travels from one conflict region to another mouthing truisms and promising aid. Merkel has indeed changed Europe -- but in taking Germany off the world stage, cautiousness has not proved to be her greatest virtue.
Never before in postwar Europe has Germany been so mighty, wealthy, and sovereign. Hopefully, in her third term, Merkel will make use of this stature for progressive causes -- the way she has in her own party.