Angela Merkel and Donald Trump — Leadership Through Crisis and America’s Fading Status

By Justin Faulhaber | Sep. 11, 2020

At the conclusion of World War Two, the Western Allies encouraged a disunited Germany to draft a constitution, which would eventually become the Grundgesetz or Fundamental Law of the modern German Federal Republic. To American leaders at the time, this seemed like a crowning success — they hoped to achieve lasting democracy in Germany, which they had failed to do in the aftermath of World War One. To disciples of the theory of American exceptionalism, spreading democracy to a formerly oppressive dictatorial regime was the ultimate vindication. It may therefore be considered a tragic irony that Germany now seems to be setting the example for the United States, which has fallen under the sway of an increasingly authoritarian leader in Donald Trump. With such a leader, the utter failure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is hardly surprising.

In May, 2019, while President Trump was in the midst of preparations for his Salute to America parade of military might in Washington, DC, Chancellor Merkel delivered the commencement at Harvard University. Listening to her eloquent delivery was a breath of fresh air from the frenetic pace of Trump’s habitual speech. More importantly, her words felt like a wake up call, reminding America about the values the nation should espouse.

Chancellor Merkel hoped that her audience would take away six major themes: (1) Tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, for nothing has to stay as it is. (2) Take joint action in the interests of a multilateral global world. (3) Keep asking yourselves: Am I doing something because it is right or simply because it is possible? (4) Do not forget that freedom is never something that can be taken for granted. (5) Surprise yourself with what is possible. (6) Remember that openness always involves risks. Letting go of the old is part of the new beginning.

Ideals of multilateralism, freedom, moral righteousness, and boundless possibility once formed the cornerstones of American society and standing on the world stage. However, Chancellor Merkel’s remarks were almost immediately interpreted as a veiled attack on President Trump. Where Merkel urged cooperation, Trump has taken unilateral action, withdrawn from international agreements, and antagonized long term allies by threatening to back out of NATO. Where the Chancellor spoke of freedom and morality, the President has cozied up to dictators and sought to undermine America’s democratic process. Germany provides its young people with free education, while millions of Americans are saddled with crippling debt. Angela Merkel’s speech was a proud moment for Merkel’s Germany and a black day for Trump’s America.

The failure to even adequately respond to the coronavirus pandemic is the most stunning picture yet of Trump’s failure of leadership. This failure has incalculably weakened American prestige. Whereas once Europe looked to the United States as a close partner or even as a leader, Europeans and other advanced nations now look on the United States’ handling of the virus with incredulity. The pandemic did not create the many problems in the United States, but it has made them clearer to see than ever.

Germany’s response was not perfect, but when compared to the United States the numbers speak for themselves. Germany’s raw number of cases, cases per capita, and mortality rate are all a fraction of those in the United States, which leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths. When the virus threatened, Germany quickly declared a strict lockdown and implemented a widespread testing program. Meanwhile, the United States only sporadically introduced lockdowns and has conducted few tests, both in relative and absolute terms.

Once again, the differences in high-level leadership have been a large part of the difference. From the beginning, President Trump has sought to downplay the virus’ severity and long actively opposed states’ lockdowns, mask wearing, and even testing. He perpetuated misinformation and outright dangerous lies to Americans in frequent press briefings and interviews. Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel, herself a scientist by training, provided the German people clear and factual information about how to handle the situation. As early as March 18, Merkel delivered a much-lauded address to her people. She urged Germans to take the virus threat seriously, but also explained how the strict measures would help her country overcome the virus.

The contrast in leadership could not be more stark. After the speech, New York Magazine referred to Chancellor Merkel as the “leader of the free world,” a title usually reserved for the President of the United States. Given recent developments, as well as Chancellor Merkel’s long record of crisis leadership, this is hardly just rhetoric. In Germany, this virus will be remembered as a challenge that was overcome, but will be a shameful chapter for the United States. Germans and Americans will have their leaders to thank for their distinct fates.

Justin Faulhaber is a first year graduate student in the M.A. German and European Studies program at Georgetown University. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He studied French and History at the Ohio State University. After graduation, he spent a year teaching English in France. For the past two years, Justin worked as a paralegal at the immigration law firm Margaret W. Wong & Associates. Justin is passionate about history and international affairs and speaks French, Spanish, and German.

The views reflected in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of “The Transatlanticist” or European Horizons.

A blog from Georgetown University European Horizons

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