Panelists discuss the life and career of Angela Merkel and the future of U.S.-German relations and the larger transatlantic alliance.
For further information, please see the CFR In Brief “Merkel’s Legacy and the Future of Germany” by Matthias Matthijs, the Foreign Affairs article “The Singular Chancellor” by Constanze Stelzenmüller, and The President’s Inbox podcast episode “Germany’s Elections, With Constanze Stelzenmüller.”
BREMMER: Thank you very much and welcome to everyone today. This is a Council on Foreign Relations meeting entitled “The Life and Legacy of Angela Merkel.”
I’m Ian Bremmer, and I am presiding over today’s discussion. It is, as you see, virtual, which is a little sad. But it does mean that we have four hundred people signed up instead of a hundred in a room. So it could be worse, from that perspective. There’s some upside.
Let me introduce you to our esteemed panelists today. We have author and human rights activist Kati Marton, Munich Security Conference Chair Wolfgang Ischinger, and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow and Fritz Stern Chair Constanze Stelzenmuller. And, you know, you probably know the Council doesn’t do book talks, but we do do talks with books. And Kati’s latest, which is called The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, launches today. And congratulations, Kati. The great review in the New York Times just yesterday that I saw, especially for the New York Times.
So we’re going to talk about the great chancellor. And, you know, actually today is a doubly good reason to talk about it because as we were just discussing in the chat, the German parliament reconstituted today. And as a consequence, the chancellor is no longer a seated member of parliament. So she sat in the VIP guest area, as opposed to with the former fellow parliamentarians for the first time. So we can already start talking about legacy.
So maybe with let me turn it first to—of course, to Kati, and say that, you know, when you write a major book about somebody, I think it’s fair to say that you want—you intend to have an impact about how they’re perceived by the general public. So I want to ask you to tell us how you’d like Angela Merkel to be perceived going forward.
MARTON: Thank you, Ian. And thank you to my friends and colleagues who are joining us today. It’s delightful to be with you, Wolfgang and Constanze. Both of you were helpful with this book. Wolfgang is featured throughout. So thank you, Wolfgang.
Yes, I am reframing Angela Merkel’s image, in a way. And I think that my readers will get an unexpected portrait of the chancellor, who likes to portray herself as being extremely low-key, and rather straightlaced, and not particularly warm. And in fact, she is none of the things that she conveys—(laughs)—because she’s extremely human. She is extremely attached to those nearest to her and emotional too. And that we will get into, how that emotional quality has impacted on her—on her legacy, particularly with refugees.
But frankly, Ian, I was interested in how this triple outsider—a woman in a male political culture, from the East, and a scientist—was able to not only get herself elected chancellor of a country that uniquely in Europe, I believe, never even had a queen, but has been reelected three times subsequently. So I wanted to know what qualities did she have to enable her to do that, because they were not obvious. She is a woman of limited performance skills, limited—to be kind—limited rhetorical powers. And so that was—that was the big mystery.
And as you said, it was—it was, in a way, the Everest of writing projects because she is so private. That’s putting it mildly. And leaves minimal paper trail. So that was—that was the goal I set for myself, was to get beneath the surface that she conveys to the human story. Because to be honest with you, and with all due respect to my German colleagues, most Americans are not passionate about German politics. They are passionate about leaders who continue to believe in the Western democratic order. And she in the last sixteen years, she’s been its staunchest defender. Longwinded answer to your question. (Laughs.)
BREMMER: So, I mean, part of the reason we, as Americans, aren’t excited about German politics is because they appear to function well. And so, I mean, Constanze, is that the case? And how much credit does Chancellor Merkel merit for that state of affairs today?
STELZENMULLER: Well, I’d be curious to see what Wolfgang has to say about this.
BREMMER: Well, we’ll get there.
STELZENMULLER: But I think one of the most commonly shared criticisms of her sixteen-year tenure today is that the country actually isn’t functioning all that well. And in fact, it has functioned quite badly during the pandemic. And this is I think a very complex phenomenon, due to sort of the cumbersomeness of federalism, the fragmenting of German politics, the—you know, as in other Western democracies, by the way—the loss of trust in political leaders. And, of course, the best efforts not just of the populace but also by external actors, the Russians and the Chinese, attempting to influence not just our elections but our politics more generally by sowing disinformation.
Which is—and I say the latter—I want to explicitly make it clear: We don’t need the Russians and the Chinese to screw up. We can do that on our own. And definitely in the pandemic, the German politics was not pretty. And Merkel, who’s normally quite good at building consensus, really saw her popularity dip dramatically in a way that we hadn’t seen before, because she had such a hard time getting the sixteen Länder, the states, you know, on the same line in this.
BREMMER: And her ability to secure a preferred successor also hurt by that.
STELZENMULLER: You know, honestly, I’m less moved by that particular critique, since we are a democracy. And, I mean, I admire—I admire Merkel for having attempted it. Normally, you know, political leaders are loath to leave the stage. She’s been notably calm and collected about her own departure. And I think she tried to—what she was trying to do here by selecting Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer was to sort of provide for somebody who she thought would be as reliably calm, and rational, and collected as she would be.
And AKK stumbled over a variety of things, including an awful lot of backstabbing from a sixteen years’ worth of men who thought that they should have been in the chancellor’s position in the first place, but also over her own, I think, lack of experience. And then turned out to be a rather good defense minister, whom people are seeing—I think sorry to see leave. So I think on that count, frankly, I wouldn’t blame Angela Merkel. She is the head of government, after all, and of a parliamentary democracy in a federalist state. And her power is much more limited than that of a president.
BREMMER: So, Wolfgang, yeah, we do want to hear from you. Though you have to go last since we’re talking about Angela Merkel here. But do respond to what Constanze just had to say, and Kati. And tell us how you think Germany feels run today, and how much Angela herself has had an impact on that.
ISCHINGER: Well, I think one of the really impressive thing about the sixteen years of Angela Merkel has been that even though many Germans were upset by certain decisions—some didn’t like her decision to walk away from nuclear power, for example. Many, as everybody knows, were enraged that she would allow a million strange foreigners to flood this country. But the interesting thing is that Germans maintained the idea that she could be trusted. I mean, her popularity index, of course, went up and down a bit, et cetera.
But I would—I would argue that the interesting thing about Angela Merkel is that even those who never voted—who may not have ever voted for her, trusted her. This—you know, the fact that she lived a totally scandal-free life, that she was never, ever seen with an Hermes bag given to her by some Middle East dictator or so was appreciated by the German—by the Swabian housewife. This is here I come from. So she enjoyed enormous trust, more or less up to the end. My first observation.
Second observation, that was mentioned earlier by Kati, her ability to inspire people through talking to them, her rhetorical capacity, has been, from the beginning, lacking, limited. She’s not a great speaker. And I think that in our society, like in many other societies, as we’re flooded by the internet and by social media, we need more, not less, explaining and—can I put it this way—oral leadership by our leaders. I think that has been increasingly difficult for her, because I guess she thinks that any normally gifted person should actually be capable of understanding what I’m saying, what I’m doing, what I’ve been deciding, because it is the only rationally sensible thing, what I’m doing.
And she—I think she found it difficult when people tried to explain to her that you’ve got to go out, you’ve got to go to the marketplace, you’ve got to go on television. Not only a little bit of blogging once a week or so, but, you know, in a more hands-on manner. And I think that has been—especially for these last several years with the migration crisis and all that came with it—that has been one of the downsides.
Last point I want to make is—and I think this is also quite characteristic of her—normally one would think that if somebody leaves a job after sixteen years that after stepping down you would sort of get busy on and off working on your legacy. Want to make sure that people like Kati don’t write nasty things about you, and your image will be maintained and improved, et cetera, et cetera. I was told by a good friend, and this is not firsthand knowledge, but I’ve heard it now from two independent people in Berlin who know her—who are quite close to her, that she has told her staff and her friends that beginning now, for the next four months, she will not be available for anything.
And I have not checked this, but I’m absolutely sure that if I check tomorrow morning with her staff, with Beate Baumann or whoever is available, they will tell me: No, she’s not going to be coming to your Munich Security Conference, because this is within these four months. I think the four months begin not now—I should be more precise—but they begin on the day when she actually leaves the chancellery, and the new chancellor is sworn in. So that may be another four weeks or so, but—
BREMMER: So I’ve heard this same thing. So I think you and I have spoken to at least one of the same people. And I hope she’ll make an exception for the Munich Security Conference. That seems like an only reasonable thing to do. But—because that’s not the legacy. That’s just for Germany.
But Kati, I see you want to come in. And I also want you to respond, particularly because Wolfgang’s point about the fact that there is such trust, that there were no scandals, I mean, this comes through in many of the stories in your book. And not just domestically. I mean, her challenging relationships with the Russians, with the Chinese, still—and even with President Trump, all seemed to be accompanied with an understanding that this is not somebody that is going to BS you. That what she says is sort of what it is. And you can bluster, but she’s going to just go and do her work and represent her country, represent her people. Kati, you want to comment on that?
MARTON: Yes. Well, so Wolfgang has just highlighted one of her vulnerabilities and, I think, among her—and one of her greatest strengths. Her vulnerability is that she is intolerant of people who are not as rational as she is. And this vulnerability really came to the fore in how long it took her to see the danger of the Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right party that now is seated in the Bundestag. Because she really was impatient with those of her fellow East Germans who simply weren’t as nimble as she was—she, being brilliant and had many other advantages in her remarkable ascent.
And she didn’t pay sufficient attention to their, one might say, irrational need for support and acknowledgement, in her—by Merkel’s lights irrational. Because she rolled up her sleeves at age thirty-five and transformed herself. You know, in a way she was a refugee because although she didn’t leave her country, her country disappeared under her. So the transformation was total. So that’s a vulnerability, the fact that she is overly—she credits reason as more important in human matters than is called for.
But then—but then on the—on the plus side, I absolutely agree with Wolfgang that the fact—that she practices an ego-free politics. Meaning that she is about getting a deal done. She is about getting the job done. She never identified her persona with her job. And so she will, in her leave taking—which, I agree with—I’m hearing exactly the same thing, that she will take some months and, with her scientist’s eyes, observe her own reaction to being free for the first time, because thirty-five years under a surveillance state and then, god knows, sixteen years as chancellor, she didn’t have a free day. So I think she’s going to observe how she reacts to that, and savor that freedom. And then if she discovers that she misses that seat at the table, which would be surprising, she will have ample opportunities to rejoin.
But one thing about Merkel, which my book illustrates, is that she will not be rushed. She will take her time. And I don’t think that we have seen the last of Angela Merkel. I think that because we’re passing through such a hinge moment for Europe, for the West, for democracy, and she has such a—she’s such a symbolic now figure, now as she enters civilian life, she’s almost Germany’s De Gaulle. She in so many ways represents the country. And despite the vicissitudes of political polls, she is by far the most popular politician and the most respected leader in the world. And she’s fully aware of that.
BREMMER: So, Constanze, coming a bit from this—and not wanting to make the chancellor into a Rorschach test for who we are and where we come from, but, you know, certainly at the end of the Trump administration Americans leaned into Angela Merkel is the leader of the free world. To the extent that such a thing exists, that’s who she is. She never said that about herself, but a lot of other said it about her. How do you think she aligns to that? Talk a little bit about—I mean, how limiting is that, frankly, as a statement, given her background and her leadership? And also talk a little bit about Angela Merkel’s values-based leadership, rule of law-based leadership in comparison to, for example, what you’d see from President Biden and his administration.
STELZENMULLER: That’s a tall order, Ian.
BREMMER: Well, I mean, you know, we only have a few and I thought I’d throw you something you’d have fun with.
STELZENMULLER: Right. (Laughs.) So, look, you know, the whole “leader of the free world” thing was, of course, an American projection that was the result of American introspection. And I think—I think, you know, the exigencies of time are best served if we just put that aside. She’s known to dislike that term. A lot of journalists have written that, and I assume their sources is—or, their source is quite good.
I think that the—you know, the enduring conundrum of Angela Merkel is she appears to have a very clear system of values, one that is also based on personal faith, on her own Protestant faith, but is also based on the value of evidence-based thinking and action. That, I think, because very clear in the refugee crisis, which—you know, where she—where she said at one point: If we are going to be hostile to—if we’re going to become a country that is hostile to refugees and asylum seekers dann das ist nicht mir mein land, then this is no longer my country. And I think that sentence really came from her heart.
And to those who sort of think that that was just, you know, the chancellor being overcome by her emotions, or, you know, opening the floodgates, as it were—as the Hungarians would like to criticize her, those two criticisms are simply based on, I think, an inaccurate understanding of the situation at the time. For one, she didn’t open the gates, she refused to close them. An important legal difference, an important political difference. Under the Schengen rule, our borders were open.
And the other thing was if she had decided to close Germany’s borders, then these refugees, which had been traveling upwards through the Balkans into Austria and up to the German border, would have, as it were, piled up and created massive problems for much weaker political economies. And by welcoming them into Germany, this decision was taking pressure off weaker German—weaker, smaller, less wealthy German neighbors. In that sense I think it was also a pragmatic decision, and one that was made in the interest of Europe.
That said, we then surprisingly, all of us as a country, and as a—with our sort of institutions, struggled to absorb this quantity of refugees. That said, five years later, you know, all the direst predictions have not come to pass. And even the populists, which were given an impulse to morph into a much more radical xenophobic force, I think are struggling after plateauing in the sort of radical-most corner of German politics. But at the same time, you know, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, there are a number of points on which I think it is legitimate to question her values. One is Nord Stream 2. The other one is her insistence on good trade relations with the Chinese, at a time when the Chinese are resorting to bullying and extortionate tactics in Europe.
And finally, and this is something I take very seriously, I believe—and I’ve written this, I’ve written all of this—but her holding a hand over Orbán in particular, the Hungarian dictator who has turned his country into a one-party state, motivated, unfortunately, I’m sad to say, by the fact that the Hungarian members of the European Parliament were key to the conservative party group’s majority in the European Parliament, I think has been a disaster for Hungary, a disaster for Hungary’s civil society, and a disaster for civil societies in Eastern Europe generally. So, you know, much as I respect some of her decisions, I remain very critical about this.
BREMMER: Yeah. No, I mean, the—look the Americans got China very badly wrong in many ways. And one could argue that Merkel has followed a similar path, but with a more industrial and commercial focus. I would just push back a bit that Hungary is not yet a one-party state and there is a decent possibility that Orbán actually loses upcoming elections in the next year. I wouldn’t bet on it.
STELZENMULLER: But that’s a very recent development.
BREMMER: Yeah, I know, but just wanted to say—
STELZENMULLER: I’ve had conversations with German colleagues of Angela Merkel’s who were working within the chancellery in the 2010s, when it was clear that what was going to happen in Hungary—the repression the media, crackdown on civil society, and got—and said, you know, you do realize where this is going? And are we going to at any point express disapproval of this? And the answer was (how can you do this ?).
BREMMER: Yeah, no, that’s right. No thanks to the German chancellor that it has moved in a different direction. I was simply pushing back on the one-party state. Your point is taken. And we need that balance. That’s important. That’s why I asked you.
OK, so Wolfgang, you’re the person here who is, you know, in a sense the partisan. You were part of this government. I mean, you were appointed as ambassador to Washington. And, furthermore, you’ve worked quite closely with the German chancellor through all of these Munich Security Conferences. And I kind of want—before we go to the audience, I want to give you a chance to express something personal. Give us a little bit of your relationship with her. Share an anecdote or two that matters to you, that would—that would reveal a little bit of the person. So just between us friends here on the panel.
ISCHINGER: (Laughs.) OK. OK. Well, since you mentioned, you know, my tenure in Washington and then subsequently in London, here is a—here is a little anecdote. But I think it’s typical for the way she works. I was in the—you know, this is normal procedure. She arrives at the airport, at Heathrow, and climbs in a waiting limousine. And the ambassador climbs in on the other side to offer a first, you know, briefing on the way into town. That is our regular process. So I was sitting in the car with her, trying to talk to her about Gordon Brown and so on. And she interrupted me and said: Horst Teltschik is no—does not wish to continue this thing in Munich. So are you interested? I think you should be interested in taking over.
I was not prepared for that question from her. I had been approached by a few other people whether I would be interested, but there had not been any serious discussion. So my spontaneous reaction to her was: So, Madam Chancellor, obviously you want to get rid of me here in London. You have a successor in mind? And she said, no, no, no, of course not. You can stay here. But this—why do I tell you this story? She thinks—when she considers these issues, she thinks her through from the end. So her argument in responding to me was: Think about what happens in two and a half years when you reach retirement age. What are you going to be doing then? Sitting in an armchair in Berlin? That’s not your style. And if you take over from Horst, you’ll have a fantastic job and you can do it probably as long as you like. And how right she was.
So, you know, today, in retrospect, that was the single most decisive little conversation—it didn’t last more than two and a half minutes—that encouraged me to actually consider this and then do it. However, what she did not know—and I told her this years later—what she did not know was that, you know, by taking this step I stepped away from my government salary because I decided I could not possibly serve in Munich with a government salary then. The conference would not have been independent, et cetera. In other words, I took the risk of walking away from my government salary, without knowing whether I would find anyone who would—who would offer me some decent side job, which then fortunately happened.
And she has actually really been wonderful in staying—
BREMMER: Uh-oh. I mean, it was going to be something very nice about the chancellor. Yeah, I mean, I was going to ask if he then went on and actually finished the brief, you know, after he was flustered. My money tell me no, but, you know, I’m not sure. Well, so we’ll come back to that at some point after this. It may well be, Kati, Constanze, that it’s just the two of us—or the three of us for the questions from the audience.
MS. MARTON: It’s OK by me.
BREMMER: Which is where we are right now. We have all of our participants lined up. We have the operators standing by. And we have Wolfgang dialing right back in. So we’ll probably see him. They’ll figure it out. But in the interim, Operator, could I get you to—there he is.
MS. MARTON: There’s Wolfgang.
BREMMER: Look at that.
ISCHINGER: Here, I’m back.
STELZENMULLER: Wolfgang, finish your sentence.
BREMMER: I finished the sentence for you, but why don’t you finish it for yourself?
ISCHINGER: So she, for that—for the sixteen years, came every second year. I did not need to remind her ever of this commitment. It worked, you know, on automatic pilot. And I’m very grateful to her for that. This is just a personal—very personal remark.
BREMMER: So did you—did you, by the way, finish the brief after she surprised you with that question?
ISCHINGER: I tried to, but she knew more about Gordon Brown than I would ever have known.
BREMMER: There you go. OK.
ISCHINGER: She had read all the papers, and she didn’t need any briefing from her ambassador.
BREMMER: (Laughs.) OK, so with—
MARTON: Ian? Ian?
BREMMER: Yes, Kati, go for it. You can jump in. Yeah, sure.
MARTON: Could I just quickly react to the points about Hungary, which is my country of origin? And of course, I’m appalled by the direction that it’s taken under Orbán. But to Hungary and to Nord Stream and to China, three points that were raised as illustrative of how her values sometimes are swamped by other considerations, let’s not be under the illusion that just because she is a Lutheran and a woman and a scientist that she’s not a canny politician. She is. And she’s calculating.
And one of her favorite sayings is the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. So with China, she has a nonbinary view of China, as a—because she is partly a historian too, and she takes a long view of history, and she is more fully aware that China was once a world leader in culture and politics, and the inventor of the gunpowder and so on. And so she is not shocked that China now wants a seat at the table with the grownups. She thinks that China has got to be engaged and not frozen out.
But above all, with both Hungary and with Nord Stream, she is, first of all, chancellor of Germany. And, again, fully aware of Germany’s very dark history. That is among her, if we’re talking legacy, among her crucial legacies is that she made German’s history and Germany’s eternal permanent debt to the Jews for the Holocaust a foundational pillar of Germany. And so all these things, because she is deeply aware of human frailty, she doesn’t ever want Germany to be in dire economic straits. Hence, Nord Stream. We could have a whole other conversation about Nord Stream. And in my book I do question her decision on Nord Stream.
But also, you know, why isn’t she—why doesn’t she speak out more forcefully against Orbán and Hungary, in part because her priority is to keep the EU together, solid. And she does not want to lose Hungary. She was devastated by Brexit and was very much worried—as I explain my book—that others would follow. And she wants—she prefers to have Hungary inside the tent than going off in Putin world. So I am compressing this because I know we need to get to our members, but let’s not lose sight that she is—although she’s not a Kissingerian realpolitician, what—I describe her as a determined optimist. For her, the image of Sisyphus rolling that rock up the mountain, even if a few inches, to see it roll back is not a negative image. It’s—(inaudible).
BREMMER: All right, let me—let me give both Wolfgang and Constanze one minute each to respond, if they like. I saw lots of head movements. And then we’re going to questions because otherwise I’m not doing my job as presider at the Council.
ISCHINGER: I just want to say that Kati is 100 percent right with the idea that for Merkel keeping the twenty-seven, I think she would have loved to keep the twenty-eight together. That one left—but keeping the twenty-seven together was important. Just recently, just last week what we call the European Council, the heads of state government met with the Polish prime minister. And there’s now really a crisis for constitutional law and European law reasons, et cetera. She was the one who said to her colleagues in Brussels, let’s not escalate this. I mean, there are very good legal and political reasons to escalate, to put the screws on the Poles. But I think her overriding concern is exactly what Kati said: Let’s keep the twenty-seven together, even if we have to make painful concessions for the time being. But hopefully in the longer term we’ll get over it. I think that’s the idea.
BREMMER: I just want to also say that putting the screws on the Poles is this wonderfully evocative, you know, sort of—(laughter)—cross metaphor. I like it.
STELZENMULLER: Let’s go to questions. I’m good.
BREMMER: OK, fine. So then I’m going to questions. Operator, could you give us the first one, please? People are going to have a chance to ask them directly. It looks like Sam Dunderdale is in the queue.
OPERATOR: Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will be from Avis Bohlen.
Q: Hi. Wolfgang, my question is principally for you. I have to say, when you recounted your response to the chancellor when she offered you the Munich Security Conference, I thought that’s so typical of a diplomat. You’re always saying, oh, they want to get rid of me and they want to replace me with somebody else.
My question is—and it’s mainly for you, because you worked with both chancellors, but also for the other two, obviously—is how do you think Angela Merkel’s legacy will stack up against Helmut Kohl’s? Kohl, to be sure, he faltered a bit at the end, but still that’s a huge—it was a huge legacy for Germany that he achieved with the reunification, staying in NATO, and all the rest.
BREMMER: Thank you.
ISCHINGER: Very simply put, I think Helmut Kohl was an extremely lucky chancellor. He found his historic, you know, moment where he was able to grab the coat of history, as Bismarck put it, the moment of German reunification. He managed that beautifully. That was good fortune. It was great leadership, et cetera. But aside from that—you know, if that had not happened, his tenure would have probably ended at some point in the early or mid-’90s, not in a brilliant manner. In contrast, Angela Merkel was never really lucky during her sixteen years. The fortunes were mostly stacked against her. She had just started her tenure in late 2005. And, you know, when Putin gave his theory speech in Munich in 2007, when the little Georgian war started, when the financial crisis started in 2008.
Crisis after crisis after crisis. She was not a lucky chancellor, in terms of historic opportunities. I think if she had not had to be busy with crisis management all through these sixteen years, she would probably have tried to move the European Union and move Germany in a different direction. The fact is, because of this sequence of major challenges for her, for her government, for the EU, one can say that she protected the status quo, in terms of German society. Constanze mentioned that she did not move the country forward, as much as many of us would have hoped—in terms of digitalization, in terms of modernization, et cetera. But she was, in that sense, not—she did not enjoy the good fortune of one major, fantastic opportunity to change history.
BREMMER: Operator, can I get the next, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Frank Wisner. Please remember to state your affiliation.
BREMMER: Frank Wisner! Oh my God. Blast from the past. Great to hear from you, sir.
Q: You’re very kind. You’ve run a marvelous panel, Ian. Thanks to all of you.
I’d like to ask the three of you to reflect for a moment on one of the major facts about this marvelous woman’s life is the depth of her experience with Russia. No one—no Western leader has had the same intimacy of contact and given as much thought to relations with Russia. What does Angela Merkel believe can be the ultimate goal of a relationship between the West, Europe in particular, and Russia? And how do you—how does she think you get there?
BREMMER: Who’d like to go first?
MARTON: Well, I will, since Frank is such a dear friend. And I know you’re reading my book. And thank you for your emails. And her relationship to Putin is one of my core themes. And no German chancellor has ever been better prepared to deal with the likes of Putin than Angela Merkel, who basically had the same foundation as Vladimir Putin. In fact, they literally speak each other’s languages, because she speaks Russian, and he speaks German. And they know exactly who they’re addressing when they speak to each other.
So Bismarck said that to have German—follow German foreign policy, make a deal with Russia. And in a way, Merkel agrees with Bismarck in that regard. She has no illusions about Russia, but her relationship with Putin has been key in no repetition to his aggression in Ukraine, in Crimea. Because she became the stalwart defender of Europe against that incursion. And Obama, as I describe in my book, basically handed off that role to her. And she fulfilled it brilliantly because he knows every one of his tricks. He’s no negotiator. He’s a KGB—he’s a trained KGB operative.
But again, as with China, as with Hungary, she is, first of all, without illusions and, first of all, interested in protecting, first, her own country, and secondarily Europe, and then the Western alliance. So dealing with Russia will always be on top of Germany’s list of foreign policy priorities. But she is, of course, anti the militarization of her country—again, going back to her deep awareness of its—of its terrible history. So she resists that, although Germany has improved its—has beefed up its defense capacity. But under NATO’s umbrella is where she wants Germany and Europe to stay.
And as much as she no longer looks to either Washington or even the current administration to be what she once dreamed of for the West under her heroes, Reagan and Bush, she does—she does believe that the NATO defense umbrella is essential in dealing with Russia. So that’s my long-winded answer, Frank.
BREMMER: So thank you. And let me turn to Constanze. We talked a bit about Nord Stream but it’s, of course, much broader. It’s disinformation, it’s the Minsk process, it’s trade. Give us your views of how Merkel views and how she’s handled Russia and Putin more broadly.
STELZENMULLER: Well, I’ve never met Merkel, so I can’t tell you how she views him or Russia. My sources are secondary—books, and articles, and interviews. But my—I will say this, critical as I am of Nord Stream 2, Merkel held together the Russia sanctions consensus over the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing proxy war in Ukraine. And there was a lot of resistance, or many attempts—including particularly from Southern Europe—to get rid of those sanctions, which she opposed strongly and opposed successfully. And at actual, you know, financial cost to German business.
I think it is important to point out that the sort of notion that the, you know, Germany is full of Putinverstehers is just not true. Yes, it is disgraceful that a former chancellor, who shall remain nameless, is working for Gazprom. But, you know, he was asked not to campaign for his party. And I think that the camp of Putinverstehers in Germany has been significantly reduced, mostly owing to the good efforts of Putin himself.
And, you know, to my—to my understanding, the Russian—Russia’s provocation of a war with Georgia, already he got some of the German officials very nervous. Crimea and Ukraine really were a turning point. The killing in the Tiergarten of a Chechen thought to be, you know, in the sights of the Kremlin, and of course the attempted killing of Alexei Navalny. And add to that the burdening of German companies and industry in Russia, and banks as well, and you have got a significantly different public mood. Not just policymakers’ mood in Germany towards Russia.
And I would also, if I may, add that something—I see something very similar happening with China. The mood on China really has shifted in Berlin, and including in Merkel’s own party. And I would expect the new traffic light government, when it comes to pass—and I think it will—to pick a sort of much stronger line, with obviously—
BREMMER: On both? On both Russia and China?
STELZENMULLER: Yes, absolutely. And so the—you know, but the problem is, of course, that, you know, because we are a sort of middle power in the middle of Europe, we can’t just opt out of the relationship. The location forces us to pay attention to what Russia does, even when we don’t like it. And that is the conundrum that the next chancellor will have to—will have to deal with.
BREMMER: Now, Wolfgang, I mean, some of the most contentious moments at the Munich Security Conference in the last ten years have involved big Russian leaders showing up. You know, both Putin, Medvedev, certainly Lavrov in the last few years. You have something you’d like to add, given all of that, to this question?
ISCHINGER: The interesting thing, from my point of view, simply to add a little bit of flavor to what’s been said, is that she has—and that is, of course, also typical of her, not only with respect to Russia. She has resisted what I’m sure was a huge temptation to use four-letter words in describing, you know, a situation where obviously she was being lied to, or where at least promises were simply broken. And most men—most men I know, including myself—you know, would have put their foot down, and had a rage, et cetera, and would have made things worse. She never made things worse. First observation.
Second observation, a decisive moment in the—in the management of the Ukraine crisis came when, as I recall, about 100 senior American policymakers or former policymakers—maybe—I don’t know, Ian, maybe you were included in this—urged us, urged the United States and German, urged NATO to arm—to provide arms to the Ukrainian government. And Angela Merkel flew to Washington during the storm of, you know, public sentiment. You know, we should give arms. She managed to convince, as I recall, President Obama not to do that, at least not in the fashion that was proposed.
Why not? Because, once again, this is sort of, as Kati has described it, she thought about it from the end. So if we provide X number of arms to the Ukrainian government, she knew that Putin would simply provide X times two of the same quality to the other side. So what might be the end result of that kind of, you know, escalation? Nothing good. And that is typical of her.
She—last point—what I admired was not only that she never used publicly four-letter words, but that she actually continued with enormous patience and restraint to talk to man. I mean, to Putin himself, but also to other leaders—other leaders with whom we had serious problems. This enormous patience, simply by believing that at some point there’s got to be a moment when this guy understands that what he’s doing is not a rational thing and it’s actually not even in his long-term interest. So maybe I can talk some sense into him by taking his phone call again, and again, and again. Amazing.
BREMMER: OK, that was great, all three of you.
Operator, let’s at least get one or two more questions in before we have to close this down.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jeffrey Rosensweig.
OPERATOR: Kati, I enjoyed the very favorable review this morning. And I was shocked when you said she doesn’t use email, she doesn’t text. Especially knowing that with cellphone everyone’s hacking, probably she’s not only being listened to by Russia but by the U.S., China, and North Korea. How did she communicate? Did she try to get people, like Wolfgang, in a room? Did she trust cellphone?
MARTON: Well, good point, Jeffrey. Thanks for raising that. If you’re reading my book, you’ll know that one of the low points in her relationship with Obama was when she discovered that he’d been—he’s been listening in on her cellphone, which for somebody who was raised, you know, in the Stasi state, was really a traumatic discovery. So that just reinforced her suspicion about technology and makes the biographer’s job, quite frankly, that much more difficult. But she manages to send extremely terse texts to those she needs to reach. And then—well, lately it’s all been what we’re doing now. It’s all been Zoom.
But, you know, this has been part of—this is more important than it would seem in her legacy, because part of the secret of her longevity—sixteen years—is that she was in control of her own narrative, and in absolute control of the information flowing from the chancellery. She has—when Obama paid his farewell call on Merkel, he looked around and it was the same team that he’s met four years earlier. And he said, wow, you guys still all here? Because, you know, when you—when you think about the turnover in a typical White House. So she has the most loyal and absolutely trustworthy team. And they keep her counsel.
And this, again, to revert to where we started, her initial training as a citizen of a surveillance state has really served her and, I would say, even Germany—frustrating as it is for us authors—(laughs)—in that not a single—not a single leak, not a single tell-all book—can you imagine that—about working with Merkel. It was one of the really pillars of what she was able to achieve, which is to control the flow of information and social media particularly. She does not engage. She got to Twitter only to be able to follow Trump, but never tweeted herself. But that was the only way she could figure out what Trump was up to.
BREMMER: That’s true of all of us, by the way. Just to be clear.
MARTON: Is it? (Laughs.)
BREMMER: So, yeah, I mean, that’s the only way you can understand what Trump is up to, yeah.
MARTON: If you say so.
BREMMER: Oh my goodness. OK. Let’s get—I think we have time for one more—one more solid question. Operator, can you do that?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will be from George Hoguet.
Q: Hello. This is George Hoguet in Boston with Chesham Investments.
My question is for Constanze. Angela Merkel played a critical role in the resolution of the Greek crisis, which took many quarters to resolve. And output in Greece fell about 25 percent. There was a lot of hardship in Greece. My question is, how do you assess Mrs. Merkel’s legacy in terms of handling of the Greek crisis and, more broadly, the eurozone crisis and the politics of adjustment within the eurozone?
BREMMER: We’ve got three minutes, Constanze.
STELZENMULLER: Yeah. The problem with answering your question appropriately is that it requires actually a fairly in-depth analysis for which we don’t have the time. I will instead just say this, that while I share much of the criticism of Germany’s seeming indifference to the effect on the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in Southern Europe of these—of these policies, I have been—I will make two—I will make two opposing points. One is that Greek friends have told me that this helped Greek civil society and Greek policymakers who wanted to put a stop to inefficiency and corruption in Greece push for domestic reform. I will just leave that there. You may be the judge of that.
And secondly, that I personally remember from a lot of security conferences at the European periphery, my Northern and Baltic—Northern European and Baltic friends saying to me: We don’t understand why we’re not just pushing Greece out of the eurozone and maybe even out of the European Union. They should be punished. This was also the line of her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. And Merkel’s position was: Over my dead body. We are keeping the Greeks in. Nobody gets thrown out on my watch. And this is perhaps also the way to understand her what seems like misguided tolerance of what’s currently happening in Poland.
Some Western European, particularly French Élysée ideas of European integration and reform I think are aimed at, shall we say, decoupling some of the newer Eastern European members of the European Union. At least there is a willingness to take that into—you know, to—you know, if that’s a consequence, then it’s not viewed with a great deal of concern in the Élysée, I think. And again, that is not something Merkel would ever countenance, nor, I think, would many Germans. And so, I’m sorry, that’s all I can do for you at this point.
BREMMER: That’s pretty good. So let me just say, I have—I think I might have more respect for Chancellor Merkel not using four-letter words with Yanis Varoufakis than I do with Putin, all things considered.
STELZENMULLER: I second that emotion. I second that emotion.
BREMMER: So, look, this was a lot of fun. I think everyone will agree. Two things I just want to say before we close. One, you’ll notice that Wolfgang Ischinger is—has an unusual backdrop. That is not his home. It is the Bayerischer Hof, because earlier today they finally announced that we are going to be in person in the Munich Security Conference in mid-February. Congratulations. We will be seeing you there. Everyone will be watching the events. It’s great to see that. And then finally, Kati Marton, with congratulations for her book. You will note in the chat we actually have a direct link to Simon & Schuster where you can get more information on her volume dropping today on Angela Merkel, the chancellor. There it is. That’s her photo. And we’ll all be avid readers.
Thanks a lot, everybody. And I will see you soon.
STELZENMULLER: Thank you, Ian.
ISCHINGER: Thank you.
MARTON: Bye. Bye, Wolfgang. Bye, Constanze.