Barack Obama has been US President for almost five years; Angela Merkel has been German Chancellor for nearly eight.
They have met at international gatherings on numerous occasions. But their joint appearance at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this week was the first time it had been possible to detect any real warmth between them – which is strange because, in circumstances and character, but most of all in the criticisms directed against them, they have a great deal in common.
For all Obama’s undoubted oratorical gifts, as President he has come across as quiet, scholarly, introverted – even stand-offish. Merkel is neither a natural orator nor an instinctive campaigner, though she has learnt to do both. But her preference, as Obama’s, is to keep herself to herself. Each has a closely guarded private life and a small circle of trusted friends. But the gregariousness that characterised Bill Clinton and George Bush Jnr, and the high-profile public politicking at which Gerhard Schröder and Helmut Kohl excelled, is foreign to both.
The American press recently reported that Obama had taken to inviting small groups of interesting people to dinner at the White House – an observation the more remarkable for the fact that it was seen as newsworthy. Last month, Merkel drew headlines for an interview with a women’s magazine, where she talked about her domestic life. It said much about her character that she had managed so far to keep so much of her life out of view.
The introspection they share goes hand in hand with a thoughtfulness that has been condemned as dithering. In his first term, Obama agonised about whether to send more troops to Afghanistan (as a prelude to withdrawal). In the end, he took the advice of his then commander, David Petraeus, and appeared ever after to regret it; he was far more at ease scaling back the US presence and perhaps felt he should have followed his own lights. He is now debating with himself whether to support the anti-Assad rebels in Syria; his difficulty is that he can see both sides and knows well the perils of projecting power.
Obama’s apparent reluctance to engage in the sort of out-there, hands-on, global leadership that his two predecessors practised in their very different ways has provoked disappointment, even ire, from erstwhile fans. The term “followership” has been coined to describe his low-key approach to the US abroad, while in Libya he was accused of “leading from behind”. His apparent reluctance to deploy US power has become synonymous in some quarters with America’s supposed decline.
Angela Merkel has come in for very similar flak from her fellow Europeans. Critics grant that history makes it hard for any German leader to assert themselves abroad, and the vitriolic comment that appeared in Greece as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy showed how wise Merkel was to tread lightly. But the clamour was for Germany, as the eurozone’s biggest and most successful economy, to take the lead – by increasing the tax burden on Germans and applying less Protestant rigour elsewhere. Like Obama, she has been accused of dithering, timidity and lacking “vision” at a time when boldness was called for.
This catalogue of defects, however, fails to allow for one salient fact. At the time of writing, Obama and Merkel are widely seen as the strongest and most successful national leaders in the industrialised world. Each was convincingly re-elected to a second term, and Merkel, after some troubles in her party ranks, seems to be cruising to a third. What is more, they are both recognised not just as national leaders, but as regional flag-carriers – which may be why there is such frustration with their reluctance to capitalise on their stature and lead from the front.
Yet there is another way of interpreting the apparent contradiction here. Could it be that the more questioning approach of Obama and Merkel and their very reluctance to push themselves forward are qualities that are underrated in political leaders – qualities that actually help to explain their success? Might it not also be that there are times when audacity is called for – the fast-moving events that ended the Cold War come to mind – and others when a more considered approach is in order.
Merkel makes no secret of her admiration for her one-time mentor, Helmut Kohl, and the way he steered Germany’s unification. Obama, for his part, paid tribute to George Bush – the father, as he clarified – in his Berlin speech. But the point is that, even as the Berlin Wall fell, there was an outline of the continent that was emerging. The implosion of the Soviet Union might still not have been envisaged, still less that it would happen peacefully, without famine or waves of refugees. But the end of communism and the rebirth of Europe was conceivable. It was the means rather than the end that was in doubt.
The great difference between then and now is that it is far harder to project any shape – welcome or not – on to the cataclysmic developments that are in train. And they are not restricted, as they were then, largely to one continent. What we have known as the Arab world is in ferment, its borders looking almost as unstable as at the end of the Ottoman empire. Afghanistan, Pakistan and much of Central Asia are in play. China and India are on the rise.
Too clumsy an American finger on the trigger – the US stealth warplane that brushed North Korea’s airspace, say – and the result could be disaster. In this instance, Obama could afford some quiet backtracking, a course not open to a more driven leader. Merkel’s diplomacy, inside her coalition government and in Europe, is cautious, collaborative and managerial; it has kept the show on the road.
As for accusations of dithering, there is no evidence that when the time comes for a decision to be taken, either Obama or Merkel has been found wanting. Put another way, there are times when a premature, ill-considered action is not decisive, but reckless. Obama and Merkel still have time to make mistakes. But thus far their just-in-time decisions, made carefully, after due consideration of the facts, are at least as effective as any other kind, and infinitely better suited to our perilous times.