Henry Kissinger never actually asked “who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”; but if any modern successor to the master of realpolitik posed that question, there could be little doubt about the answer.
Angela Merkel is not just the most powerful person in modern European history, never mind woman. Right now, she is de facto leader of the free world.
For the past fortnight, the two biggest stories in Europe have centred around her. It was her diplomatic effort that brought Presidents Putin and Poroshenko of Russia and Ukraine to Minsk, to hammer out a (sadly unfulfilled) ceasefire agreement. In a tour of the world stage, she had the following itinerary: Berlin-Kiev-Berlin-Moscow-Munich-Berlin-Washington-Ottawa-Berlin-Minsk-Brussels. Though she took François Hollande of France along for some of the ride, nobody could be in any doubt that she was conducting the operation.
The other massive drama unfolding in Europe today also casts Merkel in a leading role: the future of the eurozone. On Thursday, Germany rejected a request by Athens to extend its €172bn bailout despite a significant U-turn by the new Greek government. But last night a deal was struck, the fine-tuning of which will extend into next week. If negotiations between Brussels and Syriza continue to prove fruitful, ultimately it will be because the latter has persuaded Germany’s Chancellor to agree. This moment may be remembered as pivotal in the history of post-war Europe.
It is true that, despite her dominance on the global stage, and the strong economic numbers coming out of Germany, Merkel is not invincible at home. This week, Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen gave a speech that reminded many Germans that there is life beyond the Iron Chancellor. Meanwhile, both the Social Democrats and the far-right have chinked her armour over the past year.
But despite all this, there is one decisive factor that makes Merkel the current leader of the free world: American retreat. America’s loss of self-confidence after the Bush years, the financial crisis, and the dysfunction of Washington is palpable. That Barack Obama is counting down the days to his departure also saps him of authority – the inevitable consequence of the 22nd Amendment, which limits presidents to two terms, and should be scrapped.
In this context, Merkel has amassed power and influence that would have made Bismarck wince. Some observers say that if Hillary Clinton becomes President, for the first time in human history the most powerful person in the world will be a woman. Looking back on the past few weeks, and ahead to those coming, I’d say we crossed that bridge some time ago.