Editorial: Will Angela Merkel’s departure leave liberal democracy leaderless in a growing authoritarian jungle?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a forum in Berlin, Germany on October 29.
(Hayoung Jeon / EPA-EFE / REX)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the de facto leader of the European Union and, in the wake of U.S. abdication, of Western liberalism. Her announced departure in 2021 throws the future of both enterprises into doubt.

It can be difficult for Americans to grasp the importance of the transatlantic alliance that for nearly three-quarters of a century has protected democracy, prosperity and peace here, in Europe and, intermittently, around the globe. American ambivalence and sometimes outright hostility toward this nation’s role in the world fueled the rise of Donald Trump, who as president heaped scorn on NATO and other institutions of international cooperation.

With Britain already planning its exit from Europe, Merkel was left with the task of keeping the continent’s liberal democracies together, shoring up its weaker economies, taking in Syrian war refugees (and in so doing, expressing long-standing Western humanitarian values) and, importantly, providing a counterweight and counterexample to a belligerent Russia and an increasingly influential China.


With Britain already planning its exit from Europe, Merkel was left with the task of keeping the continent’s liberal democracies together.

There came a point a year ago when Merkel, acknowledging that the U.S. under Trump had become an unreliable partner and an absent leader, declared that Europeans must take their destinies into their own hands. She would, in effect, grab the torch of liberty and economic liberalism that American presidents once carried but that Trump cast aside.

But she was not strong enough to lift it. Not without the U.S. as senior partner, not with the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism now on display in Hungary and Poland, and gaining ground in Italy, Austria and her own country. Thanks especially to the migrant crisis, Merkel lost the confidence of many of her German constituents, as shown by a series of disastrous election losses. Her brief time as leader of the free world is coming to an end.

Who will replace her? Liberalism’s remaining champions — French President Emmanuel Macron, for example — lack Merkel’s presence or her nation’s economic might. Meanwhile, Russia looms over Europe, and although it may be economically weak and possess a mere shadow of the military might of the old Soviet Union, it is apparently powerful enough to seduce the American president away from this nation’s erstwhile friends and fracture not just the Atlantic alliance but Europe itself.

That ought to matter to Americans. For centuries, Europe was defined by the deadly struggle among its nations for land, wealth and allegiance. The creation of the European Union — bringing together, among others, the bitter enemies France and Germany, along with Britain and smaller neighbors — demonstrated that political and economic liberty along the American model could deliver not just wealth but security. The U.S. has been both a sponsor of and a beneficiary of those blessings.

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In his book “The Jungle Grows Back,” Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Kagan asserts that freedom and prosperity have been the rule in the Western world for the last seven decades not because they are the inevitable fate of humankind, but because the U.S. has been willing to pay the ongoing maintenance costs — the never ending work of cutting back the relentlessly growing jungle of chaos, dictatorship and war. Germany, Europe, rich as they are, cannot pay those costs alone.

The jungle is growing back in places like Brazil, where voters in Sunday elected far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro. The new president worked with and has celebrated the military dictatorship that ruled the huge South American nation before democracy was restored there in the 1980s. Strains of nativism and authoritarianism are evident in the leaders of nations like the Philippines and Mexico. Many of these leaders and would-be leaders — such as France’s right-wing politician Marine Le Pen — are openly lauded by Trump.

Once giving up its leadership, the U.S. may find it is a hard thing to win back. Merkel has handled it as best she could during the period of American retrenchment. We can only hope that her European successor will do the same.

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