Few world leaders have been better prepared than Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel to deal with the tumultuous intersection of political, economic and social challenges that currently confront Germany, Europe and our world.
Merkel is one of the longest-tenured major leaders on the world scene today. Her influence is felt deeply in Europe and widely around the world. Despite the many challenges that she has encountered during her time of leadership, her approval ratings have continued to be remarkably high within Germany. However that approval has eroded dramatically over the past few months as she has taken a very unpopular stand on accepting refugees into Germany.
The numbers are stunning. Where in the United States there is growing opposition to allowing even a handful of Syrian refugees into this country, Germany is expected to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees from multiple countries this year alone. The recent terrorist attacks and mass shootings have further raised fears across the globe aimed at Syrian refugees. It has become very politically costly for public officials to embrace the idea of welcoming these refugees.
In order to understand why such an influential and popular world leader as Merkel would risk that enormous popularity and support by taking such an unpopular position on refugees requires a better understanding of her background and experience.
There are at least two unique characteristics of her background that strongly influence both the principles and the vision that seem to govern her leadership in Germany and Europe. Like Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel's world-view was strongly influenced by the time she lived behind the Iron Curtain. While they were both shaped by their respective experiences, they clearly learned very different lessons.
Merkel's family moved from West Germany to East Germany not long before the Berlin Wall went up. The family moved when Angela's father accepted a position as a Lutheran minister at a church in East Germany — a profession that became increasingly out-of-favor as the cold war progressed. Angela's formative years therefore were shaped by the contrasting political and economic institutions present in the communist Cold War environment, and a home and family environment rooted in religious faith. These experiences no doubt have influenced her to be a positive influence in building political and economic institutions based on a moral foundation informed by a minister father.
Those familiar with her background would not be surprised that she is taking an unpopular position relative to accepting Syrian and other refugees into Germany in large numbers. She personally lived through and participated in one of the most remarkable events in European political history with the reunification of Germany. Skeptics predicted that it would bankrupt Germany and lead to a breakdown in social and economic institutions within Germany — and there was good reason for the skepticism. Time however has demonstrated that the process of reunification has actually strengthened the political, economic and social institutions in Germany. This historical perspective no doubt informs Merkel's current firm position on accepting refugees into Germany. Not only does she believe it is the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but her personal and professional experiences persuade her that the political and economic institutions can be strengthened rather than weakened through this process.
The United States and the world are struggling to respond to new threats to peace and prosperity in our day. How fortunate the world is to have in Merkel an example of principled leadership, someone tutored by experience, firm in her convictions, and courageous enough to point the challenging path forward.