The Merkel Model

The German chancellor has shown how to win and keep power in a man’s world.

Angela Merkel
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

To the six women currently running in the 2020 presidential race, I offer this advice: Study German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world’s most successful living politician, on the basis of both achievement and longevity. Now in her 14th year as chancellor of Europe’s powerhouse, Merkel has upended the rules of the male-dominated German political culture, and transformed her country along the way.

Without fanfare, Merkel made German society friendlier to the ambitions of women. Merkel’s handpicked successor to lead the Christian Democratic Union is a woman, there are six other women in her cabinet, and women abound in her circle of advisers. Alexander Gauland, the leader of Germany’s far-right political party AfD, recently asked, “Are there no men left in the CDU?” The party still has quite a few men; they just don’t run it any longer.

How did an East German pastor’s daughter scale a mountain of resistance as a triple outsider: a woman, a scientist, and an East German? Not by waiting politely for her turn. Merkel prevailed in a world stacked against her through a combination of persistence, preparation, calculation, and a well-curbed ego. And it’s a model other women—and men—can copy.

If there is a Merkel model, the first requirement for high office is steely calculation, and, when necessary, ruthlessness. Trained as a physicist in the Communist German Democratic Republic, Merkel seized her chance at age 35, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. She crossed from East to West Berlin, and began her political ascent.

In the ’90s, Chancellor Helmut Kohl picked Merkel as his minister for women, then minister for the environment. Though her Ph.D. is in quantum chemistry, Merkel applied herself to the study of macho behavior as she inched her way up the German political mountain. When her colleagues dubbed her Kohl’s Madchen—the chancellor’s “little lady”—she smiled, bided her time, and struck when no one expected it. In a high-risk act of political patricide, Merkel published a front-page newspaper article stating that her party was more important than her mentor, the chancellor. She thus brashly rang down the curtain on the Kohl Era, and opened the Age of Merkel. Motivated by both personal ambition and a genuine effort to save the CDU, she succeeded on both fronts.

None of the many strutting demagogues on the world stage—Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—has managed to shake Merkel’s self-possession. Not even America’s humiliator in chief can shake a woman so well prepared for male antics. “Don’t say I never gave you anything,” Trump said to her, at a G7 conference last summer, tossing Merkel a Starburst he retrieved from his pocket. The sole reaction Merkel allowed herself was a pair of extremely raised eyebrows. When, in 2007, during a meeting at his Black Sea residence, Putin unleashed his black Labrador—knowing she was once bitten and twice shy of dogs—her face was an iron mask. “He needs to do this to prove he’s strong,” she later told her staff. Having grown up under the same totalitarian regime that produced Putin, she is aware of his KGB training. She sees anger as a wasted emotion she simply cannot afford to indulge. For drama, Merkel goes to the opera—which she does a great deal.

Another lesson from the Merkel manual is to out-prepare the man across the negotiating table. She lets men (it’s still usually men) bluster uninterrupted until they run out of steam. When her turn comes, her calm command of facts reduces their grandiloquence to its simplest components. Merkel does not counter bombast with bombast, but with deflation.

Yet another rule in the Merkel playbook is to treat high office as a job, not as an identity. She keeps talking to Putin and to Trump and the others because she sees that as her job. So insults and attacks, however personal and low, are not about her. Sometimes even Merkel has found this a tough rule to follow, as when a German politician called her “an old bird from the East.” “I can’t help where I’m from,” she said, stung by the taunt. But mostly she brushes off such insults. She treats social media’s nastiness as being about her office, not her. Moreover, she has starved the tabloids and the internet of juicy material. She does not tweet. Not a whiff of scandal has touched her two decades in public life. Neither tell-all memoirs nor leaks have seeped from her office.

When Barack Obama visited the chancellor for the last time as president in late 2016, he was startled to see the same faces he first saw eight years earlier running her office. “You guys are still all here!” he exclaimed. Her staff is loyal because she works them no harder than she works herself. “She really thinks twice,” one of her top aides told me, “before she calls us on the weekend.” Merkel devours briefing books, not people.

Merkel clearly enjoys power. Power is a way to get things done: passing minimum wage, closing Germany’s nuclear power plants after the Fukushima explosion, promoting marriage equality, keeping the EU and the U.S. united in sanctioning Russia for invading Crimea, as well as rescuing the euro in 2008. In 2015, in her typically undramatic way, she announced, “Wir schaffen das,” we can handle this, thereby allowing 1 million refugees from the wars of the Middle East a chance to restart their lives in German society. To a remarkable extent, Germany has handled it, though the AfD sits in the Bundestag as a result.

Merkel does not seem to crave the trappings of power. She has no private jets, yachts, or mansions. Her security personnel are instructed to hang way back. (I’ve observed her shop for shoes: the image of a middle-aged lady trying on footwear, betraying not a hint that this is the world’s most powerful woman buying six identical pairs of sensible black flats.) She and her scientist husband live in the same apartment, across from Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, that they’ve lived in for decades. Only his name is on the buzzer. Her modest country house in her native Brandenburg is no paparazzi magnet. And here is another remarkable feat for one of the world’s most famous people: She has ferociously fought for, and has been largely granted, the right to a private life. Her closest staff was not sure where she spent her annual August break last year. (Mostly in her country house.) So, another formula for political longevity: If you are not constantly in the public’s face, chances are people won’t tire of you quite as fast. Even in her own country, Merkel is a figure of some mystery.

Persistence is a key component of the Merkel model. Merkel refuses to give up on even bad actors. She knows when Putin lies to her. He claimed, as his military moved into Crimea, that the “little green men” were not his militia. “We have eyes, Vladimir!” an exasperated Obama exclaimed, and stopped engaging him. Merkel persisted. In a single week in February 2015, Merkel shuttled among nine cities, on two continents, in search of peace.

She’s applied the same approach to Trump. Armed with maps and charts, she patiently explained to the American president how many jobs German car manufacturers create in South Carolina, and why NATO is about shared values, not merely dues paid into an account. In her view, even if only 10 percent of her message gets through, that’s better than giving up on Berlin’s most important relationship, its historic mentor and the midwife of German democracy, the United States.

Sometimes one can only see people clearly in comparison with others. Observing British Prime Minister Theresa May’s hapless cross-Channel scurrying in search of a Brexit deal, I realized that the hyper-cautious Merkel would never have allowed herself to reach such an impasse, seemingly without allies. Equally, when the Polish prime minister canceled an international summit in Jerusalem this February, in retaliation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s clumsy remark regarding “innate Polish anti-Semitism,” I thought, Merkel would never indulge such public pique. She would have picked up the phone and talked it through with her Israeli counterpart. Netanyahu would then have issued a clarifying statement and the summit would have proceeded. Merkel’s entire record as chancellor illustrates that relations between nations cannot be held hostage to hubris.

Her record as chancellor is not without critics. Henry Kissinger, though her friend, accused her of recklessly endangering Germany by allowing so many refugees to enter, with so little advance planning. Indeed, her heart did seem to hold sway over her head in that instance. The fact that for the first time since the Second World War a far-right extremist party, the AfD, is present in the Bundestag is the direct result of her refugee policy and the populist reaction it provoked. (Some 400,000 of those refugees now have jobs or are in training. The jury, though, is still out on the long-term consequences of her riskiest policy by far.)

But perhaps her greatest deficit is as a communicator. She simply lacks that vital instrument of leadership: the ability to galvanize the people with a stirring message, or to fully explain why she makes certain decisions on their behalf. Angela Merkel has compensated for this lack by winning her people’s trust that she is working soberly and seriously on their behalf. Still, we are in unfamiliar and rough political waters on both sides of the Atlantic now, and it is unclear if her calm and steady-as-she-goes style is long sustainable. In a year or two, Merkel will leave the world stage seething with populist-fanned passions. Nevertheless, Merkel can serve as a model for both women and men in politics. And women, who have too few role models for political success, can look to Angela Merkel for inspiration.