The Leaderless World

The American president seems to want to make decisions in the U.S.’s selfish strategic interest, but without the consequences that come with doing so.

Angela Merkel walks away.
Clemens Bilan / Pool / Getty

For the past 16 years, we in Europe have witnessed the Merkelization of the continent: Resentments bubble away; crises are managed, not resolved; time is played for; reform is incremental and then, suddenly, unilateral; and, in the end, stasis reigns. After a largely uneventful G20 summit in Rome, and with world leaders settling into their hotels in Scotland for the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP26, it looks like we are beginning to see the Merkelization of the world, as well.

For outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, such a scenario would be a fitting end to her time in power. Since the onset of the eurozone crisis in 2011, Merkel, thanks to German economic power, has stood alone as the decisive actor in Europe. She has held the continent together—weathering the storms of Donald Trump’s presidency, Brexit, and Vladimir Putin’s aggression—while protecting and enhancing German wealth and power. After 2011, Merkel and Germany have been too strong not to lead, yet they have also been reluctant leaders, preferring to react, preserve, and buy time, rather than pay the costs of strategic reforms.

In a globalized world, this kind of provincialism and incrementalism has merit. The unipolar world of American leadership that came before, where crises were dealt with, was hardly a model of good governance, calm, and strategic thinking. That world—the one that came into being with the collapse of the Soviet Union—gave us the rise of an authoritarian China, the reemergence of an expansionist Russia, a rolling calamity in the Middle East, the great financial crisis, and Trump.

The problem is that the new world—one with an array of powers, each pursuing narrow advantage and lacking a sense of grander strategy—creates a kind of double inaction. In the case of Europe, Merkel’s Germany has, for the most part, not been prepared to act until it has little choice, but neither has it been prepared to deal with the consequences of its inaction: emerging crises, regional imbalance and grievance. Outside Europe, Merkel’s Germany has also resisted making choices between its security and economic interests, and resents pressure from Washington that it must. “Both of the heads on Germany’s double-headed eagle are supposed to look out to the world,” Tom Tugendhat, a member of Britain’s Conservative Party and the chair of Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, told me. “Today, the reality is both are facing in.”

Isn’t that where we now are with the United States and the rest of the West?

Over the course of this year, U.S. President Joe Biden has traveled to the G7, the G20, and now, COP26. At each conference, he has sought to mend fences smashed by the previous occupant of the White House, promising that under his administration American leadership is back, but also that American respect for its allies is back too. And although there has been a collective sigh of relief from Biden’s fellow leaders, the sense that remains after this year’s round of summitry is not one of careful management and reform and progress, but one of decline and division and loss. The reason is not so much the summits themselves—indeed, these kinds of meetings have rarely produced era-defining moments. The reason for the sense of decline is more atmospheric. It’s hard to remember whatever small steps were taken at any of the summits this year when petty rows dominated each, whether over sausages and Northern Ireland at the G7 in June, or fish quotas, Northern Ireland, and AUKUS at the G20.

Throughout Merkel’s tenure, she has tried to have her cake and to eat it too, and to some extent she has succeeded. She calculated that she could outlast Trump’s threats and tantrums without offering any major concession to his demands, and was proved right. She calculated that she could push ahead with the Nord Stream II gas pipeline from Russia without any real cost imposed by the U.S. or from within the European Union, and seems to have been largely vindicated. And now she believes she can separate Germany’s (and Europe’s) economic interest in trading with China from its security interest in remaining under the American defense guarantee. Although the outcome of this bet remains uncertain, it is reasonable to wonder whether the U.S. is really prepared to impose a high-enough cost on Germany to change the calculations of its immediate national interest.

Something similar now looks to be happening in Washington. Like Merkel, Biden seems to want to make decisions in the U.S.’s selfish strategic interest, but without the consequences that come with doing so. In AUKUS—the new security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.—Biden has stolen France’s “contract of the century,” but he’s apologizing for it. Like his predecessors, he wants Europe to pay more for its own defense, but he also does not like the idea of the continent attaining more strategic autonomy, which is the logical consequence of such a demand. Biden wants Germany to show leadership over China, but has yet to face up to the kind of grand bargain that might be necessary to drag it—and Europe as a whole—from the simple pursuit of national interest.

The ultimate result of these contradictions is to shift focus from America’s grander strategic goals to comparatively petty disputes. In London, for example, there is unease over Washington’s apparent AUKUS apology tour, ostensibly to appease French fury over the defense pact sealed behind France’s back at the G7 over the summer. Why isn’t the U.S. owning the pact—both its costs and its benefits—as part of its shift toward containing China, British officials wonder? Why, in other words, is America behaving like Merkel’s Germany?

When you look at the G7 and G20 this year, you see a West that is still powerful but no longer dominant, more focused on its internal squabbles than the bigger picture. You see a leaderless West that takes nervous small steps, and then backtracks a little. Zooming out further, you see an America making the first tentative moves away from its “forever wars” and toward its 21st-century strategic rival, China, but not yet following through on the logic of this recalculation.

The reality is that the G20—whose attendees include China, Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia—has replaced the G7 as the forum of real global power. But the G7 is not being used as a kind of pre-meeting of like-minded democracies, a forum to agree on goals and strategy. Instead, it is a place to stitch up defense deals, row over sausages, and pretend that the old world still exists. “The West, however you define it, is still by far the most dominant economic bloc in the world,” Tugendhat told me, “but we are now more interested in fighting over fish than freedom.”

Europe after Merkel remains wealthy, successful, and powerful on the world stage. The eurozone looks secure, and its wealthy northern economies appear strong. Its divisions, however, are real and serious, involving questions of existential importance over the rule of law and democracy, and its grand strategic calculations remain unanswered as the world changes around it and difficult decisions are avoided. The risk for Biden is that, without greater clarity, this will be his legacy, too.