PRINCETON – In today’s global culture, where simple models help make sense of so much complexity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin embody opposing archetypes of national leadership. Like others before them, such icons often have a foil – a yang for a yin – that establishes a stark choice between two alternate worldviews.
That was certainly true in previous periods of political and economic strain. For example, in the aftermath of World War I, with democratic political systems disintegrating, much of the world looked to either Benito Mussolini in Italy or Vladimir Lenin in Russia to determine the future.
In the 1920s, Mussolini convinced many foreign observers that he had devised the optimal way to organize society, one that overcame the anarchy and self-destructiveness inherent in traditional liberalism. Under Mussolini, Italy was still integrated into the world economy, and official corporatism, with its emphasis on the supposed harmony of interests between capital and labor, seemed to many to herald a future without class conflict and pitched political struggle.
In Germany, members of the orthodox nationalist right, as well as many others, admired Mussolini, not least the young Adolf Hitler, who asked for an autographed picture after Il Duce (as Mussolini became known) seized power in 1922. In fact, Hitler used Mussolini’s so-called March on Rome as his model for the Beer Hall Putsch in Bavaria in 1923, which he hoped would be a stepping-stone to power throughout Germany.
Mussolini’s fascist internationalism inspired imitators around the world, from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists to Corneliu Zelea Codreanu’s Iron Guard in Romania. Even in China, cadets at the Whampoa Military Academy tried to launch a Chinese “Blue Shirts” movement akin to Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s paramilitary Brownshirts, the Sturmabteilung.
During this period, Mussolini’s foil was Lenin, the fulcrum for the international left. Throughout the world, leftists defined themselves by the degree to which they admired or disapproved of the Soviet leader’s ruthlessness. Like Mussolini, Lenin claimed to be building – by any means necessary – a classless society, where political conflict was a thing of the past.
Today’s leaders are grappling with the politics of globalization, and in that debate Merkel and Putin – who are less similar in their tactics than Mussolini and Lenin were – represent two paths forward: openness and defensiveness, respectively. In Europe, political leaders define themselves by their relationship to one or the other. Hungary and Turkey are both vulnerable to Russian geopolitical machinations; but their leaders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seem to have joined the international Putin admiration society.
Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, who will likely be a candidate in the second-round runoff of next year’s presidential election, has established herself as a foil to Merkel. For Le Pen, Merkel is an empress using the European Union to impose her will on the rest of Europe, and especially on hapless French President François Hollande. Likewise, Germany’s generous refugee policy under Merkel is a pretext to import “slaves.”
In the United Kingdom, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party, takes a similar position. Merkel, he believes, is a greater threat to European peace than Putin.
On the other hand, UK Prime Minister Theresa May seems to be channeling Merkel, at least in her negotiating style. Her first major policy speech largely ignored June’s Brexit referendum, which brought her to power, and promised to push for so-called codetermination – workers’ representation on company boards – which is a crucial part of Germany’s social contract.
Putin and Merkel are fixed compass points not only in Europe. In the United States, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – who has praised Putin for “getting an ‘A’ [in leadership]” – recently lambasted his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as “America’s Merkel,” and then started a Twitter hashtag equating Merkel and Clinton. Like Le Pen and UKIP, Trump has tried to put Merkel’s immigration policy at the center of political debate.
One obvious interpretation of the Merkel-Putin dichotomy is that it embodies gender archetypes: Merkel favors “feminine” diplomacy and inclusion, whereas Putin favors “masculine” competition and confrontation. Another interpretation is that Putin represents nostalgia – a longing for an idealized past – whereas Merkel stands for hope: a belief that the world can be improved through effective political management.
Putin’s position is apparent in his effort to unify Eurasia around social conservatism, political authoritarianism, and orthodox religion as a nominal arm of the state. His is a barely updated version of nineteenth-century theoretician and czarist adviser Konstantin Pobedonostsev’s three-pronged political prescription: orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality.
Merkel emerged as Putin’s foil and a global icon, incidentally, during the eurozone debt crisis, when she was seen as a rather nationalistic defender of German economic interests, and again in the summer of 2015 when she countered objections to her migration policies by arguing that Germany is “a strong country” that “will manage.”
Of course, this “new” Merkel had always been there. In 2009, she openly rebuked former Pope Benedict for not providing “sufficient clarification” about his decision to rescind a Holocaust-denying bishop’s excommunication; and, in 2007, she insisted on receiving the Dalai Lama, despite official Chinese objections.
Merkel and Putin have emerged as political icons just as globalization has reached a crossroads. While Trump, channeling Putin, wants an alternative to globalization, Merkel wants to salvage it with strong leadership, competent management, and a commitment to universal values and human rights.
The 1920s’ global icons inspired calls for violent political change. Today, that kind of language is kept at arm’s length. But the choice between inclusive integration and exclusive disintegration remains with us.