By far the biggest blight on my political risk industry is the notion of elite capture. As analysts and firms meet with success, becoming more famous and recognized, they are invited to the same gatherings as the political decision-makers they analyze. All too often, losing perspective, they soon become part of the elite that they are supposed to study — cheerleaders rather than analysts.
This process explains why so many of my competitors were so wrong about Iraq, Afghanistan, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. They had long since ceased to objectively view empirical facts and instead became mouthpieces for the conventional wisdom of the global governing class.
A final, preeminent example of elite capture must be the chattering classes’ wrongheaded embrace of Angela Merkel, who just a year ago was lauded by the commentariat as the world’s greatest statesman. Luminaries such as The Economist, Chatham House and the Eurasia Foundation saw in the German chancellor a bastion of the Western-dominated, rules-based established order.
Even at the time, as a historian this struck me as a highly dubious political risk call, being more an example of elite capture cheerleading, rather than being based on empirical facts. When I would press other members of the commentariat as to why Merkel was the greatest thing since sliced bread, they would invariably speak in generalities, never giving me concrete examples of her historical accomplishments that could be assessed. This greatly aroused my suspicions.
A year on from her retirement, the historical reputation of the former German chancellor lies in ruins, as does the analytical reputation of those that unthinkingly, and in variance with the facts, championed her. Nowadays, Merkel looks a lot like 1930s British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the leader who fiddled even as his country drifted into the greatest of dangers. At the time of her departure, polls showed that a stratospheric 80 percent of Germans approved of Merkel’s long 16-year reign. A year on, it is safe to say that the number is unlikely to be half of that peak.
The failure of Merkelism, as ever, comes down to major philosophical errors that informed her ultimately disastrous policies. First, Merkel — in line with standard Wilsonian and EU ideology — believed in the limitless power of dialogue. This terribly off-base view harks back to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of the “general will,” the notion that, if well-meaning people talk for long enough, they will all eventually come to the same conclusion.
This is, of course, utter nonsense — a fairy tale that does away with the notion of countries and leaders having differing national interests that do not simply dissolve because of dialogue. Diplomacy is not an action verb; treaties and agreements, as all good realists know, merely codify power relations that are already established. To put it practically, Merkel’s 16-year dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not change his mind about the need to dominate his strategic near abroad.
Second, Merkel and Germany championed the notion that trading with other great powers had an inherently civilizing impact upon them; that economically linked countries did not geostrategically over time fundamentally oppose one another; and that revisionist powers could be transformed through trade into status quo powers. That every man is a conservative after dinner. Invariably, this was Germany’s excuse for its energy policy with Russia, as though trading with Moscow would do away with its very different national interests.
Third, Merkelism jibed with Germany’s inherently wrongheaded pacifism. The country’s governing establishment proudly (if naively) described themselves as a postmodern, post-national, even post-strategic power, as though mankind had somehow magically evolved and that “war was impossible on the European continent” (a terrible political risk call I heard all too often).
Fourth, Merkel’s Germany took a holiday from history, smugly believing it could somehow opt out of the larger global scene. In essence, Merkel outsourced Germany’s energy policy to Russia, its trade policy to China and its security policy to the US. This lack of agency has proven to be a catastrophic error.
All of these basic philosophical errors shaped Germany’s overall increasingly neutralist geostrategic orientation. Whereas the country had been firmly pro-Atlanticist and pro-American before the advent of Merkel, during her time in office it morphed into a mercantilist, commercial-first state, as its growing ties to Russia and China militated against its long-standing links with the US. As Germany drifted into neutralism, a strategic intellectual black hole opened over the whole of this past generation in Europe.
To put it mildly, all of these fundamental mistakes left Berlin horribly unready for the onset of the new era. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill was reportedly forced to send a security detail to defend his predecessor, Baldwin — a formerly popular appeasement premier — who needed protection from children who were throwing rocks at him. But the children were right; Baldwin was a major part of the cause of his country’s woeful state of unpreparedness. Today, Germany finds itself in a similar position in our new era due to Merkel’s disastrous tenure. The commentariat who celebrated her now need to explain why they were so wrong.
This post was originally published in Arab News.