There are more than straws in the wind for those hoping for signs of sane political developments. Beyond the ambit of the apparently endless and unfathomable inanities of Washington and the faltering British coalition that resulted from the miracle of all three party leaders’ losing the last election, some nations resolutely refuse to accept poor government. By many criteria, the most swiftly rising major power of recent years would not be China but Germany. Germany’s previous trips to the batter’s box of world power and influence have been so stigmatizingly catastrophic and criminal, however, that it is feeling its way with extreme caution. The nation will clearly require a considerable time yet to develop confidence in its ability to lead anyone. But the preconditions of plausibility are being meticulously assembled with the thoroughness of German automobile-factory workers, all while those same ingredients of national strength and credibility are being squandered in the United States and many other countries. Germany has led the rest of the euro zone in economic growth by between 2 and 3 percentage points for the last three years; unemployment has declined from 11 percent to 5 percent since 2006, while in the United States it has risen from 4.5 percent to 10 percent and then fallen back to 7.8 percent, and while in other euro countries it has risen from 8.5 to 12 percent.
The chief, though (as she has generously acknowledged) not the sole, author of this progress, Chancellor Angela Merkel, reaped the political reward on Sunday with the greatest single-party political victory since the time of Germany’s reunification in 1990. The German electoral system is complicated: It’s partly a straight-list system where parties identify their candidates in order of prominence, citizens vote for parties rather than candidates, and each party’s overall popular vote determines the percentage of its candidates who are elected; partly a constituency system where precise geographic areas elect a representative and any parties or groups that fail to draw 5 percent nationally are eliminated and elect no one. It thus is very difficult and rare for one party to achieve a majority. Frau Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Christian Social allies in Bavaria rose nearly 8 points since the election four years ago, from 33.8 to 41.5 percent, and from 239 members of the 630-seat Bundestag to 311, just five short of a majority. Less than 42 percent of the vote elected 49 percent of the legislators, because 15 percent of the 44 million votes (an impressive turnout of over 71 percent) were cast for parties that won less than 5 percent and therefore did not make the cut. The chancellor lost her preferred coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democrats, who won just under 5 percent, but it should not be an insuperable challenge to make a coalition with the second party, the Social Democrats, who drew 25.7 percent of the votes.
The great personal victory for sensible and straightforward government that Frau Merkel won disguises some lasting concerns about the German system. At this time, the Social Democrats and the Greens, the fourth party, say they will not form a coalition with the third party, the Left, which is seen as being infested with unacceptable former pillars of the Communist Soviet puppet state of East Germany, which killed those trying to cross the Berlin Wall (or “Anti-Fascist Defense Barrier,” as it was officially called). But the Left’s leader, Katja Kipping, is a snappy 35-year-old red-haired woman with considerable panache; she seems to have legitimate socialist and democratic credentials and will not be barred forever as a blood-stained accomplice of the infamous Pankow regime in East Berlin that early in its inglorious life professed to have “lost confidence in the people” (causing leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht to ask if the Communists cared to elect a new people). On the other hand, the Greens, who in their early days in West Germany were a pretty hair-raising group, are now led by a rather unfrightening 47-year-old woman, Katrin Goring-Eckhardt, an elder in the German Evangelical Church.
The three principal parties that were shut out were the Free Democrats, at 4.8 percent; at 4.7 percent, the German Alternative Party, which opposes the present level of German integration in the euro zone; and, at 2.2 percent, the Pirates, a deconstructionist and reactionary movement of cyber-kooks. In another election it is easy to imagine that the moderate conservatives would win a majority of the votes, but that the election would give the Left a majority (because of the 5 percent rule) and confer an undue influence on old-line Communists and eco-loopies skulking behind Frau Kipping and Goring-Eckhardt’s generally pleasing facades. It is slightly disturbing that the leftist parties win in the former East Germany, and that even the Social Democrats, though they have produced some distinguished leaders, have always been partly infested with those Germans who were easily gulled by overtures from the Russians. The most prominent German leader since Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, feared a Germany not in the warm caress of democratic allies, and he was certainly sincere in calling for a “European Germany and not a German Europe.” He mistrusted an entirely autonomous Germany, in foreign-policy terms, and the great capital he hastily re-created in Berlin — after that city’s decades as a shamed, shattered, divided place — reveals within a few hundred yards of one another, like the rings on a great tree, the architectural traces of successive failed regimes: Frederick the Great’s Brandenburg Gate, Bismarck’s Reichstag, the Hohenzollerns’ Lutheran cathedral, Speer’s Third Reich buildings on the Willemstrasse, and Stalin’s immense embassy in East Berlin.
The irony of Europe now is that while Germany sought a federal Europe to ensure that Germany would not hear the Wagnerian forest murmurs of volkisch hegemony, the nation is now hearing the Hansel and Gretel–like wails of appeal for help and strength from countries that in living memory heroically resisted German aggression. Having been rightly rejected when it sought to lead, Germany is unjustifiably reticent in answering a draft to lead. The future is usually treacherous, especially in Central Europe, but at least Europe’s greatest power remains in good hands supported by a sensible majority of electors.
There are signs of life elsewhere. In the Netherlands, where the budget deficit threatens to climb back to Obaman Everests of around 3.3 percent of GDP, the unpopular prime minister, Mark Rutte, has declared “the end of the welfare state” and the rebirth of a “participatory state.” He is holding on to much of the Netherlands’ defense commitment, including the NATO-wide “joint strike fighter.” While Rutte’s political position is unstable, the party now leading the polls is Geert Wilders’s conservative Freedom Party, which would attack the “unsustainable” welfare system, as Rutte describes it, a good deal more robustly than would Rutte. The former queen of the Netherlands, Beatrix, who has abdicated, leaving the throne to her son, King Alexander, prevailed on the party leaders to exclude Wilders from government. She was also “proud of having the wealthiest poor and the poorest wealthy in Europe,” although she was the wealthiest person in the country and did not pay tax, and the royal family costs the taxpayers over $125 million annually. At least the tedious Dutch socialist chorus, often accompanied by a lot of overly fraternal claptrap about their Islamist fellow-citizens, is over and the country is on the right track.
Another important country taking a star turn is Australia, now that its new prime minister, Tony Abbott, has just won a landslide victory at the head of his Liberal (conservative in fact) and National Coalition. Abbott is refreshing in his adherence to genuine conservatism and his avoidance of all the fatuities of David Cameron’s “modernization” in the U.K. (i.e., soggy leftishness with a few traditionalist ribbons retained as window dressing); and he equally eschews the absurd dogmatism about secondary issues that has so mortally afflicted American conservatism. Abbott (an especially apt surname for that time in the campaign when his chief rival for the Liberal leadership was Mr. Costello) is a Roman Catholic with some Rick Santorum beliefs, but without some of the Santorum flourishes that created vulnerabilities, such as his being almost pathological about gay issues. Abbott opposes gay marriage but has a lesbian sister who campaigned for him. He has shown the American Republicans the way forward: conservative values and positions in fiscal, welfare, and other social issues and foreign policy, but avoidance or at least de-emphasis of these hopeless and demeaning cul-de-sacs over abortion, gay marriage, and other areas that historically have not been partisan issues. Republicans could learn from the new Australian leader the difference between principle (which, when rational and held consistently and not turned inside out at each whistle stop as it was by Mitt Romney, wins) and dogmatism, which is compulsively attached to any cause that arises at a tea-party session, and usually loses. Other countries’ voters are behaving intelligently; so can Americans.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].