What the Chancellor said
Chancellor Merkel's speech, in my opinion, reflects great credit on her, but far greater credit on the political culture of Germany and Europe. I do not in fact agree with the thrust of some of the policies it lays out: they emphasize austerity in Greece and elsewhere, rather than economic growth (although, as she points out, her own country at this moment has a very impressive and enviable employment record of which to boast.) But the speech promises, directly and repeatedly, to make a sustained attack upon some deep-seated problems within the EU and the Eurozone in a continuing effort to preserve the achievements of her parents' generation. And in particular, at the end of the speech, she, like Lincoln and FDR in their time, puts the current crisis in the context of previous ones. While she does not name Bismarck or Adenauer or de Gaulle, she promises that her generation shall not fail the comparable test that it faces. It is symptomatic of the wretched mess in which the United States finds itself that neither President Obama nor any Republican ever wants to make such an appeal to the past. The Boom generation of historians seems successfully to have persuaded public opinion and our elites that history began in the late 1960s.
Europe does face critical, possibly insurmountable problems. In an effort to preserve the Euro the Greeks have made genuine sacrifices of their sovereignty. This may indeed crack the Eurozone, though not the EU itself, but if it does not, it will be a critical precedent that may move European political life into a new phase. The Europeans, in any case, are still engaged in an extraordinary attempt to widen and deepen their political order. The contrast with the United States could not be clearer: we are engaged, not in saving our grandparents' and parents' achievements, but in tearing them down. And it is no accident, clearly, that Republicans now cite Europe's regulated capitalism, complete with single-payer health care and truly modern infrastructure, as some sort of catastrophe that the United States has to avoid. Europe is still the continent of the Enlightenment. Paradoxically, the United States--the first political child of the Enlightenment--is now the advanced country where its spirit is under the heaviest attack.
The transcript of Merkl's speech shows that the applause came mainly, though not exclusively, from her own coalition. Yet she did not speak as a party leader several of her most important pronouncements drew unanimous applause. This has become unheard of when the President addresses the Congress. My old friend Stanley Hoffmann, in his review of Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's new book This Used to Be Us, suggested that European parliamentary systems are simply more effective than our own separation of powers, but I think this was an oversimplification. Presidents such as Truman and Eisenhower have accomplished great things with the help of Congresses at least partially controlled by the opposition party. We are in trouble now not because of our constitution, but because of our almost complete lack of any common civic spirit. No European leader faces an opposition determined to ensure that anything he or she does fails, but that is the situation we have been living with for three years, and it will get worse before it gets better.
Having suffered the worst of modern western civilization during the last crisis, the Europeans remain committed to a relatively strong government and a welfare state. No major European nation has de-industrialized to the same extent as the United States, either. Chancellor Merkel's positions on the regulation of financial markets--including hedge funds!--were far in advance of President Obama's. The Europeans face big problems--but their governments are addressing them. If they can succeed, they seem very likely to regain the leadership of the western world which, half a century ago, they seemed to have lost forever. That would not disturb me. The Atlantic world is a family, and one one family member goes crazy, others must step forward. That was our role 70 years ago; now it seems once again to be theirs. We are all, in any event, in this together.