Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 July 2017

The Free World’s Female Leader

[Note to readers: Several reader comments have been neglected by oversight, not design, since early May. They are now up, with replies where appropriate. For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Merkel’s qualifications
China’ role
Women, the Enlightenment and moral pragmatism
Conclusion: the end of the American Century


There’s not much positive in the news these days. When something good happens, it’s often just a shaky return to normalcy, like President Trump’s affirmation of NATO’s Article 5 at the G-20 summit, after he had ignored it at Brussels. His latest move, repudiating the 2015 Paris climate accord—now ratified by 153 nations—is not good for America, American workers, or our human species. Nor is his plan to decimate the EPA’s scientific experts and make real the wet dreams of Big Fossil.

Yet something new and good did happen at the G-20 meeting Saturday. The media noted it in passing but failed to note its historic significance. On the species-critical issue of climate change, the twenty assembled free nations were unanimous, except for one.

All nineteen other nations recognized the Paris climate accord as “irreversible” and agreed to work hard to meet its goals. All, that is, but ours. As a respected British journal noted in its headline, “Trump [was] left in [the] cold . . . .”

The person who led the free world on this vital issue is a woman. But she wasn’t Hillary Clinton. She was Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

Merkel acknowledged the summit’s exclusion of Trump. In an attempt at compromise and reconciliation perhaps common to her gender, she noted his goal of using fossil fuels “more efficiently.”

Who can complain about burning natural gas before coal, nature’s dirtiest fuel? Who can complain about drilling for natural gas with less accidental release of methane, a greenhouse gas over twenty times as dangerous as carbon dioxide?

True, the coal-to-gas transition is almost entirely market driven. It will happen no matter what moronic steps the US Congress or its Executive takes. True, Trump’s minions recently defanged a rule requiring gas drillers to avoid methane leaks, but the goal of fewer leaks is a good one. The Chancellor said what she did as a diplomat, in a transparent attempt to keep the recalcitrant US at the table, albeit partaking of nothing.

Merkel’s leadership of the free world was not hard to predict. In fact, this blog predicted it over seven months ago. For Donald Trump has not so much lost America’s leadership position as abdicated it.

Forget about his policies, which aim to wind back the clock of globalization, belittle the importance of NATO (until the G-20 summit) in an era of rising Russian imperialism, and disrupt the global trading order. Forget about global warming, which may soon surpass nuclear proliferation as the most serious trouble our species has ever made for itself. (Most other species wait for the climate to change naturally and try to adapt through slow genetic mutation. Only we humans generate our own adverse climate change, to which we will have to adapt consciously and infinitely more quickly.)

Just look at Trump’s campaign slogans, which still he mouths, and which sometimes appear on his red baseball caps. “America First!” and “Make America Great Again!” they say.

Where in them is any concern for the rest of the world? Don’t you have to have some empathy and understanding of others in order to lead them? Wasn’t that how Nelson Mandela negotiated his people’s freedom and democracy for South Africa from inside a prison cell? Don’t you have to at least keep others’ interests in mind?

But let’s not get too carried away bewailing Trump’s and our own electorate’s shortcomings. Like it or not, Angela Merkel is now the free world’s leader. What does that mean for humanity?

Merkel’s qualifications

Three points, I think, are worth making. First, Chancellor Merkel is and will be a worthy leader, if only the rest of us can manage to follow her. Her moral acuity equals or exceeds that of any major-power leader today.

I’ve described her moral acuity in detail in the essay predicting her accession to global leadership. So I’ll only provide a link here—the more so because the essay’s title is not descriptive and so it might get lost.

China’s role

The second point is equally important. Germany is not alone. An even bigger power—China—is also bidding for world leadership. In what may be more than a mere historical curiosity, its ruling group—China’s Communist Party—has just about as many members (around 80 million) as Germany has people. The two nations’ popular bases for leadership (Germany being a democracy) are similar in size, although of course China’s economic and military clout far exceeds Germany’s.

Like China’s Mandarins of old, to which the Communists are clear successors, China’s modern leadership is pragmatic. Unlike Russia, which flirted with the abstract ideology of Communism for over seven decades, China abandoned it in three.

Once Deng Xiaoping said “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” Communism began to drain away from China in all but name. Today’s China is an authoritarian capitalist state built around a Mandarin-like Party hierarchy, whose supreme ruling body (of seven, once nine) has seen more members trained as scientists, engineers or industrialists than any Western cabinet in generations.

Germany, too, is pragmatic at its roots. Begun in Germany’s Wittenberg 500 years ago next Halloween, the Protestant Reformation sowed the seeds of democracy and science [search for “Luther”]. It did so by encouraging every individual to discover his or her own relationship with God and the Universe. So the Reformation supported individualized thought and conscience, and ultimately science and democracy.

Modern Germany’s sole flirtation with ideological theory was a disastrous affair with racial superiority and “Might makes Right,” both of which it has thoroughly repudiated and abandoned. In everything from its successful Energiewende, through its laws criminalizing hate speech and denying the Holocaust, to its rejecting nuclear weapons and foreign military operations, Angela Merkel’s Germany is a pragmatic nation imbued with a deep understanding of the consequences of its earlier moral errors. More than 70 years after their development, Germany is considering nuclear weapons only today, when the US promises of nuclear deterrence that have held the Russian Bear in check seem weak and uncertain.

If humanity can phase out tribalism, it can probably live with either Germany’s or China’s leadership, despite China’s historical self-image as the center of the Universe. Germany wants to reach 100% of renewable energy so it won’t have to pay rising prices for exhausting resources, so it won’t pollute others’ lands, and so it won’t join the orgy of human profligacy now making our planet less habitable. China wants to bring back the trade and vitality of the Old Silk Road and play a bigger role in the South China Sea. None of these goals is anything the rest of the world cannot abide, at least if China’s sea dreams are realized peacefully, with China’s traditional pragmatic moderation and restraint.

Women, the Enlightenment and moral pragmatism

The third point is perhaps the most poignant for Westerners. Angela Merkel is a woman. Her morally pragmatic style of leadership hearkens back to England’s Queen Elizabeth I and, insofar as we know, to Queen Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt. The reigns of these two women greatly advanced our human species at critical phases in its social evolution.

For those reasons among many, it would be nice if Angela Merkel could extend her exemplary global leadership for at least one more term as Chancellor. Then her leadership could continue the Western Enlightenment that has brought us humans so much prosperity and democracy over the last several centuries.

But our species will survive if she can’t. To be sure, the Chinese brand of pragmatism is mildly distasteful to many in the West. Moving thousands of people out of their ancestral homes to build a dam or a factory, and forcing them to take whatever compensation the Party or its pliable judges decree, doesn’t sound much like “rule of law” or “due process” to Westerners. Nor does it sound like “justice”—a mostly Western concept quite distinct from law.

But it gets the job done. And it does so at a time when many Westerners would prefer similarly abbreviated and predictable procedures for the Keystone Oil Pipeline, despite its many economic and environmental disadvantages. As our globe gets more crowded, procedures that place the needs of the many above the needs of the few will become inevitable. Individual rights cannot avoid struggling in a crowded and polluted world.

Moreover, we humans have survived several centuries of increasingly violent and murderous wars based often on theory, ideology, and religion—which in the end amount to the same thing: naked abstractions that often leave pragmatism behind and millions miserable. For centuries, we Westerners (or our ancestors) waged wholesale slaughters of believers in a different God, including Catholics by Protestants and vice versa. The Middle East is now suffering its own such Age of Agony, as its millennial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites breaks into open warfare, with Jews in Israel as frightened onlookers.

So it would be comforting if the Age of Western Enlightenment continued. The Enlightenment does allow Westerners and their descendants, including us Yanks, to claim authorship of the very best theory, if only pols would heed all nuances and put it properly in effect.

But maybe it’s time for our species to give up theory for a while and just try a bit of simple pragmatism. Maybe it’s time to forget about ideology, as the Chinese have done since Deng, and to just do what works, without killing too many people or causing too much needless suffering. Maybe such simple practicality, with an eye on basic morality, is all that we can humans can manage, as our planet fills up with too many people fighting pollution and a changing climate.

Our species’ rare female leaders have included some of our best. They seem to have an instinctual tendency to do what works, and to drive people together, not apart. On a family level, women inevitably pick up the pieces when men’s grand abstract theories and grandiose exploits explode.

So females may be just the ones to inaugurate the new Age of Pragmatism that our species may be entering. And if they do—if they make human advancement more rapid with less misery—who’s to complain if they speak German and Chinese?

Conclusion: the end of the American Century

The “American Century” may indeed have had its run. Trump’s vacillation, general incompetence and abysmal character may mark its end.

Few outside America will cry if the baton passes to Angela Merkel’s Germany. And with its “strategic patience” on Taiwan and the South China Sea, plus its historical preference for trade over conflict or conquest, China’s global leadership would be far preferable to Vladimir Putin’s Trump-like focus on Russia first, not to mention his zeal to return humanity to the Age of Metternich. Can you imagine even a regional imperial war with nuclear weapons?

Endnote: Contrary to the trade and social paranoia about China now rampant in the West, modern China has been far less violent than our own country. Since its foundation in 1949, it has fought directly in only two wars—in Korea and Vietnam, right on its own borders. The United States has fought in five major wars all over the world (Korea, Vietnam, Gulf I, Iraq and Afghanistan). And that’s not even mentioning minor wars in Grenada and Panama, or our CIA’s intervention in coups and revolutions that spawned and supported brutal dictatorships in Iran, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Nicaragua.

Although it may hurt our national pride to admit it, the US has been the world’s most violent country since the Fall of the Third Reich. China doesn’t even come close. So at very least the global leadership of Germany, which has learned its moral lessons well, or of China, which historically has preferred trade and diplomacy to war, portends a less violent world. (For some speculation on the general level of violence in international affairs had China, and not Europe, opened the West to exploration, click here).



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