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Berlin: who will stand up for liberalism and tolerance now?

Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Poor Angela Merkel. Given Germany’s history and her own cautious nature, it’s not been easy being the defacto leader of the European Union at the best of times. But these are far from the best of times, either for Germany or the wider world.

What looks to be another terrorist attack in Berlin will make an already difficult job all but impossible. There are powerful reasons that will encourage Merkel to take a tough line on domestic security, especially if the perpetrator of the latest outrage turns out to have been an asylum seeker and in Germany because of her normatively laudable, but practically challenging, initial response to the immigration crisis.

The European Union has been shaken to its principled core by the events of the last few years. Bad enough that its hitherto highly esteemed technocrats seemed incapable of solving the region’s manifold and intractable economic crises. Significantly, the “heartless Germans” were seen as actually contributing to the problems by insisting on fiscal probity.

Even worse in many European eyes, however, was Merkel’s response to the plight of Syria’s – and everyone else’s – refugees. The scale and unprecedented nature of the immigration crisis meant mistakes were bound to be made, and good intentions subjected to an impossibly demanding stress test. It was already evident that not even the richest, most competent and best-intentioned countries could possibly pass it.

As the drawbridges have gone up in even the most enlightened bastions of liberal Western values, initial generosity has wilted in the face of a seemingly endless stream of deserving – and undeserving – would-be migrants. In such circumstances, it doesn’t take much for an unsympathetic press or social media to draw attention to even relatively minor problems of integration.

No matter how isolated and unrepresentative the perpetrator of the latest outrage proves to be, it is almost certain to have major short- and long-term consequences. The most immediate impact will be to make Europe generally less charitable and receptive as far as refugee policy is concerned.

The longer-term damage is likely to be even more significant, and affect the international system as a whole. The landscape of international political leadership has already changed profoundly with the imminent end of Barack Obama’s time in office and the growing prominence of authoritarians in Russia, China, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

We must now add to this list the heartland of “Western civilisation”. Even to invoke this phrase is to invite derision, but if it serves as a useful shorthand for political pluralism, tolerance and the rejection of totalitarianism, it is hard to see what is quite so objectionable. We may get to see what the alternatives look like, and not just in the parts of the world that have often been viewed with a degree of condescension.

With the election of Donald Trump, the Western world has potentially lost its most important champion of progressive political reform.

I am only too aware that the US has an inflated sense of its own historical importance and has made epic foreign policy blunders as a consequence. Nevertheless, in the absence of at least rhetorical support for liberalism, tolerance and generosity, it is not obvious where backing for such ideas will come from.

So what, some will undoubtedly say. Better a frank admission of America’s historical hypocrisy, support for authoritarian despots, and all the rest of it. Perhaps so. Yet we are about to get a four-year (at least) demonstration of what a more “transactional”, self-interested, nationally focused foreign policy paradigm looks like. Be careful what you wish for.

In such circumstances, Merkel was one of the few beacons of hope. Trump is one of these people about whom that cliché about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing rings true. To Merkel’s great credit, she at least seemed capable of recognising a larger set of concerns and values that transcended her own fleeting moment on the world stage.

We must hope that she doesn’t choose to join the current fashion for an early exit. True, some of the departing players may not have been such a loss, but the reality is someone has to try to run the place. Germany provides a stark reminder of what happens when the well-intentioned give up or are overtaken by events beyond their control.

As the British conservative Edmund Burke famously observed:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

At least we’ve made some collective progress; women in some countries, at least, have a say in this process, too. We must hope they make a better job of it than some of their male counterparts have done.

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