Angela Merkel’s true superpower: Pragmatism.

By Mark Sappenfield

In more than 20 years traveling as a Monitor correspondent, I have come to one conclusion: Every place on Earth has a lesson to share. 

Whether it’s the Amazon basin or the back alleys of Delhi, everywhere has taught me something. In the kaleidoscope of humanity are answers to so many of our questions, if only we have the humility and curiosity to look.

Reading this week’s Monitor, I’m reminded of one of the more emphatic lessons I have learned during this time: Problem-solving is often only as hard as you choose to make it. Germany taught me that lesson. And as evidence, I appeal to Lenora Chu’s cover story about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is stepping down after 15 years in power. 

What was Chancellor Merkel’s secret to such a long and successful political career? She was a problem solver amid crisis after crisis. Now, one could simply argue that was her superpower and leave it at that. But that would miss the lesson Germany is offering the world. Chancellor Merkel was not some extraordinary figure deserving her own line of Marvel films. Her brilliance has far humbler roots grounded in a distinctly German pragmatism.

In speaking about how Chancellor Merkel did what she did, Lenora lays out the unremarkable truth: She was always in the middle. This doesn’t mean she was always a moderate. Her decisions to end nuclear power and accept 1 million refugees were radical by some standards, not to mention against her party’s orthodoxy. But in her decisions, she was eminently pragmatic. She “always had an impeccable sense for where voters are to be found across a broad spectrum,” one source says. Another says she perfected “German superpragmatism.” 

Perhaps the greatest casualty of hyperpolarized thought is problem-solving. Solutions are not products of calcified thought. Nor do they know anything about party lines or personal opinions. But they do require pragmatism, and they usually emerge somewhere near the center – at the nexus of intellectual push and pull that yields a collective way forward. A society that yields to polarization is a society that has prioritized personal opinion over problem-solving.

Chancellor Merkel, by all accounts, simply wanted to find practical answers, which meant “she’s the last one standing, when all the other heads of state were ready to go back to their hotel rooms,” one political scientist says. Where did she spend her effort? On trying to get things done.

Some of that is just who she was, Lenora writes. Some of it was her background as a scientist. But a lot of it is simply because she is German. Her repeated reelections show a country that rewarded and valued pragmatism over politics. The result was a nation steady at the helm of Europe, comparatively spared from the political turmoil in other parts of the West. And in that is a lesson. When we are ready to put problem-solving above politics, Chancellor Merkel has given the world a useful model close at hand. 

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