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The slate of candidates vying to succeed Angela Merkel is now clear — and so is the unenviable pile of global problems the eventual winner will inherit.

Merkel’s impending departure after some 16 years as German chancellor brings into play not simply the direction of Europe’s biggest economy, but the balance of power on the continent. With the world increasingly defined by a great power rivalry reminiscent of the 19th century, the winner of September’s federal election will face international demands from the get-go.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is already seeking a clear line from Berlin on issues from China and Russia to the tussle for control of key technologies. Germany is faced with questions of how closely to cleave to Washington as the European Union tries to carve out a bigger global role for the 27-nation bloc.

The COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of pressure as the race to secure vaccines, coupled with the ongoing fallout from the U.K.’s departure from the EU, signals a return to countries acting for themselves, the sort of nation-state era that Germany has long repudiated.

Those external burdens land at the door of Berlin in the run-up to the most unpredictable vote arguably since a Cold War spying scandal forced Social Democrat Willy Brandt’s resignation as West German Chancellor in 1974. His replacement, Helmut Schmidt, took on Helmut Kohl two years later in his first electoral test since the affair, and won.

The question now is whether the next chancellor is prepared to build a level of global responsibility that befits Europe’s dominant power. Providing an answer will fall to one of an array of candidates relatively untested in the international sphere.

Armin Laschet, the regional premier of Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, is the pick for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc, and — at least until a sensational snap poll released late on Tuesday — the favorite to succeed her as chancellor.

While he would normally be expected to maintain Merkel’s centrist course, a bruising and very public battle for the conservative ticket leaves him at the head of a campaign troubled from the outset, potentially staying his hand even if he wins the top office.

Armin Laschet at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday | BLOOMBERG
Armin Laschet at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday | BLOOMBERG

The risk is the next leadership in Germany itself turns further inward to deal with political divisions at home, leaving Europe without one of its biggest anchors for problems that affect the continent.

While Merkel’s bloc has already plunged in the polls this year amid the wrestling to replace her, the full effect of the chancellor’s departure is yet to come, according to Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The conservative alliance could have further to fall, especially with the spectacle of what was “a pretty unsavory knife fight” between Laschet and his rival for the candidacy, Markus Soeder, he said. That means the German election remains “incredibly open.”

Kirkegaard spoke before a Forsa poll conducted on Tuesday suggested a 4% percentage point lead for Merkel’s bloc over the Greens had turned into a seven point deficit within just one week. Even with the caveats of polling volatility, that raises expectations on Greens candidate Annalena Baerbock, who has not served in government at federal or state level.

Olaf Scholz, finance minister in Merkel’s coalition and the Social Democratic candidate, has the most government experience but his party is a distant third.

With the general polling trend suggesting the Greens are poised for a role in government, either as “a very senior partner” to the conservative bloc or occupying the chancellery, that will mean a harder line on Russia and on China, “which would herald that the mercantilist approach to foreign policy that Merkel in many ways, certainly vis a vis China, espouses is really coming to an end,” said Kirkegaard.

Times of crisis also see Europe looking to Germany for strong leadership, and the fiscal and economic challenges from the pandemic will require a strong hand. Merkel’s concession to allow limited European debt sales opened the way to the EU’s recovery fund, a step that remains contentious among her bloc if not for the Greens. She helped steer Europe through the euro area debt crisis, along with then-European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, who is now Italian prime minister.

Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has sent geopolitical tensions spiking with a buildup of Russian troops on the Ukraine border, while opposition leader Alexei Navalny is in poor health in a prison hospital outside Moscow.

Western leaders have warned of a fresh downturn in ties with Moscow if Navalny were to die, and further reprisals. Equally, Merkel has repeatedly argued for keeping the lines of communication open with Moscow, and has been someone Putin will at least talk to. Her successor will need to take a lead role in navigating ties with Russia at potentially one of the trickiest times since the Cold War.

Questions around the country’s role are as old as the German Empire, forged in 1871 out of its constituent states from “blood and iron,” in the words of Otto von Bismarck, its architect and first chancellor.

The empire, also known as the Second Reich, brought together territories from west of the River Rhine to the present-day Russian oblast of Kaliningrad under Kaiser Wilhelm I, with Prussia the dominant force. But the unity that allowed its formation was won through Bismarck’s deployment of targeted military aggression against Denmark, followed by Austria and France.

The Otto von Bismarck Memorial in the Tiergarten, Berlin | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG
The Otto von Bismarck Memorial in the Tiergarten, Berlin | GETTY IMAGES / VIA BLOOMBERG

Commemorations of the 150th anniversary of its founding are muted. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who held a symposium with historians in January to mark the event, noted some contemporary parallels, however. The empire’s development as “a global military and economic power” reminds us of China’s rise today, he said. Germany’s rapid modernization also spurred feelings of anxiety, nationalism and populism that are showing up again, this time fueled by concerns over globalization.

The German empire’s creation “completely tilted the power balance and created this heavyweight right in the middle of Europe” and that question of its geopolitical positioning “remains essentially unresolved,” said Katja Hoyer, historian and author of “Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire 1871-1918.”

Germany adopted a reticence in foreign affairs in the second half of the 20th century as a counterpoint to its belligerence of the first half. That hesitancy became all the more acute when reunification in 1990 recreated a European power still reluctant to assume a more active international presence on matters other than trade.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder inched Germany forward, and Merkel has raised the country’s horizons further, but topics such as defense spending remain highly controversial with the public. Her successor will face pressure to coax Germany into becoming more actively involved.

Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., sees China and the race between “tech democracies and tech autocracies” as the defining issue of our times. Germany is already on board, helping Europe shift its position so that it and President Joe Biden’s administration now “agree on the fundamentals,” she said during a German Marshall Fund event on transatlantic relations.

It’s long overdue for Hoyer, the historian.

“Germany has this eternal problem, I think since 1871, of what it wants to be and where its place is in the world and in Europe,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what the next chancellor does going forward.”

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