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Olaf Scholz - know-it-all or genius?
A year ago tomorrow Olaf Scholz was sworn in as Germany Chancellor. Calling the first twelve months of his premiership a baptism of fire would be something of an understatement.
From the Omicron wave, to the Russian invasion, to the resultant energy crisis and record inflation - just about everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. And then some.
So, 12 months in. How has he done?
Is he destined to go down in the history books with Kurt Georg Kiesinger as one of the few Chancellors no one has ever heard of? Is he an accident of history who only made it into the job due the weakness of the opposition? A one-term sitting duck for the get go?
Or is he actually a great thinker and a master tactician who has so far steered the country through an unprecedented storm of crises while at the helm of one of the most fragile coalitions in modern memory?
Let’s face it. Most people are in the first camp. If you put any stock in polling, a year into this legislature Germans wouldn’t give the ‘traffic light’ coalition a majority and they aren’t that impressed by their new Merkel.
But at least one person has both feet solidly in the second camp. And that is Scholz himself. Which brings me onto the first thing we’ve learned about Scholz as Chancellor.
Mr Arrogant… or Mr Brilliant?
Back in June, during a press conference at the G7 summit in Elmau, a Polish journalist asked Scholz: “Could you explain which security guarantees you are prepared to offer Ukraine after the war?”
To which he replied: “Yes, I could.” And then after an awkward pause in which he smirked a little he added: “that’s all.”
It’s not exactly Trumpian levels of disdain for the media, but this incident has been penned into the short book of Scholz folklore as emblematic of his trait of treating other people as inferior to him.
Numerous profiles written on Scholz in recent days have highlighted how his perceived arrogance rubs people up the wrong way.
In an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, leaders of the federal states who didn’t want to be named, fumed that Scholz “sends out orders from on high” and “thinks that he knows everything.”
“Many who have dealt with him describe him as arrogant, even resistant to advice. In the end, he relies primarily on himself,” Der Spiegel reported in a similar vein.
In the same Spiegel article, people who have worked with Scholz noted a hilariously grandiose habit of referring to his own written works when talking to them.
“Scholz often quotes himself, saying things like: ‘By the way, I already developed this idea in my book,’ or ‘I would like to refer to a suggestion that you can also find in my book,’ or ‘If you had read my book, you would know that...’”
Apparently, no one has ever read (or indeed ever heard of) his book.
But what if Scholz’ arrogance is rooted in the fact that he genuinely is better read than most people around him?
The Chancellor isn’t just an Aktenfresser (briefings junky) as he has often been made out to be. Wherever he goes he has his head buried in a book, mostly non-fiction. According to his acolytes this helps him to understand the turn world events will take long before they have actually happened.
While this didn’t help Scholz predict the invasion of Ukraine, it is indisputable that he has long-term vision. And, unlike his predecessor in the Chancellery, he is not afraid to tell people what that is. In a long article published in Foreign Affairs this week, he explained to an English-speaking audience what he means by the term Zeitenwende:
“Russia’s war of aggression might have triggered the Zeitenwende, but the tectonic shifts run much deeper. History did not end, as some predicted, with the Cold War. Nor, however, is history repeating itself. Many assume we are on the brink of an era of bipolarity in the international order. They see the dawn of a new cold war approaching, one that will pit the United States against China.
I do not subscribe to this view. Instead, I believe that what we are witnessing is the end of an exceptional phase of globalization, a historic shift accelerated by, but not entirely the result of, external shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
Scholz has thought about what the world is going to look like in ten, twenty and fifty years time. What he sees in the future can be summed up by one word ‘multi-polarity’. That requires the West to be more “humble and practible,” he says.
In this light, Scholz the visionary is of course going to be irritated by critics who say he shouldn’t visit China just weeks after Xi Jinping has appointed himself party leader for an unprecedented third time. Scholz hates short-termism - and cancelling a trip to make a symbolic point would have been the epitome of short-termism.
Mr Hesitant or Mr Patient?
Which brings us to the biggest mystery of Scholz’ Chancellorship so far.
Why has he been so hesitant about sending heavy weapons to Ukraine? Why, before the war, did he refuse to explicitly put Nord Stream 2 on the table? And, for that matter, why has it taken so long to replenish the munitions stocks of the Bundeswehr even though he promised €100 billion in extra spending back in February?
To his critics, the snail-paced arms deliveries to Kyiv lay bear a fundamental weakness in the Chancellor’s character. He is too cautious they say, or too easily intimidated by threats from the Kremlin. And this caution is costing lives. There is a suspicion that Scholz is still too wedded to the way things happened in his Social Democratic party over decades, where politicians believed that Russia should be placated at all costs.
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On the domestic front, this same hesitancy appears to have cost time and money.
It took months for Scholz to step in to resolve a dispute between his coalition partners over extending the use of nuclear power stations. An earlier decision could have steadied nerves on the energy markets.
Meanwhile, the gas price cap was only agreed last month after an expert commission was hastily thrown together. If Scholz had acted earlier, the financial support could have been more targeted and the government could have avoided blowing a €200 billion hole in its spending plans, critics say.
Not so, says Scholz.
He says he is proud of the military help Germany has provided to Ukraine. He points to the swap deals Germany has done with other NATO members that mean they get modern German weaponry and deliver old Soviet gear to Ukraine in return.
“What Ukraine needs most today are artillery and air-defense systems, and that is precisely what Germany is delivering, in close coordination with our allies and partners,” he claimed in his Foreign Affairs article.
(The fact that Kyiv says it needs modern German tanks most of all is by the by. Scholz always knows best.)
As for domestic politics, Scholz made a promise to his partners at the beginning of their coalition that he would not rule by fiat. This ultimately means that decisions take longer. After all, his unique coalition includes big state Greens and small state liberals.
The gas price cap, Scholz insists, would have been politically unfeasible back in the spring when the Free Democrats were digging their heels in over big state spending projects. With nuclear, he had to take Green sensitivities into consideration.
They got there in the end though.
Russia has turned of the gas, China’s zero-Covid strategies have caused chaos on global supply chains and stoked inflation. Scholz inherited an entrenched policy of not supplying arms to war zones.
And yet - the German public is going into the winter with warm homes (thanks to full gas reserves) and billions of euros of aid to pay their energy bills. A threatened wave of strikes has been resolved and German anti-aircraft tanks have played a key role in the Ukrainian counter offensive.
Things could have been a lot worse.
Or, as Scholz puts it with typical humility: “It’s all very impressive, what we’ve achieved.”
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