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After 16 Years, Germans Will Have To Get Used To A New Leader

NOEL KING, HOST:

Germans don't know who their next leader will be after last weekend's election ended in a near tie. What is certain, though, is that Angela Merkel will, after 16 years, no longer be leading the country. Our co-host Steve talked to Peter Wittig, Germany's former ambassador to the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: How does the Germany that Angela Merkel took charge of some 16 years ago compare to the Germany that she's leaving?

PETER WITTIG: Well, she was a towering figure in a way, and she enjoyed immensely great trust and respect by most of the Germans. In her unpretentious, modest and pragmatic way, she was the perfect bridge builder and moderator. But she also presided, in the last years, over a lot of stagnation. And this is, I think, what people now expect from the new government, a government led from the center, to instill in that country a sense of innovation and investment in education and digitization of the public sector. And this is, I think, what was, at the end of the era of Angela Merkel, was missing.

INSKEEP: How do Germans think differently about the United States, if at all, than they did, say, when Merkel took power in the mid-2000s?

WITTIG: I think most people would agree that it's important to have strong ties to the United States, in particular with this administration. You know, there is a kind of trauma that I think many Germans don't want to go through again during the Trump years. But in general, the U.S. is seen as the guarantor of Germany's security and also an indispensable leader in the world.

INSKEEP: It's interesting that you say that because we just had on the program Richard Haass, of the Council on Foreign Relations here in the United States, who argues that three straight American presidents - Obama, Trump and Biden - as different as they are in style, have all pushed America in the same direction - somewhat off the world stage, wanting to have a smaller footprint and do less. Does it seem that way in Berlin, where you are?

WITTIG: We noted, of course, that the Biden administration is getting out of its way to terminate military engagement on the world stage. And, of course, Afghanistan was a case in point. And also, Germans note, that the focus is the Pacific - is China in particular. And I think many people see with a certain amount of skepticism whether Europe will still matter for this administration. That is probably one of the worries when we look at the U.S., that the U.S. might be turning completely to China and will treat other partners with less attention.

INSKEEP: The U.S. is said to want allies in confronting China. Germany would be a strong one. Do Germany and the United States view China the same way?

WITTIG: I'm not so sure whether they do. I think most Germans would say China is, of course, the emerging world power or one of the two emerging world powers. And we rather would not engage in a totally antagonistic relationship with China, but differentiate between sort of issues. And in some areas, China's a partner. In some areas - economically and technology - China is a competitor. And in some, you know, hard security issues - think of Taiwan or the South China Sea - China is a rival or even, you know, a foe. But most Germans would not prefer to be dragged into a kind of Cold War 2.0, but rather have a mixture between cooperative elements and antagonistic elements in that relationship to China.

INSKEEP: One final thing along those lines - Germany, of course, is seen as the leader of the European Union, which suffered a blow with the departure of the United Kingdom in the last couple of years. Is the EU itself in a position to lead the world or stake out its own position?

WITTIG: Brexit was a blow to the European Union; that's for sure. Now it's crucial that Germany and France take over a leading role. But this is a weaker European Union. But there are new challenges, and one of them is to beef up our security, even all the more so since the U.S. might be looking more to the Pacific. And I think that is also a challenge for the next German government - invest more in European security.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Peter Wittig's many diplomatic posts included a period as ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, it was a pleasure to talk with you again. Thanks so much.

WITTIG: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.