Who’s the Most Powerful Woman in the World?

Who’s the Most Powerful Woman in the World?

She’s not a billionaire, social media celebrity, or bestselling author. In an era of über-bling, she’s distinctly unter-bling. By her own admission, she was a bit of a klutz as a young woman.  But Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor for the last 8 years, has quietly become the most powerful woman in the world.

I spent a day with Frau Merkel in spring 2005, sitting at a picnic table under a tree in a quiet, rural setting an hour and a half outside Berlin. At the time, Merkel was chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and campaigning against Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. She had phoned me weeks earlier — I was then the head of the Aspen Institute Berlin — to invite me to join several other foreign-policy experts for a discussion about Germany, Europe, and the world.

I got first-hand exposure not just to Merkel the politician, but also to Merkel the scientist — a chance to see how her mind works. I think her background tells us a good deal about her approach to problem solving. And perhaps, ultimately, how I hope she will tackle the euro crisis.

Merkel is a physicist by training, and the first thing you observe about her is that she’s not a pontificator. She’s a careful and patient collector of data. She loves due diligence and wants a complete picture before she reaches conclusions. It’s a rare thing in politics and public policy, where we all have our biases and pre-conceived notions. One thing’s for certain: Not too many politicians author doctoral dissertations with titles like, «Examination of the Mechanism of Decomposition Reactions with Simple Bond Breaking and the Calculation of their Rate Constants on the Basis of Quantum-Chemical and Statistical Methods.» Merkel’s husband, by the way, is a quantum chemist and professor who, like the chancellor herself, grew up in East Germany.

It became clear that day at our little lakeside seminar that Merkel was there to gather information. She’s empirical and deliberative. It was as if she wanted to place each piece of analysis and every single policy recommendation under a microscope.

I witnessed this same methodology on other occasions. I once brokered a conversation between Merkel and Benjamin Netanyahu in Berlin, at a time when Bibi was between stints as Israel’s prime minister. What did Merkel think about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, about the security wall, Gaza, Egypt, or Iran? You would hardly have known during the course of the 90 minute conversation. She just peppered her guest with questions, assembling her dataset.

I think Merkel’s scientific approach is an immense advantage. Now comes the rub.

The eurozone is falling apart. The economics are finally catching up to the politics. It is fast becoming a matter of simple arithmetic. Have a look at the CEP Default Index, an interesting tool for tracking creditworthiness produced by the Centre for European Policy in Freiburg. The gap between fiscally disciplined and solvent countries on the one hand, and those mired in debt on the other, is growing ever wider. Unless things change dramatically, you won’t be able to keep all of Europe in the same common currency.


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