Can Germany's New Chancellor Revive the Left in Europe? 德國新總理能振興歐洲左派嗎？
Last December, as he was plotting what most considered to be a hopeless bid to become Germany's next chancellor, Olaf Scholz interrupted his campaign preparations for a video call with an American philosopher.
Scholz, a Social Democrat, wanted to talk to the philosopher, Michael J. Sandel of Harvard, about why center-left parties like his had been losing working-class voters to populists, and the two men spent an hour discussing a seemingly simple theme that would become the centerpiece of the Scholz campaign: "Respect."
Scholz is Germany's ninth postwar chancellor — and the first Social Democrat in 16 years — succeeding Angela Merkel and heading a three-party coalition government. Defying polls and pundits, he led his 158-year-old party from the precipice of irrelevance to an unlikely victory — and now wants to show that the center-left can again become a political force in Europe.
For the center-left in Europe, Scholz's victory comes at a critical moment. Over the past decade, many of the parties that once dominated European politics have become almost obsolete, seemingly bereft of ideas and largely abandoned by their working-class base.
The political energy has been on the right, especially the populist far right, with many American conservatives flocking to countries like Hungary to study the "illiberal democracy" of Viktor Orban, that nation's far-right prime minister.
"The biggest concern in politics for me is that our liberal democracies are coming increasingly under pressure," Mr. Scholz says about himself on the Social Democrats' website. "We have to solve the problems so that the cheap slogans of the populists don't catch."
Last year, in the middle of the first Covid-19 lockdown, Mr. Scholz read Professor Sandel's latest book, "The Tyranny of Merit" in which the Harvard philosopher argued that the meritocratic narrative of education as an engine of social mobility had fueled resentment and contributed to the rise of populists like Mr. Trump.
"The backlash of 2016 vividly expressed that simply telling people, 'You can make it if you try,' was not an adequate response to the wage stagnation and job loss brought about by globalization," Professor Sandel said in an interview. "What Social Democratic elites missed was the insult implicit in this response to inequality, because what it said was, 'If you're struggling in the new economy, your failure is your fault.'"
If you were a foreign leader hostile to the United States — sitting in, say, Moscow or Beijing — how would you view the United States today?
You would know that it has conducted two largely failed wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, over the past 20 years and that many Americans have no interest in fighting another faraway conflict with a fuzzy connection to national security.
You would know that the United States itself can't seem to decide how strongly it feels about democracy, with a former president and his allies around the country mimicking the playbook of autocrats willing to subvert election results.
And you would know that the United States was so politically polarized that many voters and members of Congress might not rally around a president even during a foreign crisis. Americans, after all, have reacted to the pandemic with division and anger, including widespread refusal to take lifesaving vaccines and continuing chaos in schools.
Given all of this, you might not be feeling especially intimidated by the United States, even though it continues to have the world's largest economy, most important currency and strongest military.
This background helps explain the current tensions in both Ukraine and Taiwan. In each, an authoritarian power is making noises about invading a small nearby democracy, and the United States has sternly warned against any such action. The two authoritarian powers — Russia and China — may ultimately choose to stand down, at least temporarily. But their increasing aggression is a sign of their willingness to defy what their leaders see as a weakened U.S.
Russia's amassing of troops along Ukraine's border is a signal that Putin will consider invasion unless Ukraine backs away from the West.
Foreign aggression often gives political leaders a chance to rally nationalistic support at home, especially as a distraction from domestic problems. And Russia has domestic problems, like surging COVID cases, stagnant wages and rising prices. Last year, opposition groups held some of the largest anti-Putin marches in years.
Biden threatened sanctions on Russia. But sanctions might not be enough to deter Putin. Autocracies have endured sanctions in recent years partly with economic aid from other autocracies, including China. It's one of the realities of a world where autocracy is on the rise.