Merkel vs. Erdogan: A Clinic in Modern Clan Conflict

Global Affairs, 11.05.2016
Luc de Keyser
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a press conference in Berlin. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hold a press conference in Berlin. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Humans of the modern era are not as far from the cave as they might like to think. The way they engage in conflict today often stems from their ancestral tribal roots. And though this may seem an archaic notion, it is in fact a useful framework for analyzing current international events, for it sheds some of the cultural layers that so often complicate the issue at hand.

Germany and Turkey provide a case in point. The two countries have been at diplomatic odds with each other, ostensibly over a defamation complaint lodged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against a German satirist. The consensus among commentators in the West is that German Chancellor Angela Merkel caved, sacrificing the freedom of the press in her own country to save the contractual agreement Turkey has with the European Union to stem immigration flows from war-torn Islamic countries. The reading is that the political backlash against her big-hearted stand last year to welcome war refugees put her today with her back against the wall. Der Spiegel was merciless: "Chancellor Angela Merkel's handling of the crisis has been abysmal and shows that she is losing her grip on power."

I would argue that Merkel and Erdogan behaved consistently with the archetypes they most embody, archetypes I introduced in a previous column: the Clan Mother and the Warrior Chief. Indeed, Merkel could not have chosen to react much differently. And her reactions, ultimately, will prove successful so long as the majority of German voters believe their economic prosperity is largely intact.


A Stately Hallmark

For years, Europe has followed Erdogan's unabated quest for power with increasing concern. Central to his pursuit of power is a strategy to act against those who besmirch him, a strategy that explains why so many anti-Erdogan defamation cases have been prosecuted in Turkey lately. It is in this context that satirist and TV personality Jan Bohmermann wanted to goad Erdogan into invoking an all-but-forgotten, century-old German law that prohibits citizens from insulting the representatives of foreign countries. Specifically, Bohmermann read a poem, riddled with profanities, that denigrated the president on a public broadcaster. Erdogan took the bait and summoned the German ambassador in protest. To ease the tension, Merkel called outgoing Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's political architect, to express her regret for the incident. She denounced the poem, moreover, as being made at least in poor taste. Erdogan filed criminal complaints in Germany anyway: one, from state to state, for which the German government holds the key to allow the prosecution, and one, in his personal name, that will proceed regardless of what Berlin decides.

Merkel, as is her stately hallmark, took her time to confer with colleagues, coalition partners and advisers to reach a compromise, whereby the German government would allow the criminal proceedings against Bohmermann to go forward but would abolish the law on which the case was based. (Most other European nations have already eliminated such laws from their jurisdiction.) She also criticized the unenviable state of free speech and freedom of the press in Turkey while pledging to uphold those same freedoms in Germany at all times. Merkel closed with remarking that the independence of the judicial system applied as much in Turkey as it does in Germany and "other countries in the democratic world."

Merkel's behavior in handling the affair fully comports with the Clan Mother archetype. Calling Davutoglu fits with her instincts to quietly appease rather than to take a grand stand in full view of the public. Telling him that she thought the poem was "consciously injurious" may have been less a diplomatic gesture and more a scolding of bad behavior — a rebuke offered in the hope that the offended party would understand the plight of a mother in such an awkward situation and pardon the offense accordingly. Deliberately compromising fits the image of a matriarch taking into account the concerns of the individual members of the family and aligning them with the prosperity of the family as a whole for the longer term. (Her own anger and frustrations rarely shine through in her decisions.) It also explains how grounded she remains in her decisions once she has made them, no matter how intensely some object or how intricate the ramifications may be.

She put on a political clinic. In making the compromise, the chancellor made sure she upheld the democratic values that were under attack — free speech, the freedom of the press and the separation of executive and judicial branches of government — just as any Clan Mother would defend the rights of her people and honor her clan's rules. She also clearly, if subtly, expressed her concern that Erdogan, as Warrior Chief, may not be upholding the laws of his people as she is upholding hers. Last, Merkel gives Erdogan, rash provocateur that he is, a lesson in the rules of good governance by entrusting the German judicial system to independently rule on an issue with which she is clearly uncomfortable. To top it off, she masterfully put the issue to bed when she promised to undo the law in question.


Retreat to Patterns of Behavior

The type of leader found at the top of a society has less to do with the personality of available candidates, or the political happenstance of the moment, than with the state of mind of those with the power choose one. In a democracy, those with that power are the voters. The stellar economic performance of Germany in comparison with the rest of the world — and in particular with Turkey — gives rise to leaders like Merkel. German wealth generation, ironically, is in part based on and was the incentive for the migration of some 1.5 million Turks, the largest non-citizen group living in Germany. But, remarkably, since they are still treated as though they are second-class citizens in Germany, their allegiance remains with their home tribe in Turkey.

Leaders like Erdogan, on the other hand, are chosen by those who feel economically and culturally left behind. The president will secure that power base at all costs, regardless of the damage it does to the democratic principles that enabled his ascendance in the first place. An economic downturn, owed in equal parts to instability in the world economy and to lost revenue from recent terrorist attacks, will only strengthen his people's call for a Warrior Chief such as him.

In times of crisis, leaders tend to retreat to the patterns of behavior that brought them their latest success. So while the string of sensationalist stories will continue, the patterns of behavior of the two clan leaders in this conflict will remain steady as long as they have no impetus to change. As for Merkel, the resignation of Davutoglu and the refusal of Erdogan to align his anti-terrorism policies with European conditions for visa liberalization demonstrate that her long-term play is working. She will handle the repercussions of the EU migration deal with her characteristic aplomb, negotiating and compromising as she sees fit.

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