Putin vs. Merkel: The Clash of Two Clan Chiefs

Global Affairs, 13.04.2016
Luc de Keyser, doctor en medicina
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a ceremony in Moscow. (ALEXANDER AKSAKOV/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a ceremony in Moscow. (ALEXANDER AKSAKOV/Getty Images)

Media reports about international conflict are, in some ways, a lot like sports commentary. Broadcasters describe the play-by-play and commentators analyze it, adding color to what might otherwise be a rather dull read. But in diplomatic or military clashes, the facts may remain disputed well after all the data is in. And more often than not, commentary contains shades of bias toward one "team" or another, using news anchor lingo to veil the tribal undertones that shape our perception of what happened.

Let me use a recent drama in Germany to explain what I mean.

A few months ago, a 13-year-old girl from Berlin admitted to police that she had fabricated her claims from a couple weeks prior that she was kidnapped and raped by men of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Normally, such a story would not have been picked up by anyone outside the local community. But this case was different; the girl's account, founded on one of today's prevailing narratives, was latched on to and hijacked by vocal politicians with agendas to pursue, and it reached the highest levels of government.

The Politics of Tribalism

The girl's family belonged to a community of Volga Germans who had inhabited Berlin since the 1980s. Her ancestors were ethnic Germans who, in the 18th century, immigrated to the Volga farmlands under Catherine the Great's promise that they could keep their language and culture if they helped to build up a strong Russia. The community even formed its own Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. However, nearly two decades later, the community's ancestral heritage stoked Stalin's paranoia amid war with Nazi Germany, and he sent the Volga Germans to labor camps in inhospitable corners of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet bloc collapsed 40 years later, many ethnic Germans in the diaspora took advantage of Germany's free right of return. But within a decade, Berlin backtracked on its policy, tightening the requirements for return after realizing many of its repatriated citizens had lost the ability to speak German or assimilate into German society. In response, the repatriated Germans' nostalgia for the land and values they had grown up with swelled.

As a "refound" fondness for Russia rose in Germany, so did antagonism toward Islam. The popularity of the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or the PEGIDA movement, soared. When its leaders caught wind of the alleged rape of one of their own, they seized on the story, using it to fuel unrest. Street protests, which had already been intensifying in response to revelations that illegal immigrants were behind the massive assault spree in Cologne in January, picked up. Reports of masked vigilantes roaming the streets of Germany at night to "keep citizens safe" emerged, and the ailing anti-Europe party, Alternative for Germany, saw an opportunity to jump-start its right-wing platform. The party's spokesman even went on record to condone the German border police's use of firearms to prevent illegal border crossings.

After the young girl's family members complained on Russian television that the German police had done nothing to apprehend the alleged culprits, Russian officials saw an opportunity, too. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign affairs minister, accused German authorities of covering up the affair in the name of political correctness, putting the story squarely in the center of a propaganda scuffle pitting Europe's de facto leader in both economics and morals, Angela Merkel, against the strongman defending Russia's interests and former grandeur in its periphery, Vladimir Putin. Germany's Foreign Affairs Committee fired back with the complaint that "domestic questions of power in Russia appear to be more important than relations with other countries."

The Clan Mother and the Warrior Chief

And so, history got caught up in politics, as it so often does, and two interpretations of the event emerged — one suited to Merkel's needs, and one to Putin's, each reflecting the prevailing attitudes that allowed the respective leaders to rise to power in the first place.

Since the dawn of the agricultural revolution, humans have banded together into increasingly large tribes to better protect the growing amount of resources they produced. The same tribalism lies at the heart of many conflicts playing out today. In the Middle East, identity politics are the double-edged sword that have determined which states stand strong or fall into chaos; in the United States, societal divides are defining this year's presidential election more than ever; and in Thailand, religious rifts are threatening the country's fragile peace. Germany and Russia's latest spat is no different, and it provides some insight into what happens when two tribes with different prospects — and the types of leaders they bring to the fore — clash.

As mankind evolved, human beings' skeletal changes were accompanied by fitting adaptations in their social structures. The result was bands of people who looked like us that were centered around a clan mother. Cooperative childcare was a crucial development in man's evolution, and it drove hunter-gatherer bands to organize themselves around the needs of the groups' women, so much so that leadership positions were passed down mother to daughter. These clan mothers regulated their tribes' internal affairs while appointing (and dismissing) male chiefs to handle external matters like trade and war. However, as populations grew and conflicts became longer and more frequent, power shifted to the warrior chiefs, and reverence for the clan mothers was sidelined.

The dichotomy persisted to this day: In times of perceived stress or competition, the warrior chief tends to prevail, but in times of perceived prosperity, the clan mother reigns supreme.

Each of the genders follows certain behaviors in these circumstances, too. While women stand by their men in times of conflict as long as they are assured protection, they are likely to adopt a "tend-and-befriend" approach toward enemy males to guard their offspring from retaliatory attacks if that protection is no longer certain. Warrior males, facing the threat of their women's shifting allegiances, become more anxious and aggressive. This may, for example, explain why Lavrov was so quick to call for the defense of the honor of a girl who claimed she was sexually approached by men of another "tribe."

Where particular leaders fall nowadays within the two camps, or between them, is determined less by gender than by behavior. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was the epitome of a warrior chief in her battles to combat Britain's unions and retake the Falkland Islands, while Helmut Kohl fit the clan mother archetype when he welcomed East Germans back into a unified state.

In our story, Merkel (appropriately nicknamed "Mutti", or mommy, by her countrymen) perfectly fits the image of the nurturing parent, the clan mother. Despite the dire predictions about Germany's future that have emerged in the face of massive waves of migrants to the Continent, Merkel's reassurances that Germany "can handle this" have worked so far. In the country's recent regional elections, she lost the support of only the far-right fringe, and she still boasts the approval of about two-thirds of the German electorate. As long as she can continue to convince German citizens that their current wealth will not appreciably decline in the foreseeable future, she will likely continue to hold the favor of the majority.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Putin, at the helm of a deteriorating economy whose prospects look far bleaker than its Soviet-era predecessor, has chosen to cultivate an image of the warrior chief. His popularity, currently at an all-time high, rests on the persona of a strong protector who gets things done, even when it means defying the Western bloc looming on Mother Russia's doorstep. As long as he can convince his people that some conflict and suffering is necessary to building back up a prosperous and nurturing motherland, he will continue to enjoy their support.

Thus, a seemingly superficial tit-for-tat between two politicians takes on new meaning. In reporting on international conflicts, it is important to keep the tribal context of the commentators — whether the writers themselves or the political figures being written about — in mind. Only by doing so can we keep a balanced perspective amid a flurry of real or feigned emotional statements.

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