Harry Truman famously placed a plaque on his White House desk that read THE BUCK STOPS HERE. The motto was a pledge of the President's commitment to the U.S., an admission that responsibility for the country rested right there, in that office, on his head. Today, across the Atlantic in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel could well have a sign on her desk that reads THE EURO STOPS HERE. It's a problem for Europe and the world that she doesn't.
The fate of the euro and its promise of an integrated Europe--one that can strengthen rather than weaken the already precarious global economy--rests very much on Merkel's head. Her Germany is the zone's largest and most influential economy, the very foundation of the euro and the only member state with the resources and clout to keep it alive. As Europe has descended into a debt crisis so severe that it threatens the global recovery and the euro itself, all eyes have turned to Merkel, hoping the German leader would chart a path toward reform, repair and renewal in Europe.
She hasn't. Indeed, the past several weeks of debt wrangling and market turmoil, culminating in the downgrading of the credit rating of Italy, Europe's fourth largest economy, have offered further evidence that for reasons both political and economic, the world can't count on Germany to save Europe. Over the past two years, as first Greece and then Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy tumbled into crisis, Merkel has been a reluctant white knight, offering bailout money to euro-zone nations only when no other options remained and hesitating to commit Germany to the costs of deeper fiscal unity in the euro zone. She has, for instance, rejected a proposal for "eurobonds," backed by all member nations, which would help spread the risk and pain of the crisis.
It's easy to understand why. While Europe's leaders wax poetic about the peaceful mission of monetary union, in practice, they represent 17 different states with different interests and goals. Under the searing heat of the debt crisis, their differences have burst open. In recent weeks, Merkel has faced a near revolt from within her ruling coalition over the half measures she has taken to protect the euro, including expanding the powers (though not the size) of the European bailout fund. Even some powerful voices within Germany, like the respected German economist Jürgen Stark, who resigned from the executive board of the European Central Bank on Sept. 9, believe the route out of the crisis is through deeper European fiscal and political integration.