Activists disguised as Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin squeeze a big inflated rubber globe during an event organized by the activist group Attac to protest against globalisation in advance of this week’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. (Focke Strangmann/EPA)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel goes north this week to Hamburg, the port city where she was born, to defend principles of economic and political integration, whose critics include not just the leaders of Russia and Turkey but also the American president. 

It is an unsettling scenario for Germany, a nation that owes its modern existence to transatlantic ties. Merkel remains committed to working with President Trump when she can, her associates say. But she also recognizes that the United States now stands apart from Europe on multilateral cooperation, particularly when it comes to the environment.

This dilemma will be on display in Hamburg, where Merkel is hosting the Group of 20 summit Friday and Saturday. 

To make the European Union strong enough to stand on its own is among the main reasons she is asking German voters for a fourth term in a September election. Once considered vulnerable to the wave of right-wing populism surging through the West, Merkel now leads her left-wing rival — who poses a more credible threat to her than does the far-right Alternative for Germany — by double digits. 

But achieving her ambition, and fortifying Europe in the face of a combative Russia and inward-looking United States, will be a new challenge for the unassuming tactician who disclaims grand visions.

When she announced last year that she would stand again for reelection, she called it “grotesque” to suggest that she, on her own, could safeguard Western liberalism. But she also leads Europe’s most powerful economy, and she struck out on her own in opening her country’s doors to more than a million asylum seekers in 2015. This record sets her up to counter Trump, whose intransigence on trade, immigration and climate she has pledged to meet with a show of European unity.  

Merkel is scheduled to meet with Trump on Thursday, the eve of the summit, in a tete-a-tete that could be a chance to reset relations after several cold encounters that led the German leader to conclude that Europe could no longer fully rely on the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump called her refu­gee policy “insane,” and as president, he has scolded the Germans for running a trade surplus with the United States. After transatlantic talks in Europe laid bare the distance between the two leaders on trade, the environment and collective defense, Merkel returned to Germany to report that Europe had to “take our fate into our own hands.”

“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Hans Eichel, a former German finance minister and a founder of the Group of 20. “Incredibly, the United States has decided to be outside the liberal mainstream of the world, and you see signs that China, especially, is trying to fill this gap.”

The question, Eichel said, will be who manages this uncertainty. When Merkel presides over negotiations among leaders of the world’s major economies, she is the natural answer.

“People are expecting her to stop the world from moving in this protectionist direction and to stand up for democracy,” said Hans Kundnani, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “But the idea that the German chancellor can replace the president of the United States is nonsense.”

If Merkel is not the new leader of the free world, what is she?

“She is a doctor of nuclear physics,” said Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament and a close ally of Merkel’s. Merkel studied physics at Leipzig University in what was then East Germany, where her father, a Protestant pastor, had moved the family shortly after Merkel was born.

Since taking office in 2005, Merkel has managed one crisis after another, including the failure of the European Constitution, the euro zone emergency and the rush of migrants fleeing Syria’s civil war.

Behind Merkel’s resolve has been a sense that something bigger was at stake, according to people who have worked with her for years. 

“Coming from East Germany, she is absolutely convinced — it’s in her bones — that systems can fail,” said Mariam Lau, a political correspondent for Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper.

The fact that “Europe could have imploded” if the German chancellorship were on the line led Merkel to seek a fourth term, said Stefan Kornelius, international editor of the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and a biographer of the chancellor.

At the same time, Merkel has made no bid to unilaterally defend the liberal international order. She welcomed the election of France’s Emmanuel Macron, who lifted hopes for a rededication to the European project along a Franco-German axis. But Berlin will have to make concessions, said Kundnani, above all easing fiscal rules to help Macron succeed domestically.

Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s ruling coalition in Parliament, said the chancellor sees her work in the “international theater” — especially defense cooperation — as most pressing in a potential fourth term. She has also emphasized new engagement with Africa, to spur development but also stem the tide of immigration. 

“The G-20 venue is in Europe, but we wanted to send a message to our African partners that we’re trying to solve these problems together,” Merkel said recently at a meeting of European leaders in Berlin.

Jürgen Trittin, a leading Green Party lawmaker, said Merkel’s Africa initiatives are “window dressing” that fail to leverage sufficient public money. More broadly, he said, her refusal to abandon austerity limits her ability to make Europe a more powerful global actor. 

“We’ve seen good pictures of Merkel and Macron, but on substance, what is she proposing?” Trittin said.

Brok, Merkel’s ally in the European Parliament, said the chancellor would like to make a more independent Europe the focus of her final term.

“I think that she hopes she gets a chance to be more than a crisis manager,” Brok said. “She wants to be a builder, a constructor.”

What precisely she aims to build is harder to say, because she eschews grand visions, approvingly quoting the warning of Helmut Schmidt, a former chancellor of West Germany, that “those who have visions should go see a doctor.”

“As always, she is going step by step,” Eichel said. “But now, we have a situation in which it is no longer enough to go step by step.”