BERLIN (AP) — Can Germany, the country that once unleashed Nazism, lead the free world?
The idea that the former home of militarism and nationalism could become a beacon for human rights and peaceful international cooperation within one lifetime may seem far-fetched.
But with outsider Donald Trump's election as U.S. president and the rising strength of far-right and populist movements in Europe, some have suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is left as the last powerful defender of liberal values in the West.
Since taking office in 2005, Merkel has been a fixture of the international summit circuit, often providing the only dash of color in row upon row of grey suits.
She has outlasted most of her contemporaries — save for Russian President Vladimir Putin — and won plaudits for successfully steering her country through the turmoil of the global financial crisis.
Along the way, the trained physicist has deftly maintained relations with allies as they gained new leaders, including prime ministers and presidents whose positions were very different from her own.
"I could not have asked for a steadier and more reliable partner on the world stage," President Barack Obama said Thursday after meeting with Merkel in Berlin during his final foreign tour. He described the German chancellor as "a great friend and ally" who looks out for her own country's interests while recognizing that this also requires working closely with others to solve common problems.
Merkel raised eyebrows last week when she departed from the usual diplomatic script after Trump's election by suggesting that respect for liberal values was a precondition for Berlin's continued good relations with Washington. Many commentators saw her remarks as a sign that the chancellor was prepared to thrust Germany into the forefront of international politics and challenge the new U.S. administration if necessary.
Standing beside Obama, she pledged to "do everything to work well with the new president," but insisted that the basis for cooperation would have to be "democracy, freedom and human rights worldwide, and to strive for an open and liberal world order."
Obama's decision to stop in Germany for two days reinforced the image of him passing the baton to Merkel. Rather than bid farewell to Europe in Paris, the capital of America's oldest ally, or in Britain — which prides itself on a having a "special relationship" with Washington — Obama's choice signaled a recognition that the heart of the old continent now lies in Berlin.
The leaders of Europe's other major powers — Britain, France, Italy and Spain — will meet Obama in the German capital Friday, a day after he confers at length with Merkel.
"The phrase 'leader of the free world' is usually applied to the president of the United States, and rarely without irony," Timothy Garton Ash, a historian and professor of European studies at Oxford University, wrote Friday in Britain's left-leaning Guardian newspaper. "I'm tempted to say that the leader of the free world is now Angela Merkel."
Yet skeptics point out that Merkel may not be suited to rally the West.
Her decision last year to open Germany's borders to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty was seized upon by European nationalists and featured prominently in Britain's debate over quitting the European Union — which the 'leave' camp narrowly won.
European allies blame her for earlier stoking popular unrest by insisting on the need to cut public spending during the continent's debt crisis. And in Ukraine, Merkel's recent efforts to maintain a united European front in the face of Russian aggression are looking increasingly fragile.
Domestically, Merkel is battling a new nationalist foe in the form of Alternative for Germany, a party that has surged in popularity by railing against refugees. Rather than confronting the party head-on, Merkel has instead stuck to her measured mantra of "We will manage."
"Germany can't replace the United States as the leader of the free world," Josef Braml, an expert on international affairs at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said. "At best, it can protect Europe from nationalist tendencies and remind America that the liberal world order it established is also in the economic interests of the United States. That's something the new businessman in the White House should be able to understand."
Close allies say Merkel — who is expected to declare her intention to run for a fourth term in the coming days — is aware both of her responsibility and the limits of her power.
"She is absolutely determined, willing and ready to contribute to strengthen the international liberal order," said Norbert Roettgen, the head of the German Parliament's foreign affairs committee. "But we can't see the chancellor of Germany as last man standing. This will only work together, within Europe, and if we can have the backing of the trans-Atlantic alliance."
German officials, conscious that Berlin is in no position to solve problems such as climate change and crises in the Middle East without American help, are hoping Trump will tone down his rhetoric once he's inaugurated. The Republican candidate called Merkel's immigration policy a "catastrophe" during the campaign, saying Germany was "being destroyed by what Merkel has done there."
On Thursday, Merkel stressed the debt that her country owes the U.S. for its support in rebuilding the western half of a shattered nation after World War II and eventually reuniting with the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
She said Berlin was prepared to step up its effort to achieve the same peace and stability abroad that it enjoys at home.
Obama, who jokingly said he might vote for Merkel if he were German, praised her country as a model student of democracy in a fragile world.
"What the history of post-war Germany shows is that strength and determination, focus and adherence to the values that we care about will result in a better future for our children and our grandchildren," he said.
"It is absolutely true that Chancellor Merkel is going to have significant responsibilities," Obama added. "I wish I could be there to lighten her load somewhat, but she's tough."
Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin and Maria Danilova in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.