CHISINAU, Moldova - On a blazing afternoon, as the euro crisis was surging back from summer vacation, Chancellor Angela Merkelof Germany descended on this impoverished sliver of a nation in her continuing quest to expand the European family. Folk costumes, children proffering roses and an honor guard figured in a welcome that evoked faded Communist pomp and still more distant Hapsburg glory. In a land that the chancellor acknowledged had once suffered "the dictatorship of Nazi Germany," the scene unfurled before a mighty Airbus with "Luftwaffe" emblazoned on its tail.
But this afternoon it was 21st-century Germany, Ms. Merkel's Germany, that was coming to call. The greeting was emblematic of how the 58-year-old chancellor, who entered politics in 1990, has become the most powerful German woman since Catherine the Great ruled Russia, and the European leader seen by aides as most dedicated to forging a future for her old Continent in a new, globally connected world.
If Ms. Merkel, who is routinely depicted as dour but in person often conveys a mischievous wit, found irony in Moldova, she kept it to herself.
But she no doubt recognized echoes of her own youth in Communist East Germany, where a culture of keeping silent and a long reign of mediocrity led inexorably to its decline.
Her critics dismiss Ms. Merkel as overly pragmatic rather than visionary, ever mindful of her need to keep German voters on her side as she enters an election year. But if she seems opaque even to her allies, hints of her approach to Europe's economic crisis are sprinkled in a life that includes firsthand experience of how a failure of vision can undo a nation. They are also seen in her embrace of the values of thrift instilled in her small-town upbringing with her father, a Lutheran pastor, and her training as a physicist.
She does not shrink from conclusions that might spook other politicians. "Are you sure," she asked in the same speech, "that in 20 years' time we will have an auto industry? Or that BASF will remain the biggest chemical concern?" Noting that Germany does not control the narrative in financial markets, where influential media and ratings agencies are overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, she urged listeners to imagine a future very soon in which German children are all fluent in English and familiar with Chinese culture.
In her political career, this willingness to challenge convention has helped Ms. Merkel, the head of the Christian Democrats, break ideological molds. As a scientist, she has "no barriers on her thinking," said Wolfgang Nowak, a former senior adviser to her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.
Evelyn Roll, a journalist who early on spotted Ms. Merkel's political potential and has spent many hours with her, writing a 2001 biography, credits Ms. Merkel's scientific mind for much of her unlikely success: in a conservative country, a childless Lutheran divorcee raised in the East became the first female chancellor in 2005 as leader of a party run largely by traditional family men from Roman Catholic strongholds of West Germany.
Most of those men are lawyers. For them, Ms. Roll said in an interview, there is right and there is wrong; if a lawyer loses an argument, he fails. Ms. Merkel, by contrast, views a loss like a scientist - a discovery that shows what will not work.
"She thinks backwards from the end result," Ms. Roll said. Conflict is akin to a mathematical challenge - how to corral both extremes of opinion into the same tent? The chancellor's caution, which her critics contend has hindered fast progress in easing or ending the euro crisis, stems from this approach, in which a course is set only once she considers it certain to succeed.
David Fuller's view These atypical qualities among politicians, coupled with a determination to find a practical consensus of mutual interest when none appeared available during the most difficult European negotiations, are recasting the euro project in a more durable fashion.
With the additional and considerable influence of ECB President Mario Draghi, the Eurozone is not only past the nadir of its crisis, in my opinion; it is also gaining traction on the long and winding road to economic recovery. This has significant implications, not just for Europe but also for the global economy.