Thank You, Donald! What Trump Means for Germany's Future

The cracks in trans-Atlantic relations caused by Donald Trump's election provide an opportunity for Germany to finally forge ahead with its own foreign policy. One that draws Europe together and fights for what is right.
U.S. President Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump

Foto: Susan Walsh/ AP

Part I: When Germans write or talk about their relationship to the United States, things can get emotional quickly. This is, after all, a matter of faith. There's glorification and demonization, pro-America romanticism and anti-America prejudice. The U.S. defeated and liberated Germany; it was a friend, though often a rather arrogant one. Of course, it had its ideals, but it was also consistently merciless when it came time to push through its own interests.

It's for precisely these reasons that it is both possible and healthy to have an attitude that is in equal parts informed by sympathy for the U.S. and independent of it. Indeed, it is imperative. The world has become a more complicated place and the U.S. is no longer a reliable partner (and may not return to being one once Donald Trump is gone). As such, we must emancipate ourselves. The days in which we could count on the U.S., when all the dirty jobs could be left for the Americans to do, are behind us .

We should still allow ourselves to like that the things that are likable - America's imagination and diversity, all the music, the literature or New York City. And, of course, we should allow ourselves to criticize the U.S. -- indeed, we must. Emancipation doesn't mean the condemnation of a partner. After all, we still need America as a partner, even if the nature of the relationship has changed. Europe cannot allow the existing ties to be broken off, indeed, we should focus on establishing new ones -- with cities, governors, companies, publishing companies, universities and schools. But Europe must be clear: Relations will never go back to the way they once were. That's no cause for offense. It is simply the new reality, and it is one we can help shape.

Part II: Speaking in Hamburg, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, said: "(Former German Chancellor) Konrad Adenauer made a truly historical decision in 1949. After the lost war and the division (of Germany) that followed, Adenauer knew that new catastrophes could only be prevented by firmly embedding Germany within the West."

Elisabeth Wehling, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, recently compared Donald Trump with Emmanuel Macron in a Skype interview. "The two have a lot in common. Both pursue an ideology, they go out and break with conventions and they both rock the boat. The difference lies in the ideology itself: Trump is authoritarian, Macron is anti-authoritarian and strongly progressive."

Sigmar Gabriel, still acting foreign minister at the time, said at the Literaturhaus in Hamburg: "After 1945, the U.S. introduced what we call the "liberal order," which prioritized the rule of law over the law of the jungle. They frequently transgressed that order themselves, but at its core, it was the new world order. As such, they helped build and nurture Europe because they knew that the resulting stability was in their interest. What we are now seeing is the U.S. withdrawal from this "liberal order" they created themselves. That's the paradox of our times. But what does it mean for us? We need to turn Europe into an actor in global politics. That's new for Europe because the foundation of the European Union was an inward-looking project, not an outward-looking one. And because Britain and France have thus far assumed responsibility for all foreign policy challenges. The others, including us Germans, have not learned how do so." But is it something we are able to learn?

'A Wake-Up Call'

Wolfgang Ischinger, the head of the Munich Security Conference, an annual event in Germany that draws top military and political figures from around the world, says it is necessary to establish a "joint European foreign policy. We will only be perceived as being relevant if we speak with one voice. Majority decisions would be sensible. If 27 countries want something but one country does not, then that country should not be able to block it. It would be worth its weight in gold if Germany were to indicate that it is prepared for this change." Ischinger says that the current trans-Atlantic crisis provides a "extremely good opportunity, a wake-up call."

Political scientist Herfried Münkler sees the situation similarly but ultimately differently. "The U.S. has realized that it is no longer capable of projecting its power in both the Atlantic and the Pacific regions. After 1945, the U.S. was able to do so in the Atlantic region without having to resort to war. In the Pacific, it waged two wars. That they are focusing on the Pacific region today means that their experience has led them to invest a great deal of effort. That means - both in terms of self-interest, because of the economic dynamics, and in terms of geopolitical considerations, because they have Europe as a trusted power in the Atlantic region -- that a slow process of American disengagement is taking place as well as the release of Europe into self-reliance."

And, finally, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen pleads for some realism in dealings with the U.S. "Obama may have charmed us all, but he also left the world largely on its own in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Adoration is just as childish as revulsion. Maturity would be better."

She remembers how she spontaneously reacted to Trump's election with the widely quoted sentiment that it was a "deep shock." Today, von der Leyen doesn't appear to be depressed in the least. "Perhaps America had to pay the price for Europe to wake up and become resilient." She laughs. "Perhaps we should now shout, 'Thanks, Donald!'?" She doesn't want to go quite that far. But is she wrong?

Part III: Donald Trump builds walls, Xi Jinping builds bridges. One wants to limit relations with other countries and claims that trade wars are "good and easy to win" and demonstrates with his tariffs on steel and aluminum that trust and stability are of no value to him. The other is establishing a network around the world. China wants to spend a trillion dollars to build the bridges, shipping lanes, highways and train lines to connect Europe with Asia. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017, Xi stood in the largest auditorium in the congress center and spoke of free trade and globalization -- just a few days before Trump was inaugurated in Washington and called the new, nationalist America into being.

There is no question that the world order is changing. The question is to what extent and how quickly?

Soaking Up Knowledge

Beijing is attracting scientists from all over the world and soaking up knowledge. The world of artificial intelligence, robots, space and e-cars will in large part be a Chinese one. China is more than willing to pay larger contributions to the United Nations and its missions than it did in the past, whereas the new U.S. reduces its payments just as soon as a vote doesn't turn out the way it wants. China's voting rights have increased at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whereas the new America is showing little interest in either institution. In terms of climate protection policies, China is a trailblazer, whereas the new U.S. appears to be obsolete, wanting to cling to coal.

And most importantly, despite all its shortcomings, China is predictable. And predictability and reliability are a currency in the world of diplomacy. But Donald Trump has made it his trademark to question everything, especially when it comes to foreign policy treaties agreed to by his predecessors.

All of this raises a question: Does a non-democratic China make a better partner for a democratically minded Europe than an America whose democratic foundations have been shaken? No, not fundamentally. But certainly on select points, with individual issues. If saying goodbye to America as a "best friend" must be followed by greater self-reliance -- and it must -- then that also means seeking out those partners for climate policy and other multinational issues who are required to push through that which we hold to be right. And that means, of course, going against the United States on occasion.

But we shouldn't be naive. China is hardly likely to become an easy partner in the coming years. Nor will it be a like-minded one. After all, dissidents are still disappearing into prisons, censorship persists and there are no efforts to establish democracy. When it comes to strategically important industries, those seeking to invest in China are still required to allow Chinese partners to acquire stakes in their companies. To put it a bit more dramatically, China mercilessly pursues power politics and its power politics are also merciless. And brutal. China employs its dictatorial strength to achieve its goals.

Less Liberal and Less Democratic

There is an abundance of historical evidence that oppression combined with force automatically generates mistrust and resistance. In massive China, this dynamic is mostly seen at the periphery, in Tibet, in Hong Kong or in Xinjiang. Thus far, the leadership in Beijing hasn't succeeded in associating the country's rise to the status of world power with ideas and ideals.

It is clear that fundamental change is coming. In the 20th century, it appeared the democratic model had prevailed, including human rights, democracy, equality and environmental protection. In the 21st century, however, the U.S. is withdrawing and others will seek to fill the gap -- countries that are less liberal and less democratic. And China is no longer on its way -- it arrived long ago. That portends something for us, but what?

Part IV: As is often the case in life, the first step has to be recognition. The trans-Atlantic relationship is not suffering primarily because of Donald Trump. He has merely accelerated a development that had already begun. Already 20 years ago, Stephen Walt, a professor for international affairs at Harvard University, wrote about, "deep structural forces that are pulling the United States and Europe apart." China's rise is not only shifting attention, it's also leading to the redirecting of investments and military forces. Other countries are also -- some quickly, some less so -- transforming into giants, including India, Indonesia and many others. The population of Africa, or even that of countries like Pakistan, is growing so quickly that it is sparking concerns, or at least expectations, of new and bigger waves of migration. More importantly, our common enemy has disappeared. Europe no longer needs the United States' constant protection. The U.S. is no longer leading the West, neither morally, economically, on foreign policy or militarily.

This all has consequences for Germany:

  • We will have to bid adieu to the soft, sheltered and at times sanctimonious foreign policy of the past. One that allowed the country to hide behind its protector and take morally pure positions that were also sometimes pedantic and chiding. Those days are over. Germany must become more active and become a foreign policy player if it wants to do anything more than just stand aside and watch as others shape policy.
  • We will have to learn the art of dispute. In a German parliament where parliamentarians have abandoned their oratory skills, there are few true foreign policy debates today. But in a democracy, when you are dealing with military deployments, enormous expenditures and risk, you must first argue and then decide, because the government's actions will otherwise lack legitimacy.
  • We need to differentiate between values and interests and we also need to have fearless, open debates when it comes to this issue. Do we want, for example, Poland to remain a member of the European Union, or do we only want the country to stay if it becomes fully democratic? Do we want Turkey to respect human rights and democratic rules or do we want to prevent it from looking toward Moscow and Beijing? Those who get involved need to be cognizant of these conflicts.
  • Together with France, we need to pull Europe together into a single unit. That, too, requires debates, an effort at persuasion and presumably some defeats along the way. It won't happen quickly, but there ultimately needs to be a common fiscal and economic policy, a joint army, a shared strategy and, with that, a common foreign policy. And once again here: Clarity on common values and clarity over interests. If Germany and France want to lead together, then they must talk to each other far more frequently, because the next step is to learn to think together.

And, yes, that may all sound a pipedream when you consider the way things look now: 28 EU member states, soon 27, with competing desires and directions that are far from being a unit, not to mention a super-state or a superpower. There is no common strategy in sight. And there are also populist and right-wing nationalist forces here in Europe that would like to see anything but a strengthening of the EU. A strong Europe must nevertheless be the goal. Otherwise, we Europeans will relinquish our importance and lose the greater battle.

Germany needs what is left of the West and its liberal democracy for the country to flourish economically, politically and societally. But Germany is not strong enough (and nor does it want to be) to safeguard these liberal democracies on its own. For Germany, all this requires recognition and the readiness to change course. It's true, of course, that Germany has benefited disproportionately, through its exports to the EU and the U.S., from the liberal order the Americans established with the Marshall Plan and then spent 70 years defending. During that period, the Federal Republic of Germany was more than happy to have the U.S. handle its defenses, cutting its own military from 500,000 soldiers in 1988 to 180,000 in 2017 and allowing its equipment to rust and grow outdated.

A Number of Cracks

Things cannot go on like this, though, because the U.S. wants to change things. And they're right, too. When you contemplate future relations with the U.S., it doesn't take long to see a number of cracks.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 11/2018 (March 10th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

The new U.S. supports Israel's settlements policy and wants to force international recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city. Most Europeans, on the other hand, believe this to be playing with dynamite and also tend to see the Palestinians more as victims than the Israelis. Europe supports the battle against climate change, whereas America, or at least its government, is promoting climate change for ideological reasons. Europe supports international courts, but the U.S. is against them. The same applies to a strengthening of the United Nations.

Still, many issues remain for which close cooperation is necessary.

First on that list is terrorism. Islamic State and other terrorist groups cannot be defeated without trans-Atlantic cooperation and real trust. In crumbling or failed states like Libya, Syria , Iraq or Afghanistan, peace and new beginnings can only be found if tremendous trans-Atlantic efforts are made.

Next is the global economy. The Trump years of protectionism  and isolation, of punitive tariffs will eventually come to an end. Then it will once again be time to facilitate trade and seek to put an end to tax havens and the focus will be on fair working conditions and coordinated regulation of the financial markets.

Then comes North Korea, Iran and other countries that are seeking to become nuclear powers. It's hard to overstate this: The trans-Atlantic alliance is essential when it comes to this issue. Without common positions and the application of joint pressure, we will achieve nothing in the long term when it comes to stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And then there's climate policy. Trump will eventually leave office and it's possible the U.S. position will change at that point. Europe can do little to stop climate change on its own.

There's a word from couples' therapy, not a very nice one: relationship work. It sounds like something that requires real effort -- and it should, too. But it also has another ring to it -- one of maturity and reason.

This article has been adapted from the introduction to DER SPIEGEL Editor-in-Chief Klaus Brinkbäumer's new book "An Obituary for America: The End of a Friendship and the Future of the West," released in German in March by the publishing house S. Fischer.

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