Henry Kissinger was recently asked if Donald Trump could not unintentionally become the force behind the birth of a new western order. His answer: It would be ironic but not impossible. Instead of narrowing our view across the Atlantic to the ever-changing whims of the American President, we should adopt the idea that this could be the start of something new. We can’t not hear what’s going on across the Atlantic every day via Twitter. But a tunnel view into the Oval Office distracts from the fact that America is more than Trump. “Checks and balances” work, as US courts and Congress demonstrate almost daily. The Americans are debating politics with new passion. That too is America in 2018.
The fact that the Atlantic has widened politically is by no means solely due to Donald Trump. The US and Europe have been drifting apart for years. The overlapping of values and interests that shaped our relationship for two generations is decreasing. The binding force of the East-West conflict is history. These changes began well before Trump’s election — and will survive his presidency well into the future. That is why I am skeptical when some ardent trans-Atlanticist simply advises us to sit this presidency out.
Since the end of the Second World War, the partnership with the US has brought Germany a unique phase of peace and security. America became a place of longing. For me too, when I traveled from New York to LA over a few months as a high-school graduate, with Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy” in my pocket and Bruce Springsteen’s music in my ears. But looking back does not lead to the future. It is high time to reassess our partnership — not to leave it behind, but to renew and preserve it.
Let’s use the idea of a balanced partnership as a blueprint, where we assume our equal share of responsibility. In which we form a counterweight when the US crosses the line. Where we put our weight when America retreats. And in which we can start a new conversation.
If we go it alone, we will fail in this task. The outstanding aim of our foreign policy is to build a sovereign, strong Europe. Only by joining forces with France and other European nations can a balance with the US be achieved. The European Union must become a cornerstone of the international order, a partner for all those who are committed to it. She is predestined for this, because compromise and balance lie in her DNA.
“Europe United” means this: We act with sovereignty at those points where nation-states alone cannot muster the level of power a united Europe can. We are not circling the wagons and keeping the rest of the world out. We are not demanding allegiance. Europe is building on the rule of law, respect for the weaker, and our experiences that show that international cooperation is not a zero-sum game.
A balanced partnership means that we Europeans take an equal share of the responsibility. Nowhere is the trans-Atlantic link more indispensable to us than in terms of security. Whether as a partner in NATO, or in the fight against terrorism, we need the US. We must draw the right conclusions from this. It is in our own interest to strengthen the European part of the North Atlantic Alliance. Not because Donald Trump is always setting new percentage targets, but because we can no longer rely on Washington to the same extent. But the dialectic of the trans-Atlantic also means this: If we take on more responsibility, then Americans and Europeans can continue to rely on each other in the future.
The German government is following this path. The turnaround in defense spending is a reality. Now it is important to build a European security and defense union step by step — as part of trans-Atlantic security and as a separate European project for the future. Increases in defense and security spending make sense from this perspective.
Exposing fake news
Another crucial point: Europe’s commitment must be part of a rationale based on diplomacy and civil crisis management. In the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Africa’s Sahel areas, we are also using non-military means to combat the collapse of government structures. For me, these are examples of trans-Atlantic cooperation — and a blueprint for joint involvement in other crises elsewhere.
And where the USA crosses the line, we Europeans must form a counterweight — as difficult as that can be. That is also what balance is about.
It starts with us exposing fake news. Like this: If the current account balance of Europe and the US includes more than just trade in goods, then it is not the US that has a deficit, it’s Europe. One reason is the billions in profits that European subsidiaries of Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google transfer to the US every year. So when we talk about fair rules, we must also talk about the fair taxation of profits like that.
It is also important to correct fake news because it can quickly result in the wrong policies. As Europeans, we have made it clear to the Americans that we consider the withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran to be a mistake. Meanwhile, the first US sanctions have come back into force.
In this situation, it is of strategic importance that we make it clear to Washington that we want to work together. But also: That we will not allow you to go over our heads, and at our expense. That is why it was right to protect European companies legally from sanctions. It is therefore essential that we strengthen European autonomy by establishing payment channels independent of the US, a European monetary fund and an independent SWIFT [payments] system. The devil is in thousands of details. But every day that the Iran agreement lasts, is better than the potentially explosive crisis that threatens the Middle East otherwise.
A balanced partnership also means that, as Europeans, we bring more weight to bear when the US withdraws. We are concerned about Washington’s withdrawal of affection, in financial and other terms, from the UN — and not only because we will soon be on the Security Council. Of course we can’ t fill all the gaps. But together with others, we can cushion the most damaging consequences of the thinking that says success is measured in dollars saved. That is why we have increased funding for relief organizations working with Palestinian refugees and sought support from Arab states.
We are striving for a multilateral alliance, a network of partners who, like us, are committed to sticking to the rules and to fair competition. I have made my first appointments with Japan, Canada and South Korea; more are to follow. This alliance is not a rigid, exclusive club for those with good intentions. What I have in mind is an association of states convinced of the benefits of multilateralism, who believe in international cooperation and the rule of the law. It is not directed against anyone, but sees itself as an alliance that supports and enhances a global, multilateral order. The door is wide open — above all to the US. The aim is to tackle the problems that none of us can tackle on our own, together — from climate change to fair trade.
I have no illusions that such an alliance can solve all the world’s problems. But it is not enough just to complain about the destruction of the multilateral order. We have to fight for it, especially because of the current trans-Atlantic situation.
Please, don’t abandon America
One final point is elementary: We must begin a new dialogue with the people on the other side of the Atlantic. Not only in New York, Washington or LA, but also in middle America, where the coast is far away and Europe is even further away. Starting in October, we will be hosting a “German Year in the US” for the first time ever. Not to celebrate the German-American friendship as nostalgia but to enable encounters that make people feel that we are moved to ask similar questions, that we’re still close.
Exchange creates new perspectives. I can’t let go of an encounter I had recently on one of my trips. A young US soldier used an unobserved moment to whisper to me: “Please, don’t abandon America.” An American soldier was asking a German politician not to let America down. The affection that lay in this request touched me deeply. Perhaps we now need to get used to the idea that Americans are going to say such things to us Europeans.
Anyway, it would be a nice, historical irony if Henry Kissinger turned out to be right. If the White House’s tweets actually led to a balanced partnership, a sovereign Europe and a global alliance for multilateralism. We’re working hard on that to happen.
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