It's currently fashionable to bid the US farewell and praise the EU to the skies. Three weeks ago, our colleagues Jörg Lau and Bernd Ulrich made the case for a post-Atlanticist EU foreign policy ("What's New in the West," ZEIT No. 43/17). The United States of America, they wrote, has forfeited moral, military and political claim to leadership. With the election of Donald Trump, America’s "diseases" have become so all-consuming that rational forces in the US can no longer offset them. This analysis is as reckless as the idea that Europe, and above all Germany, should take the lead in global geopolitics. Let’s be frank: How fit is Europe at the moment?
We, too, believe that the EU needs to develop significantly more global political clout in light of the fact that the US government currently appears to be more of a risk than a guarantor of security. The more that America scales back its global responsibility, the more irrational it becomes. The US is "sick" inasmuch as its political culture is degenerating. Trump's not just an accidental aberration. But to bury Atlanticism because of this diagnosis is a strange idea of healing. Also, it comes from a continent that is itself in poor health.
The symptom "Donald" stands for contempt for elites, for mistrust in institutions and the system of checks and balances; it stands for a division of society driven by images of an enemy, as well as for the yearning for isolation and protection from the culturally, religiously or ethnically other. But this accurately describes the crisis of the entire West, not just America.
In France, a right-wing anti-establishment candidate very nearly won the presidential election; Austria's nationalist FPÖ party may be part of the next government there; in Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orbán dreams of establishing an "illiberal democracy"; in Poland for PiS, the governing party, the people’s well-being (Volkswohl) is more important than is the law; and in Italy the populist Five Star Movement currently leads the polls. This snapshot can serve little cause for European pride – and a historical view can do it even less.
Unlike most European countries, America is a nearly 250-year-old, resilient democracy. It is more brutal and competitive than Europe, yes. But this virility stems from its institutions, and its checks and balances. US states are forming an alliance for climate protection, for example, while cities provide refuge for undocumented immigrants from Latin America. Just recently, the courts overturned Trump's third attempt to deny citizens of certain Muslim states entry to the US. They also stopped the military from turning down transsexuals. And the Justice Department appointed a special investigator to investigate the president and his entourage.
America's separation of powers works. And there are quality media that, in contrast to Trump's charges, are not failing, but rather celebrate new sales and circulation records. Where can you find this in Central and Eastern Europe today? East of the Elbe River, the continent lacks a deep democratic-liberal foundation due to lack of freedom in and unprocessed experiences with dictatorships. The Muslim ban is de facto reality in Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. These states are more suspicious of the hegemons in Berlin and Brussels than of the one in Washington. In short, the EU would first have to go to the couch for therapy before declaring itself a shining moral example for the US.
In addition, there are a few design features that keep Europe from becoming an alternative power. A group of 28 states, which specifically do not want to become a superstate, can hardly be a superpower. In doubt, me-first sovereignty triumphs over strategic community.
For example, Angela Merkel calls a Europe that speaks "with one voice" one of her most important projects. But she is not prepared to hand over important competences to Brussels, for example in energy policy. Therefore, at the request of Berlin, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline will be built from Russia to Germany, although this contradicts the supply and security interests of the Central and Eastern Europeans.
Other countries, in turn, address their special interests. Ten years ago, EU member states could not agree on joint recognition of Kosovo, nor can they today agree on a common refugee policy.
The EU does not need to be a classic superpower, Lau and Ulrich say. After all, they argue, one must think of power differently today than the US does: in a more cooperative, partner-like way.
But that will not be enough in a serious conflict.
Especially those who want to avoid the use of military power must be able to threaten with it. Europe is far from being able to do this, materially as well as mentally. While many EU countries have begun to interlink their armies, the military patchwork still produces double and triple capacities, both in capabilities and procurement. Simply to boost their military to the next level, namely the digitized technical level, the EU member states would have to spend billions of euros. Who in the post-eurocrisis zone will sign up for this?
Because the EU is known for its hesitant attitude towards all things military, it was not even invited to the Geneva peace negotiations for Syria. And where was Europe's peacemaking force at the beginning of the Syria war, when humanitarian (protection zones) safe zones could still be established in the country?
Over the postwar decades, the Germans in particular have become so used to free American services, including the nuclear umbrella, that they have forgotten about the high costs of strategic power. After all, Lau and Ulrich demand a higher "ambivalence competency" (Ambivalenzkompetenz) of the Europeans. That is the ability to do more things simultaneously, even if at first glance they seem contradictory, such as to stand up for human rights in Turkey, but at the same time not to abandon Turkey. In fact, what our colleagues Lau and Ulrich demand has been happening for long. Germany, for example, has long sold arms to Saudi Arabia. That's Ambivalenzkompetenz, or in other words: inconsistency. And with this Germany doesn’t seem to have any problem.
The Eurocentrists ignore the greatest challenge. Those who turn their backs on America must be ready to make bigger sacrifices themselves. How, for example, does Europe want to get its intelligence information without the CIA? Would the Germans – like the Americans – be prepared to send their own special units, under threat of death, into IS areas to seize jihadist computers in order to thwart terrorist attacks in Europe?
The EU is quite strong in touting its strengths, but rather weak in acknowledging its weaknesses. This also applies to its core strategic competence: the economy. It is based on preconditions that governments themselves cannot achieve, like the societal readiness to remove trade barriers beyond EU territory. There is no trace of unity in terms of free trade agreements; the old continent is split over the Ceta treaty with Canada and TTIP with America. Whenever the 28 EU states try to speak with one voice, at least one feels bypassed – and blocks the others.
A rare and glorious exception is the sanctions against Russia after its illegal annexation of Crimea. But how long will it last? The popularity of Ukraine's pro-Europe movement was limited, especially in Germany. Hungary, Bulgaria and entrepreneurs across the EU want a more lenient attitude toward Russia. So much for the Europeans' love of liberty.
In addition to racism, the death penalty and the anti-social health system, Lau and Ulrich consider the U.S.'s "elitist education system" to be a symptom of the disease of America-in-decline. As a matter of fact, use of the death penalty is on the decline in the U.S. and Obama's health care reform has so far defied Trump's wrecking ball. Yes, it is true that America has the most elite universities in the world. And, at the same time, the best. Super education is not just for the super rich. In contrast to the supposedly egalitarian societies of Europe, scholarship opportunities often enable the socially disadvantaged and members of minorities to receive top education in the U.S.
Even if one accepts the thesis that educational opportunities are more equitably distributed in Europe, why does the Old World succeed so much less in transforming scientific power into economic power? Almost all of the groundbreaking inventions of the last decades came from the U.S.: the Internet, smartphones, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, artificial intelligence, attractive electric cars, and tasty craft beer. Could all of this have something to do with the Americans' affinity to constructive risk-taking?
Trump did not fall from the sky: his election was a conscious stupidity. If Europe behaves wisely, it can benefit from this stupidity. Already, EU trade with Asia amounts to about $1.6 trillion a year and America's trade with Asia to just $1.1 trillion. If the EU joins forces with China to become the new champion of protectionism and modern climate protection technology, America will continue to fall behind.
nothing to romanticize about the transatlantic relationship, but rather a lot
to repair. Guantánamo's injustice, the gun mania, and murders by drones
continue to divide. And because the American propensity toward excess is
currently increasing rather than decreasing, Europe must be a stronger
counterweight. But this new strength must unfold in a partnership with America,
not outside of it. Because before Europe is where our colleagues already see
it, Trump will long have been history.
Translated by Paul Hockenos