Something New in the West
Under President Trump, America is calling the postwar values common to the U.S. and Europe into question: That’s why it’s high time to chart a new foreign policy after Atlanticism.
One could almost be grateful to Donald Trump: By undermining the transatlantic partnership, he has heightened Germans’ recognition of how much this relationship has benefitted them. No other country has so profited from the American-led world order more than the Federal Republic. Atlanticism was the umbrella under which politically and morally ruined Germany could be rehabilitated and re-integrated into the West. Being anchored in the West, along with Germany’s division, allayed the fears of Germany's neighbors, and finally dispensed with the European nightmare known as the German question.
It was through the transatlantic partnership that West
Germany, and after unification the whole country, accessed Western modernism
with its three core elements: capitalism, cultural liberalism, and the concept
of (for Germany, the decisively new) pro-active, self-confident citizenship.
This contributed to the end of the German militarism, worship of the state, and
the mentality of subservience.
In addition, German received a security architecture
in NATO, a status that enabled it to participate in the officially demonized
nuclear weapons regime. And the Americans could live with the Germans’ cultural
arrogance, which supposedly stood in contrast to the Americans’ ostensibly
superficial lifestyle. They endured the
anti-Americanism and bet on the soft power of their attractive social model.
All of this resonates today when it comes to the future of the transatlantic
But now the whole situation has been reversed in a crazy way.
Today Atlanticists have to deal with the paradox that the attack on the
foundations of the liberal international world order founded by America comes
from the White House. In the West Wing sits a nationalist and confessed enemy
of multilateral politics, one who sympathizes with authoritarian leaders and
undermines the EU by supporting Brexit.
The fact that the constants and principles of German
foreign policy -- European integration, multilateralism, engagement in the name
of human rights and the rule of law, rule-based globalization -- are questioned
by the American government constitutes an enormous intellectual and strategic
challenge. In the future, Europe now, out of necessity, has to do this by
itself without the aid of the U.S., or perhaps even against the U.S.
It’s ridiculous to believe that Angela Merkel should
compensate for the failure of the U.S. president by assuming the mantle of
"leader of the free world." And yet there’s a kernel of something
there: Germany, more than other actors, is tied to the liberal international
order. This is the new German question: Germany is so large that it cannot
flourish without this order, and yet it’s too small to guarantee it alone. For
the foreseeable future, German foreign policy will suffer this contradiction.
Since the previous guarantor of this order is becoming increasingly irrelevant,
the question of the Germany’s contribution has to be posed is radically anew.
Those who think we can just wait for the U.S. to
return to its old role after Trump are deceiving themselves. Indeed, the
transatlantic crisis didn’t begin with Trump, and will not end with Trump. Why
don‘t the Atlanticists want to see this?
In other words: When did the Atlanticists lose touch
with reality? The exact date can’t be determined. But at the latest on June 16,
2015, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy. At this moment, a strange
mechanism began to take effect: above all those in the German public who know a
lot about the U.S. were spectacularly blindsided.
With the self-certainty of know-it-alls, it was said
that Donald Trump could never become the presidential candidate of the
Republicans, because after the primaries the party brass would erase such a
Then, with sophisticated swing-state surveys, it was absolutely certain that Trump could never be elected President of the United States. Wrong again.
The wobbly world power gradually loses control
When the impossible then happened, the Atlantic
community was immediately convinced that, thanks to the forces of the American
system, this completely unsuitable man would soon become presidential. Wrong
yet again. Even Trump’s inauguration speech, as well as the continued tweeting,
showed how unrealistic this was.
At the next stage of reality denial, the
"adults" in the Trump administration were to shift things back onto
their usual tracks. Also wrong. In fact, these supposed adults are in part men
who believe that climate change is an invention and evolution theory is a mere
In fact, the Alanticists desire for a stable anchor of
the Western world obscured the fundamental crisis.
Incidentally, on May 31, 2017, one of the most special
of the adults, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, published an article
in which he buried the last transatlantic illusions. McMaster explained in the Wall Street Journal that there was no
such thing as the global community, but only nations that through power and
negotiation pursue their respective interests. Since then it is clear that
Trump merely embodies the irrational side of a strategy that diametrically
opposes the interests of Germany and Europe
These days, one really doesn’t know what’s actually
better: Trump impeding a consistently nationalist policy - simply because every
consistent policy contradicts his essence - or when the "grown-ups" take
it away and turn the leader of the Western world into the most egotistical
nation on earth.
Either way, the U.S. can no longer and will no longer be the stabilizer
and protector of Europe; the former guarantor of freedom and democracy is
itself democratically out of control, and one must pray that it will get its
act together at some point.
The Atlantic community is now down to its last hope:
that the Trump phenomenon is a temporary aberration. There’s not much to
support this because Barack Obama had already begun to withdraw from the
conflicts involving Europe’s neighbors. He saddled Merkel with the Ukraine
crisis. In the Middle East, he did as little as possible (which allowed the
Russians to penetrate.) He also left the EU alone with the refugee crisis,
which was a result, not least, of the chaotic U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Even if the United States were to return to reason in
domestic policy, little will change in these foreign policy retreats, simply
is overwhelmed by its role in global leadership. It is not just since Trump
that the wobbly world power has gradually lost control over the Middle East,
more and more over East Asia and Latin America.
This sweeps away the two
pillars of German Atlanticism: The U.S. is, firstly, no longer a guarantee of
democracy; it is just as endangered as any other Western nation. And, secondly,
the U.S. has forfeited any moral, military or political leadership.
Atlanticists refuse to accept this reality. Instead, they take refuge in
argumentative acrobatics. They’re against Germany or Europe liberating
themselves from the U.S. But it’s exactly the other way round: the Europeans
have’nt begun or concluded the separation -- but rather the U.S. has. Father
moved out, childhood is over.
Secondly, Germany’s not in a position to take over the
West’s leadership. Thus we still have to rely on the U.S. strategically. It’s
right that Germany can only lead if leadership is defined in a completely
different, more cooperative, partnership-based way. Apart from that, just
because Germany is too weak for conventional leadership, doesn’t mean that the
U.S. will be more sensible, stronger or altruistic.
What would a post-Atlantic Western policy look like?
Thirdly, the Atlanticists are of the opinion that
Germany, which currently stabilizes the EU, is not as stable as it appears.
This may be so, but this skepticism can’t hide the fact that the U.S. is
currently experiencing the worst possible democratic regression of all of the
great Western nations and that it is sowing instability for the rest of the
The central messages of the Atlanticists for the
European and German public were always: What happens today in the U.S. will
come to you in just a few years – prepare yourselves! Today one can only say:
hopefully not, and adjust to prevent it to the best of our ability. The second
central message was: In the U.S., all the craziness (epidemic arms ownership,
the gap between rich and poor, the death penalty, the asocial health system,
the elitist educational system, the democracy-crippling dominance of Wall Street, widespread racism, exaggerated nationalism, horrendous energy
consumption, religious sectarianism -- to name but a few) could eventually come
around to something more or less sensible.
In Germany, on the other hand, it is exactly the
opposite: as matter-of-fact and sensible as Germany looks, beneath this veneer
is hysteria, German angst, the Incertitudes
Allemandes, and so on. Let’s go with this picture of Germany: for a while
now, the U.S.’s illnesses no longer contributed something healthy; the strong
positive and reasonable forces there can no longer counter the dangerous drift.
In this situation, it would be adventurous were
Germany and Europe to hope that there could be a re-emergence of Atlanticism.
Here we don’t desist, that is if there were to be a renewed Atlantic alliance
without American leadership and with a fundamentally different understanding of
Western foreign policy. It could be called neo-Atlanticism or the post-American
West, or whatever. What counts is the content.
What then would the outlines
of a post-Atlantic Western policy look like?
A list of new foreign policy priorities could thus
begin like this: support France without condescending to it;
manage Brexit without punitive fantasies; limit Trump’s damage to the West;
rigorously defend against Russia's aggression; keep Turkey in the European
game; reduce the appeal of Europe to Africa's aspiring population and
simultaneously allow for controlled immigration; bring in China, wherever it is
indispensable (free trade, climate policy, North Korean crisis), and confront
where it acts unfairly (intellectual property, dispute in the South China Sea,
German foreign policy will increasingly have to do things at the same time that are contradictory at first sight. For example: Germany has to spend a lot of money on (and in) Europe; deal resolutely with the European neighbors in the east who clearly oppose the softening of the liberal order, but not with the attitude of the über-democratic schoolmarm. Give more Africans legal chances in Europe, while at the same time better protect the borders. Take a stand against the authoritarian metamorphosis in Ankara, and yet design in advance an active Turkey policy for the post-Erdoğan era. In short, in European affairs Germans must be more accommodating and tougher at the same time.
Germany has little experience in strategic foreign
policy because for a long time it could enjoy a framework guaranteed by others.
Now there’s a new demand because Western policy is off the tracks. Berlin can’t
just sit back and watch while others do the heavy lifting. Indeed, today the others look first at what
Berlin is doing.
Act more confidently, fine-tune strategic thinking. Yet, there’s
something else, perhaps the most demanding. In a sense, the West – including
Europe and Germany -- must reinvent international politics. After all, it’s not
just that the U.S. has grown weak; the rest of the world has grown stronger.
Now, long-drawn-out and seldom addressed questions crop up: How can one insist on the universal
validity of human rights while at the same time giving up one’s own supremacy
claim? Or, positively expressed: What
happens when countries which are democratic cease to act autocratically in world affairs?
More practically: what effect could it have if the gap between the depth of
intervention and the depth of knowledge in Western politics were no longer so
great, if the interveners were interested in detail in the countries and people
that they seek to influence and change?
Visiting Germany, Emmanuel Macron, summed it all up when talking about the Middle East: "We’ve failed to think about this region in our neighborhood in terms any different than do neoconservatives." Europe had failed to develop alternative foreign policies. Now it can. Because it has to.
One more thing: All this only applies if the U.S. does not start a war against Iran or North Korea. For in this case, the new transatlantic distance would grow into a geopolitical conflict of the first order. With Trump’s first shot, the West would be dead.
Translated by Paul Hockenos