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.