Jürgen Hardt, the German Government’s Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation, gave the following interview to the Tagesspiegel newspaper (3 February 2017) about the talks he held during his recent visit to Washington, D.C.
Whom did you meet in Washington?
At the State Department, the acting head of European affairs, currently one of the United States’ most high-ranking diplomats, explained to me that the President’s immigration ban order was being amended. Dual citizens who have a passport from any of the seven countries affected will now be granted US visas after all. At the White House, I spoke to Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn and proposed that we should work with alacrity to further intensify our trading links. Apart from anything else, that would be a sign of the new Administration’s capability.
What impression did you gain from the talks?
My impression is that, at least in the circles closest to Trump, knowledge of how the European Union works is not very well developed. There is still a lot we need to clarify. We need to make it clear that matters of trade are not dealt with at the national level but fall within the purview of the EU. The idea of making trade policy bilaterally with European countries – which would seem to be the new US Administration’s preferred approach – simply isn’t possible in practice. Intensive dialogue is still needed there.
How much interest is there in Germany and in the transatlantic partnership?
The Americans remain very much interested in exchange with Germany. It is not hard for German politicians to secure high-level meetings in Washington. You can tell how much interest there is in dialogue from the fact that the US delegation coming to the Munich Security Conference is going to be even bigger than in the past. That is a good sign.
Were your concerns listened to in Washington?
I think we are listened to, yes. That said, we have not yet managed to make it clear what German industry contributes to the US. Some 700,000 jobs in the US rely directly on German investment, and the people in those jobs earn 25% more than the average for comparable professions and enjoy higher levels of trade union organisation. There are some very good arguments to show that German investment makes a significant contribution, not least with respect to the President’s plan to reindustrialise the country. Fundamentally, Germany is a strong partner and a major opportunity for America. Debates about punitive import duties are utterly counterproductive in this context. No doubt there will be some who cannot be argued with, but an increasing number of politicians in the US are willing to listen to such explanations.
US President Donald Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t think much of the EU, and he has described NATO as obsolete. What will this mean for European security policy?
That wasn’t something people were arguing about in Washington any more. Both the Secretary of State and the Defense Secretary have unequivocally confirmed that America’s role in NATO will stay the same as it was before. The President also took that position during his phone call with Chancellor Merkel. What is clear, however, is that we are expected to put more into defence efforts. That does not come as a surprise. Before the US elections even took place, we decided to increase our defence budget and the number of personnel in our armed forces. That has nothing to do with any demands from Trump. Many people in Washington are seeing that Germany is taking action in this area.
How do you think US relations with Russia are going to develop?
The clear answer I got from the White House is that they do not in any way have a romanticised image of Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, but that the intention is to highlight commonalities rather than differences during the early stages of a new relationship between the US and Russian Presidents. The joint fight against IS is to be brought into the foreground. It is a tried and tested diplomatic strategy to concentrate first on points on which one agrees. We should give that a chance to happen.
And what does that mean for the Ukraine conflict, a topic on which Washington and Moscow have seen things very differently up to now?
I did not get the impression that the US Administration is in principle casting doubt on the sanctions which have been imposed on Russia. I see no signs that policy will change in the near future. But that is a preliminary assessment.
How can Germany deal with a United States whose leadership is increasingly dominated by nationalist, protectionist and authoritarian tendencies?
Europe must speak to America with one voice. My wish would be for the heads of state and government to coordinate their positions well when they have contact with the US Administration, so that Washington realises that the Europeans all pull in the same direction on the big issues. That should help improve the EU’s image in Washington. Secondly, we can be confident that the rule of law as well as the checks and balances work in America. We just saw that with the immigration rules. It wasn’t really that important to voice criticism from outside, as considerable resistance came from US civil society and from the government. Some people in Trump’s inner circle, primarily his chief advisor, Stephen Bannon, are quite likely to take criticism from outside as a reason to further entrench rather than rethink their position. We need to find clear words when our shared values are at stake, but it is counterproductive to raise things stridently and excessively.
Interview conducted by Claudia von Salzen