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These are eventful days in our transatlantic relations. Whether it be at the Munich Security Conference just two days ago, at the recent meeting of NATO Defense Ministers, or in Warsaw last week: the spotlight is on the transatlantic partnership, its current state, and its future direction.
“Stronger than yesterday!?” –
For me, the catchy song by Britney Spears at the turn of the millennium comes to mind when I think about the transatlantic relationship. Are we still certain that we will be “stronger than yesterday” a year from now? Or in 5 years’ time? And do both sides equally share the desire to be “stronger than yesterday”?
I do not want to paint an entirely gloomy picture. There are central pillars of transatlantic cooperation that remain in place:
- First, the security pillar, with thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Europe and close security and defense cooperation in NATO.
- Second, our strong and intensive economic ties, with the EU and the U.S. forming the largest bilateral trade and investment relationship in the world.
- Third, the human and cultural dimension, with a solid relationship that has been built by many generations of close personal friendships and frequent civil society exchanges.
But despite these strong ties, the U.S. and Europe are at risk of parting ways. Not only when it comes to their view of the world as it is now, but also regarding the crucial question of how they want to shape its future.
Let me explain:
First, U.S. foreign policy has begun to question – or one might even say dismantle – the multilateral world order, mainly created by the United States itself over half a century ago.
“The world America made”, as Bob Kagan once put it, is in peril because the U.S. administration wants to abandon the very institutions and international regimes that Washington once designed. For Germany, and indeed for most other European countries, upholding the rules-based multilateral order is a priority:
Our commitment to international rules and to multilateral problem-solving is not a means to an end. It is also not an attempt to romanticize a reality shaped by power-politics.
We often seem to have a romantic view of the past, in which we idealize the transatlantic relationship. We forget that our relations – while always very close – have never been without controversy. On the eve of the second Iraq war President George W. Bush and Chancellor Schröder didn’t share the same opinions and had a vivid debate about it. Nevertheless, the core of our close friendship has never been questioned on either side of the Atlantic.
For Germany, upholding the multilateral order is a precondition for promoting and maintaining our security and welfare, as well as sustaining our way of life.
In other words: We do not think that our national interests are curtailed by committing ourselves to international norms and treaties. On the contrary, international rules set the framework for us and other states to pursue our own interests.
This is a long-term investment: it might not always bring an immediate benefit. But it will create an order that can be relied on in times of need. This means that, by defending a rules-based order, we are also defending our national interest. Common rules protect us all from arbitrariness.
Second, current U.S. policy is attempting to redefine the concept of a nation state, as the recent speech by Secretary of State Pompeo in Brussels made very clear.
Let me quote Secretary Pompeo: “Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could.”
Supporting the reform of international institutions with the aim of increasing performance is legitimate. But isn’t it dangerous to create unilateral policies which promote protectionism and to pretend that building walls serves the citizens’ interests better than international cooperation would?
The “virtue of nationalism” is – in our view – nothing less than fake news. To us, a random interplay of powers with changing alliances and the survival of the fittest is not a desirable state of the world.
The EU is proof that zero-sum-logic can be overcome to the benefit of everyone.
Brexit is a telling example of what can happen when populist or nationalist political movements lead voters to believe that they will be better off by exiting international or supranational institutions. What we see instead is instability, political uncertainty and an unclear future, both for Britain and for the European Union. This is not about ideology – it’s about facts!
As a staunch multilateralist and believer in the European Union, I am convinced that staying on the European course would have been a better way for the UK to prosper. By the way: Strengthening the EU is the only practical way that we can strengthen our sovereignty in terms of globalization. To use the language of Brexiteers: “to take back control”. We are sad to see the UK leave – but we all must to pull ourselves together in order to make things work.
Third, under President Trump, U.S. Foreign Policy is characterized by transactional and unilateral approaches which knowingly accept damage to partners’ interests and multilateral agreements.
The unilateral decision to leave the JCPoA in May 2018 is one example. The United States chose to withdraw from an international treaty which had been negotiated by the U.S., together with its partners and Iran. The agreement was an unprecedented – and successful – diplomatic effort, because, for the first time in 13 years, it opened up the possibility for dialogue and limited cooperation!
I don’t want to discuss the legitimacy of Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPoA.
But it worries us that the U.S. decided to abandon an agreed diplomatic solution that effectively prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for as long as the agreement stands. The call of the JCPoA is to strengthen the international non-proliferation regime. It is therefore an asset for regional security.
The U.S. decision damaged a diplomatic solution which enjoyed the highest legitimacy, because of the actors that negotiated it. It was also unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council, through which it became international law.
Let me be clear: together with our European partners, Germany will continue to preserve the JCPoA for as long as it is fully and verifiably implemented by Iran and monitored and confirmed by the IAEA.
Last week in Warsaw, it was somewhat painful to witness a deliberate attempt to divide Europe on this matter. Also, a very thinly veiled threat was issued against those who dare to differ – which I did, backed by the E3 and indeed the entire EU28, including Poland as the host-country. We may take issue at each other’s positions at times, and we should have a healthy controversial debate when we do, but to delegitimize or bully close friends and allies is in an entirely different category.
This is regrettable, because such rhetoric overshadows the fact that we share the concerns regarding Iran’s policy in the region, as well as regarding Iran’s missile program. To address these challenges, we are committed to a comprehensive approach that consists of dialogue, diplomacy, and pressure. Unfortunately, we rarely focus on the shared concerns but rather on our different ways of tackling the situation. The JCPoA is not a treaty of close friendship with Iran, but of balanced control – it is a security framework that aims to prevent further regional escalation.
Germany, France, and the UK are working closely together to maintain the economic benefits for Iran that arise from the JCPoA and are in the interest of the Iranian people. That is why we developed the special purpose vehicle INSTEX.
Together with our E3 colleagues, we are working intensively on operationalizing INSTEX, now that it has been registered. We are planning to start with pharmaceutical and humanitarian goods as well as agricultural products and will then expand this to the whole range of goods that are legally traded by the EU. We are entering uncharted waters here, and INSTEX will only work if Iran builds up a transparent mirror structure. We are not there yet.
This endeavor relates to the question of how to deal with the increasing use of secondary sanctions by the U.S. in general, which is another issue of concern on which we don’t agree with the United States:Germany subscribes to the use of sanctions as a foreign policy tool and has been pivotal in implementing comprehensive sanction regimes against Iran, North Korea and Syria. But secondary sanctions against close allies are not acceptable and will harm the transatlantic relationship in the long run. For us, this is also a matter of sovereignty. In our view, sanctions are a political instrument for the purpose of achieving change – for example, with regard to Russia’s behavior. In the case of Russia, sanctions should remain closely tied to implementation of the Minsk agreements. If it is unclear what precisely is expected from the Russian side, sanctions can no longer incentivize a change in behavior. This is very unfortunate, because we have discussed and reached agreement in the past with the U.S. administration about sanctions against Russia. In this context, the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act (DASKAA) with its secondary sanctions is of great concern to us.
Fourth, U.S. Foreign Policy aims to weaken the European Union.
I understand that the EU may be a difficult and enigmatic institution to grasp for a country like the United States. Sometimes policy processes in Brussels might seem unclear even to us. But we are worried by recent U.S. statements and actions that talk down the European project, or that even downgrade the EU in terms of protocol. For Germany, preserving a united, prosperous and free Europe is our core foreign policy goal. The EU has made its members freer, more secure, economically better off and more democratic.
If Europe manages to preserve its unity as a whole, its individual members will ultimately be better off, thereby also making individual states more resilient – for instance, against Chinese or Russian influence. The EU is in itself an institution with ample checks and balances that safeguard the interests of its Member States. It is – not – a supranational juggernaut which spends taxpayers’ money or enforces policies on us without democratic control.
Believe it or not, the U.S. and Europe are already facing their next big transatlantic challenge: How to deal with China?
In the words of a participant at the recent G20 summit in Buenos Aires: “We all agree on China. Why are we having fights with one another?”
Germany has strong relations with and expertise on China. With the U.S., we have a shared interest in trying to make China a more responsible actor in the world economy by combating unfair Chinese trade practices such as on Intellectual Property, market access restrictions or regulatory discrimination.
Burden-sharing and “America first” as two expressions of the same new U.S. foreign policy.
President Trump recently said: “Great nations do not fight endless wars” and thereby found a way to explain his policy of bringing home U.S. troops, be it in Syria or possibly also in Afghanistan.
Apparently, all international commitments, often judged mainly by their financial costs, are being put to the test and re-evaluated. We need to ensure, however, that our long-term investments in stability and security are not jeopardized by rash decisions, or by abandoning strategies that were agreed among partners.
The Chancellor underlined in her speech at the Munich Security Conference that complex missions like the one in Afghanistan only work because they are based on teamwork and combine various capabilities. We all have our roles. It would be a shame if Germany were forced to retreat because of a U.S. withdrawal.
In security policy, the debate about transatlantic burden-sharing revolves around the same idea: It is about re-distributing the financial and military burden within NATO, 70 years after its founding.
Reducing the debate solely to the 2% goal has cast a shadow over joint accomplishments and our valid, different approaches toward fostering international security.
As Foreign Minister Maas has pointed out repeatedly, the debate about burden-sharing is important for Germany: It is in our own interest to contribute more to our common security. Therefore, starting with defense expenditure of 47 billion USD this year, our military budget is set to rise to a level of 1.5% of GNP in 2024, with further increases ahead.
Germany will maintain its present commitment as framework nation of enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania, having taken the lead of the VJTF for the second time in 2019. But burden-sharing must be more than just paying for military equipment. It must include other aspects like humanitarian aid all over the world – for example, German contributions are filling the gap created by the U.S. ending its funding of UNRWA. And we also have to think about conflict prevention measures, stabilization and post-conflict rehabilitation.
Now that I have talked so much about the differences between our respective foreign policies, I do not want to shy away from the question of how can we maintain transatlantic bridges, and even build new ones?
Some of the answers have already been given:
“Europe United”, as Minister Maas has called it, is the reaction to an international order that is undergoing rapid change and that requires European countries to intensify their cooperation, in particular in the area of defense. As aspirational as it may sound at this point in time, “Europe United” is ultimately the only way to make Europe a stronger and more credible partner within the Transatlantic Partnership. A European Union that speaks with one voice is something the United States has been pushing for for many years.
Strengthening multilateralism will also strengthen the institutional framework for the transatlantic partnership. It is not enough to simply lament the supposed “end of rules-based multilateralism”. We are ready to work with partners who want to stand up together for the preservation and further development of the rules-based order. Who rally around issues that are best addressed together. Also during the next two years in the Security Council, Germany will be a steadfast partner to all those who are ready to invest their political capital to defend multilateralism.
In this regard, we aim to achieve three objectives:
- preserve and strengthen the global order;
- reform it where necessary; and
- create new areas for multilateral cooperation.
For this, we aim to build renewed global commitment. Take, for example, the area of arms control:
As the current INF crisis underlines, arms control is an indispensable component of our security. We need to find ways to reverse the downward trend in arms control and to preserve the existing architecture. Let’s not be mistaken: Russia is in violation of the INF treaty due to its new, non-compliant cruise missile system. Only Russia can – in the six months that remain – save the INF treaty by returning to full and verifiable compliance. But, beyond the INF, there is a need to make arms control fit for the 21st century. In particular by addressing new technological challenges which have an impact on global strategy.
Strengthening International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles is also high on our multilateral agenda: In order to create new momentum, we will jointly plan the German/French presidencies in the UN Security Council in March and April, including efforts to strengthen international humanitarian law.
The transatlantic partnership will have to stand the test of time in the light of current crises and new challenges:
For the U.S. and Germany, Russia continues to be a shared threat to security and a revisionist power that has worked to expand its military and diplomatic reach around the world (Iran, Syria, Eastern Europe). For Germany, however, Russia is also a geographic reality: It is our neighbor in Europe, and because of our common history we have a complex relationship.
We continue to advocate a dual approach: we must invest in our strength and military resilience and, more importantly, we must address our differences through dialogue and engagement.
The rise of China is an obvious point of departure for closer transatlantic collaboration. While our interests with respect to China are not always identical, there is still a lot of common ground. We must establish a joint understanding and assessment of China’s medium- and long-term intentions and objectives, for example when it comes to holding China responsible in the international trade and economic order. We also cast a skeptical eye on the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and its 16+1 meetings.
Relations with the United States are of fundamental importance for Germany and for Europe – no matter who resides in the White House. Therefore, we have once again intensified our U.S. policy efforts. In addition to government-level contacts, we are working hard to closely engage with members of Congress and state-level governments.
Transatlantic relations have always been marked by strong passion. The mass protests against the war in Iraq, as well as the enthusiastic rallies for a young Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, are good examples of how high our emotions towards the United States can run. The positive core of our relations will prevail: This year, we are celebrating the German-American friendship with “Wunderbar Together.” And at the moment, some 50 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle are visiting Germany. This also is a visible sign of their commitment to our friendship and to NATO – and we hope that our engagement and joint efforts will bear fruit.