Henry Kissinger was asked recently if Donald Trump could not unintentionally become the force behind the emergence of a new Western order. His answer: it would be ironic but not impossible. Instead of narrowing our view across the Atlantic to the ever-changing whims of the American President, we should take this idea up as our own. We can’t not hear what’s going on across the Atlantic every day via Twitter. But having tunnel vision on the Oval Office distracts from the fact that America is more than Trump. Checks and balances work, as US courts and Congress demonstrate on an almost daily basis. The Americans are debating politics with new passion. That, too, is America in 2018.
The fact that the Atlantic has widened politically is by no means solely due to Donald Trump. The US and Europe have been drifting apart for years. There is less of an overlap in the values and interests that shaped our relationship for two generations. The binding force of the East-West conflict is history. These changes began well before Trump’s election — and are destined to outlive his presidency. That is why I am skeptical when dyed-in-the-wool transatlanticists tell us just to sit this presidency out.
Since the end of the Second World War, the partnership with the US has brought Germany an unprecedented period of peace and security. America became a place of hope. Also for me, when I spent a few months travelling from New York to LA as a high-school graduate, with Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy” in my pocket and Bruce Springsteen ringing in my ears.
But looking back does not take us forward. It is high time to reassess our partnership — not to leave it behind, but to renew and preserve it.
Let’s use the idea of a balanced partnership as a blueprint, a partnership where we assume our appropriate share of responsibility. In which we form a counterweight when the US crosses red lines. Where we bring our weight to bear when America retreats. And in which we can relaunch our dialogue.
This is not something we can do by ourselves. The primary goal of our foreign policy is to build a self-confident, strong Europe. Only by joining forces with France and other European nations can we strike a balance with the US.
The European Union must become a cornerstone of the international order, a partner for all those committed to this order. The EU is predestined for this role because compromise and balance are in its DNA.
“Europe United” means we pool our sovereignty in fields where nation-states alone cannot muster the level of power a united Europe can. We are not circling the wagons against the rest of the world. We are not demanding allegiance. Europe is building on the strength of the law, respect for the weak and our experience that international cooperation is not a zero-sum game.
A balanced partnership means that we Europeans shoulder an appropriate share of the responsibility. Nowhere is the transatlantic link more crucial for us than in terms of security. Whether as a partner in NATO or in the fight against terrorism, we need the US.
We must draw the right conclusions here. It is in our own interest to strengthen the European pillar of the North Atlantic Alliance. Not because Donald Trump is always setting new targets, but because we can no longer rely on Washington to the same extent. But the dialectic of transatlanticism also means that by taking on more responsibility, we are ensuring that Americans and Europeans can continue to rely on each other.
The German Government has embarked on this path. The turnaround in defence spending is a reality. Now it is important to build a European security and defence union step by step — as part of transatlantic security and as a separate European project for the future. Without this perspective, increases in defence and security spending do not make sense.
Another crucial point: Europe’s engagement must be part of a rationale based on diplomacy and civilian crisis management. In the Middle East, the Horn of Africa and Africa’s Sahel region, we are also using civilian means to prevent the collapse of state structures. For me, these are examples of transatlantic cooperation — and a blueprint for joint involvement in other crises elsewhere.
Where the US crosses red lines, we Europeans must form a counterweight — as difficult as that can be. That is also what balance is about.
It starts with us exposing fake news. If the current account balance of Europe and the US is not reduced to just trade in goods, then it is not the US that has a deficit, it’s Europe. One reason is the billions in profits that the European subsidiaries of Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google transfer to the US every year. So when we talk about fair rules, we also need to talk about how to tax such profits fairly.
It is also important to correct fake news because it can quickly trigger the wrong policies. As Europeans, we have made it clear to the Americans that we consider withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran to be a mistake. The first US sanctions are now back in force.
In this situation, it is of strategic importance that we clearly signal to Washington that we want to work together. But we will not allow you to go over our heads to our detriment. That is why it was right to protect European companies legally from sanctions. It is therefore essential that we strengthen European autonomy by establishing payment channels independent of the US, a European monetary fund and an independent SWIFT [payments] system. The devil is in the details – of which there are thousands. But every day that the Iran agreement is in place is better than the potentially explosive crisis that otherwise threatens the Middle East.
A balanced partnership also means that, as Europeans, we bring more weight to bear when the US withdraws. We are concerned about Washington’s withdrawal of affection, also financial, from the UN — and not only because we will soon be on the Security Council. Of course we can’t fill all the gaps. But together with others, we can cushion the most damaging consequences of the thinking where success is measured in dollars saved. That is why we have increased funding for UNRWA to help Palestinian refugees and sought support from Arab states.
We are striving for an alliance for multilateralism, a network of partners who, like us, are committed to binding rules and fair competition. I have made my first appointments with Japan, Canada and South Korea and there are more to come.
This alliance is not a rigid, exclusive club for the well-meaning. What I have in mind is an association of states convinced of the benefits of multilateralism, who believe in cooperation and the strength of the law. It is not directed against anyone but sees itself as an alliance to promote the multilateral order. The door is wide open — above all to the US. The aim is to work together to tackle the problems that none of us can tackle alone — from climate change to fair trade.
I’m not kidding myself that such an alliance can solve all the world’s problems. But just complaining about the demise of the multilateral order is not enough. We have to fight for it, especially given the current transatlantic situation.
One final point is elementary: we must begin a new dialogue with the people on the other side of the Atlantic. Not just in New York, Washington or LA, but also in middle America, where the coast is distant and Europe even more so. Starting in October, we will be hosting a Deutschlandjahr USA 2018/19 for the first time. Not to wallow in nostalgia about the German-American friendship, but to facilitate encounters that make people realise that we are facing very similar questions, that we remain close.
Exchange opens up new perspectives. There is one encounter I had recently on one of my trips which I can’t get out of my head. A young US soldier used an unobserved moment to whisper to me: “Please, don’t abandon America”. An American soldier asking a German politician not to leave America in the lurch. The affection underpinning this plea touched me deeply. Perhaps we now need to get used to the idea of Americans saying such things to us Europeans.
In any case, it would be a wonderful, historical irony if Henry Kissinger turned out to be right. If the tweets from the White House were to promote a balanced partnership, a self-confident Europe and an alliance for multilateralism. We’re working hard to make it happen.