Speech by State Secretary Michaelis at the ASPEN Institute Berlin: The Status of the Transatlantic Relationship: It’s complicated

16.10.2018 - Speech

It is a great pleasure to speak today about the current complexity of the transatlantic relations. “It’s complicated” – this is how Aspen frames it, using a phrase familiar to all facebookers with an unclear relationship status. As a diplomat I have to agree: it really is complicated.

State Secretary Michaelis at the ASPEN Institute Berlin
State Secretary Michaelis at the ASPEN Institute Berlin© AA

As a matter of fact, all relations between nations are somewhat complicated. This is the raison d´être for diplomacy.

We will see whether today’s discussion will reduce this complexity or even add to it.

First of all, please keep in mind that “complicated” is a relative term. The transatlantic relationship is still closer than most other international relationships we have, despite the big asymmetries in power and size that characterize it. The very fact that Aspen is drawing such an interesting audience from all walks of political life in Berlin today illustrates the strong foundation of cultural, human, and political capital the transatlantic relationship is built on. Looking at you I would say: this base seems rock solid.

In physics, the most stable connection between two solid bodies in a multidimensional space is called “balance”.

This rule is even more true in a multipolar world order, where balance creates interdependency, prosperity, reliability, peace.

This is why a balanced partnership with the US is our aim. FM Maas in his Handelsblatt-Article [22.8.2018] has outlined how we get there: a) by sharing responsibility, b) by counterbalancing trends of our partner, c) by boosting the multilateral order, and d) by keeping all channels open. Allow me to go into detail.

a) Sharing Responsibility

A balance does not work, when one side of the scale punches below its weight and lets the other side do all the work.

This is most obviously the case in the field of security, which was once the nucleus from which German-US relations developed from the ruins of World War II. It is a realm where former foes turned into friends, and where former occupant forces became the guarantors of collective defense.

Let’s take a closer look at the status quo of our transatlantic security relationship today.

When, in 2014, NATO had to take consequences for its own defense after Russia illegally annexed Crimea and sponsored a war in Eastern Ukraine, the US – once again – was ready when it was needed. It was a challenge that brought us closer together: Germany and the US went hand in hand from the NATO summit in Wales to Warsaw and Brussels.

Reassurance, the VJTF – NATOs “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force”, or “Speerspitze” as we call it – as well as Enhanced Forward Presence were joint US/German ideas.

Next year the US will raise the budget for the European Deterrence Initiative to 6.5 Billion USD. This is more than the entire defense budget of some of our smaller neighbors – just to get the relations right. The US will use this budget for the additional rotational presence of three brigades, for the prepositioning of equipment, for ammunition and for training and exercises with us – the European partners.

On the strategic level, modern nuclear deterrence by the US remains vital for almost all European allies; including Germany that is also contributing to collective nuclear defense via the nuclear sharing arrangement in NATO. This includes our interest in continued nuclear arms control, especially in the prolongation of New-START and in maintaining the INF.

You see, in spite of the noise, the US contribution to European security is still immense. And Germany is trying ever harder to contribute its share and regain its role as a partner in leadership, with quite some success already. This month the Bundeswehr will participate with 10.000 soldiers in Exercise Trident Juncture 2018 in Norway.

Next year Germany will provide the VJTF 2019. In 2023, we will have a fully equipped enforced brigade ready for the same purpose.

Just recently Germany volunteered to strengthen the NATO Command Structure with a Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm. For years now we are the major European ally in NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and we have been the main contributor to KFOR. The successes we have gained in the Western Balkans over the last twenty years are joint achievements. Just an example: The former German military base in Prizren will now be transformed into an innovation park for entrepreneurs! We achieved this, because the positions between Washington and Berlin have often been closer than that between Berlin and a couple of European partners.

This, I believe, is the most important avenue to follow towards a balanced relationship: we must invest in our strength and fulfil our commitments. Even a self-interested partner like the US would want a partner that matters and that will reduce political or economic costs. NATO should therefore be a priority for US engagement. With our without Trump we would have to meet our capability promises in order to strengthen NATO and the EU for the future. Both organizations depend on a strong German role as we are the biggest and most wealthy nation in Europe. If we do not deliver, other nations will have to step in and it is obvious that the only nation, which could do so – the US – will not do that anymore. But if we get strong again, we will not only become the privileged partner of the US in Europe, but also boost the EU’s capability to act. This is why it is so important that our defense budget will continue to rise significantly and has already gained a 30 percent increase since 2010 – partly in an uphill battle against public opinion.

b) counterbalancing US trends

Balancing our relationship will require more than just increasing our share in joint endeavours. It is also about standing up where we see the US going down the wrong track – this requires counterbalancing US trends and making ourselves more resilient in cases where we do not agree with the US. Because the picture is not all rosy. There are indeed issues that make our relations increasingly complicated. They mainly affect one of the main pillars of our Foreign and Security Policy: the European Union.

While the US was always a sponsor for European integration there are nowadays tendencies to play European powers off against each other by enforcing existing differences, e.g. on Nordstream II, instead of mediating between European allies and fostering the European project. Before President Trump and Junker agreed on a common plan, the EU was even called a “foe on trade” worse than China and Russia. For Germany as for the European Union as a whole, open markets are a geo-economic necessity. Therefore we do not agree with the protectionist trade agenda that the current US government seems to embrace.

Protectionism is not patriotism, it reduces prosperity. Latest announcements by the IMF already underline that the worsening international environment for trade will reduce global growth significantly in the coming months.

To balance our relationship, the best counterweight we have is Europe. Therefore, we need to invest in a truly united Europe. We could take Trumps opinion, “that we are a foe” on trade as a compliment.

It means we are taken seriously in this field. Our trade agreements with Canada, Japan and others will add to this strength. With the same determination we have to develop policies in other areas. For exactly three reasons:

1.) It makes Europe a more attractive partner, e.g. to form a Western policy vis-à-vis China or Russia. An ever stronger EU-ASEAN partnership for example could very well compliment the US policy in the region and provide leverage for the countries towards China.

2.) Unity and a growing set of instruments make us also more resilient against US-influence when opinions diverge, as they do right now on sanctioning Iran. Banks and financial instruments that cannot be targeted by US sanctions would be such tools.

3.) And most importantly, unity will give us better means to deal with the many challenges we are facing in and around Europe, such as terrorism, migration, regional conflicts like Syria, Libya and Yemen, stabilization and conflict prevention.

If we can show that Europe – in her very own interest – will make a difference in managing any of these problems, the US will voluntarily seek closer cooperation.

c) Boosting Multilateralism

Neither the US nor Germany are alone out there, but we are part of a web of multilateral agreements and organizations. The US under President Trump has decided to withdraw from this web, thereby weakening an order it substantially helped to create according to Western values and principles. It withdrew from the JCPoA with Iran, from the Paris Climate Accord and even from the humanitarian aid for Palestinian refugees within the UN framework. Instead of forming majorities in international fora the US government prefers pursuing a strategy of transactionalism and bilateralization, as we could recently observe in the process that transformed NAFTA into the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

While the US and allies in the past often agreed to disagree, allies must now fear to be forced to give in on their own politics and convictions. An example is again the Iran nuclear deal, where it will become increasingly impossible for European companies to trade with Iranian companies although the JCPoA foresees exactly that. Otherwise the companies would risk being sued in the US. Powerful European means and instruments to protect our firms and business do not yet exist.

How do we react to this? First of all, we need to invest in the multilateral order; even in issues and policies where the US will remain absent. We will do so together with our European partners, but also within a wider multilateral network of middle-sized powers that are interested in supporting a global rules-based order:

an “alliance of multilateralists”. Individually, we cannot ensure the survival of the WTO, or sustain international human-rights law or global environmental standards. Collectively we can.

Also, we need to use those frameworks of multilateral cooperation in which the US continues to be interested in. Arms control for dual-use drones that could be used by terrorist groups, as ISIS, could be a case in point. Our common time in the UN Security Council starting in January will provide many possibilities to find out what we can do together.

d) Keeping all channels open

That leads to me to the fourth and last way of how to “decomplicate” the transatlantic relationship: keeping all channels of communication open. The list of foreign policy issues where our assessments align, is long – stretching from Ukraine via Turkey to China. Syria in particular is a field where we are looking for common solutions in the context of the UN framework. It is obvious that Europe will have to play a bigger role in this region, ones the violent conflict has ended. Until now Germany is a member of the US led coalition in the fight against ISIS and we both contribute intensively to the stabilization of Iraq, with humanitarian assistance and capacity building, e.g. in Mossul or with the Kurdish and Iraqi Defence Forces.

Beyond foreign policy, I could also refer to the many bonds between our civil societies, where the Aspen Institute Berlin is a traditional part of. The Deutschlandjahr, the German Year that just begun at over a 1.000 venues in the US will shed additional light on the many activities that are ongoing day by day.

My minister just travelled to the US to kick it off.

To sum it up: If Germany, if Europe, will continue to do what needs to be done in our own interest we will end up in a more balanced Atlantic partnership that will only be strengthened. This is no guarantee that the Transatlantic Relations will completely stop being complicated – but in comparison with other complicated relationships there is a huge variety of policies we can continue working on to the benefit of all sides.

Thank you very much.


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