Germany and America

John Kornblum

AGI Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AGI Board of Trustees.

AGI is pleased to present this collection of essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of German unification in October 2015. We are grateful to those who have contributed to this collection, all of whom have been affiliated with and supported the Institute in many different capacities. These essays leave us with thoughts not only about the past, but also about the future of German-American relations. Be sure to check back throughout the week for additional insights.

Taken as a whole, the 25 years following the fall of the Berlin Wall have in the West been an unquestioned success. Two parts of Germany merged hostile systems without drama or dangerous economic strain. To ensure that nationalism will not be reborn, the former Western Europe of the European Communities has expanded into a continent-wide Union of 28 democratic nations, some of which had not known true freedom in their entire histories.

Rather than losing purpose with the end of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Alliance also expanded—even to the territory of the former Soviet Union. NATO rapidly evolved into a multi-tasking framework to guarantee security far beyond its original borders. Above all, the danger of nuclear war has been erased. Both Russia and the United States have dramatically reduced both nuclear and conventional forces. Numerous nations are clamoring to enter both NATO and the EU.

A European Union of 500 million inhabitants has produced, bought, and sold more than even the United States. And globally, the release of the world’s economy from the strictures of central planning exploded to produce new centers of power and to elevate two billion or more people from the grinding poverty of the past.

If we look back in history at similar “postwar” eras, the comparison is even more positive.  Twenty-five years after the Congress of Vienna, Europe was shackled in dictatorships so oppressive that the upcoming democratic upheavals in 1848 were more than predictable. Their suppression was equally unavoidable. Twenty-five years after World War I, the world was being torn apart by the worst war in history. And a quarter century after the guns once again were silenced, the entire planet was divided by an ideological military confrontation which seemed to be as unending as it was dangerous.

In the face of such success, why is there so much pessimism about the state of the West? Why are Europe and America seeming to drift apart? And above all, why are doubts about the future of Western democracy so widespread?

The immediate answer is also the most obvious. The word is change. Radical change. The very forces which were unleashed as democracy and free markets expanded, as nationalities were freed from oppression, as intellectual and religious freedom took hold across the globe, and above all as the technological fruits of the Cold War began to be applied to the civil economy—all of these benefits were profoundly destabilizing for a system built on regulation and control.

Freed of the horrible prospect of nuclear war, conflict, confrontation, and warfare spread like a fire in dry leaves. One statistic suffices to make the point. So tight was the control engendered by the Cold War, that between 1945 and 1990 not a single person was killed by military action in Europe. The number since then is too horrible to contemplate.

Every successful community needs a story—a narrative. To remain valid, it must be changed at regular intervals. America is adept at keeping its story up to date. Changes of the magnitude of those which have inundated us over the past 25 years clearly have destroyed important aspects of the Atlantic narrative. It is time for a major overhaul.

But that is one of the most difficult problems. The post-World War II Western narrative was devised over several difficult decades which followed the worst era of war and depression the world had ever experienced. It was a stable, somewhat authoritarian narrative devised by the victors, in particular by the United States and the United Kingdom. It was based on strict rules laid down in several formal treaties, violation of which was not accepted. It was an elite project designed to help guide Europe and Japan through the difficult years of rebuilding and helped a United States inexperienced in leadership to guide democracy to ultimate victory. Normal citizens were only rarely asked for their views.

But the old narrative has now has been overtaken by events. Nothing is harder than tinkering with success. To overcome the inertia of the past will require either an historic expression of leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, or dramatic upheavals which face our leaders with no option other than change.

A first step is to discard the certainties of the past.  Europe is no longer rife with nationalism and militarism. It does not need the straightjacket of a consensus structure to maintain peace. Germany is no longer prone to radicalism. Europe cannot shirk responsibility out of fear of reborn nationalist conflicts.  But that is just what it is doing.

For its part, the U.S. no longer needs to exercise the discipline so necessary during the Cold War. Even after the horrors of 9/11, it no longer needs to find enemies to justify its engagement in the world. It cannot repeat its old habit of turning its back on the world, once the shooting has stopped. But that is just what it is doing.

Our old narrative is being torn apart by the same forces that destroyed pre-1914 Europe. Radical change is being spread by technology.  A similar process overwhelmed the old order in the nineteenth century. The industrial revolution brought the steam engine and the telegraph. And as in the nineteenth century, governments seem to be incapable of understanding what is going on.

The result is likely to be a new form of meritocracy. The power of information technology begets a radical democratization which destroys traditional monopolies. Think for a second about the essential service monopolies that have been weakened over the past 20 years—libraries, newspapers, doctors, or radio broadcasting. Up until 15 years ago, our modern Western industrial society was run on the basis of benign monopolies. The simple fact that if you wanted books you needed a library. If you wanted a good education you needed a university—now you can get your degree online.

Viewed from this perspective, many of the so-called dangers facing us recede in importance. Russia feels threatened by the fact that we have built a democratic community all the way up to its borders. Its authoritarian leadership is fighting back with the only tools it knows how to use. But it has little effect on the digital world. What we should say is “yes, of course we threaten them, we know we do.” Our system does indeed threaten those undemocratic systems.  Right now we can do little more than understand that we are not going to control Russia and it is not going to return to some kind of 1970s security structure. Instead, we should have more trust in the Russian people to understand how important democracy is to them. Without it, they will miss the digital revolution completely.

And what about Germany? Germany has indeed evolved dramatically since 1990. It learned to use its newly won sovereignty in a calm and cooperative way. The new narrative will not define German leadership in the way the United States leads, or even how the British or French used to, with big initiatives. Germany’s leadership style evolved over centuries of complex balancing in the center of Europe. This is Germany’s “normality,” and it fits well with the digitalized world.  As the constant hectoring over economic policy has demonstrated, the United States has not yet understood the fundamental elements of modern German character. Jimmy Carter suffered the same fate as Barack Obama. Do not mess with our stability.

In other words, the key to decoding a new narrative will be societal rather than organizational or even political.  Our Western system remains the best vision ever invented to answer the eternal questions of power, prosperity, and, above all, justice in a fashion equitable to each one of us. And building a new consensus between North America and Europe is the key to maintaining the Western operating system for a new age. So far, the United States has failed miserably at this task.

John C. Kornblum was the U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001 and currently serves on AGI’s Board of Trustees.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.