The Transatlantic Community after Trump

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.

Too much harmony will help neither the Germans nor Biden

The multilateral postwar order is collapsing. If democracy is to survive and flourish, trans-Atlantic cooperation will require a new narrative based on changing realities. This essay was originally published in German in Der Tagesspiegel.

It certainly was no accident that President Biden delivered his first major foreign policy address to an international conference in Germany. He seems to have been thinking a lot about Europe.

The President wisely used the opportunity presented by the Munich Security Conference on February 19th to offer an antidote to Trump’s divisive zero-sum strategy. But he clearly did not offer an apology.

Boldly announcing that “America is back” as the leader of the Western world, Biden seemed also to have understood that Trump was not the only cause of transatlantic friction in recent years.

His positive message was accompanied by a pointed challenge. “We must demonstrate that our democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world. That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.”

“Delivering for our people” – this was a thinly veiled sea change in the recent Democratic party approach to Europe. Certainly not a replica of Trump’s. But less toleration of Europe’s flight from responsibility, that had also disturbed Barack Obama, than most Democratic progressives still today seem less willing to criticize.

Politely but firmly, President Biden seemed coolly to calculate that too much harmony with Europe would not serve his need both to rein in China and grab hold of the devastation caused by globalization at home. He seems already to have signaled a readiness to block the Nordstream II pipeline, for example.

Europe’s 500 million prosperous and well-educated inhabitants were put on notice. They needed to start pulling their weight.

Appearing to be speaking directly to Merkel and Macron, Biden presented Europe with a challenge: stop the pipe dreams about “strategic sovereignty” from America, tighten up your increasingly dysfunctional diplomacy, and get to work helping strengthen the West under American leadership. My administration will do its part, but you must also do yours.

Something Happened

So far so good. But the speeches by the German Chancellor and the French President which followed Biden’s address suggested that he will wait some time for an answer.

So, what comes next? In the meantime, the failed European COVID vaccine program has made things even worse. But it is no secret that transatlantic relations have been rocky for most of the last twenty years. Perhaps because of the repeated and often chaotic disruption emanating from the United States, our European allies had begun to dig in against change long before Donald Trump arrived.

How does Biden fulfill his “galvanizing mission” at a time when both Europe and America are divided and confused? And when Europeans in particular, still seem to lack the strength to overcome the traumas of their past?

The first step would be better to understand the origins of behavior. Blaming Bush or Trump or, increasingly, Germany is not enough. Better we start with the twentieth century. For Europe, the last century started as a disaster and ended with a last-minute, fragile reprieve.

For Americans, the twentieth century fulfilled our most sacred visions. We had made the world safe for democracy and almost as an afterthought, become history’s most powerful nation. For Europeans, the real work of translating their vision into reality has only begun.

Two decades later, both sides of the Atlantic are in the midst of a severe identity crisis. The certainties of the Cold War and the industrial age have long ago disappeared.

But not to forget, regardless of how chaotic the Americans might appear to be, they are almost always looking to the future. Seventy-five years after World War II, we desperately seeking an updated definition of success. A definition focused increasingly on the needs of our citizens. On this, Biden and Trump are in agreement.

On the other hand, by holding tight to their “peace project,” Europeans continue to focus their attention primarily on overcoming the traumas of the past. But guarding against a return to warfare is no longer sufficient for Europe’s voters or as a definition of Europe’s role in the world.

All of a sudden, Western democracies appear to be fragile. America’s tribulations are played out in public 24/7. Europe is more discreet but no less worrisome. The West is rapidly losing its sense of direction.

Ironically, each side measures itself against China. America sees global high tech and military competition, while Europeans seek Chinese help to extend the life span of their outmoded export-oriented manufacturing model.

It is almost another of the many Mars and Venus moments that have often in the past led to transatlantic misunderstandings. Europeans and Americans are talking past each other. Americans have concluded that Europe, defined as a problem, was “solved” by victory over the Soviet Union.

They no longer consider maintaining the Atlantic Community to be a strategic national interest. Alliance management has instead increasingly been treated as a series of marketing transactions, designed to further whichever favorite project a reigning President may wish to push. Trump’s MAGA and Obama’s soft sell were really not that different from each other.

This lack of “tending the garden,” as George Schultz often defined diplomacy, has made Europeans, especially the Germans, increasingly fearful of America’s unpredictability. “Building Europe” has evolved into “strategic sovereignty.” In other words, protection against America’s perfidious behavior.

I am trying to avoid value judgments here. Europe did face a major rebuilding task, and its citizens were exhausted from nearly a century of warfare. And the United States often did not fully comprehend the fundamental changes which were remaking the Western world. It has been anything but steady over the past twenty years. Europeans can perhaps be forgiven for dreaming of Switzerland as their model for the future.

But the result is the same. Atlantic drift just at the point where a strong West is essential if modern democracy is going to survive. For America, this would be a dangerous development. For Europe, a catastrophe.

Healthy Disagreement and a Dose of Reality

Paradoxically, offering too much understanding of Europe’s confusion would at this difficult moment not be good either for the Atlantic Alliance or for Biden’s political health. If he has decided once again to lead, the President should not forget that successful leaders never allow the debate to be about their own weaknesses.

More beneficial for both sides would be a continued strong dose of high-level straight talk, similar to that delivered to Munich.

For example, the flurry of new agendas being drawn up by governments and think tanks, topped recently by German Foreign Ministers Maas’ “New Deal,” risks certifying Europe’s fumbling as the standard for transatlantic debate. This would do more harm than good. Europe’s defensive agenda of the past two decades could never be sufficient as a vision of the future, neither for Biden nor for European voters.

Biden’s Munich message was an unmistakable notice that America’s traditional role of coaxing the Europeans into action remained essential. And he left no doubt that the transactional diplomacy of the President’s three predecessors had been the wrong way to lead. But delivering results will be harder than it looks.

Urgent Need for a New Narrative

Unfortunately, Europeans tend to live off of dialogues and processes. They expect American strategies to take account of the psychological importance of Europe’s slow and often toothless “peace project.” Whether it produces results or not, just promising to be democratic and avoid war with each other should suffice.

 But we don’t. And it isn’t. Not anymore at least. I would agree with Robert Kagan when he suggests that Americans no longer see themselves as the “primary defender of a certain kind of world order.”

Refereeing among rich, spoiled Europeans does not win votes at home. What we need most are confident partners, committed to the West, who help define a new era, as Willy Brandt did with Henry Kissinger fifty years ago.

And that is why the West so urgently needs an updated narrative that more accurately defines the realities which emerged from the Cold War, and which provides a new vocabulary to define the challenges we are facing. Europe’s cherished multilateral world order has run out of steam. And we are far from writing a workable version of its successor.

A good start would be for both Europe and the United States to accept the Atlantic world as it is. If they wish to remain prosperous, secure, and free, Europeans need better to learn how to define their role in the Atlantic system, which has been inalterably based on American power since 1945 at the latest. There is no Russian, Chinese, or above all European alternative.

For its part, America might stop being frustrated that after seventy-five years of trying, Europe has not become a copy of the United States. We should push for more action, but not disdain Europe for its complexity and difficult history.

We Have No Choice

Fortunately, we have no choice. The existing order is collapsing anyway. Everyone, even the Chinese, will be forced to change.

Here is the reason. As early as 2004, the U.S. National Intelligence Council Global Trends Report 2004 concluded:

We see globalization—growing interconnectedness reflected in the expanded flows of information, technology, capital, goods, services, and people throughout the world—as an overarching “mega-trend,” a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially shape all the other major trends in the world of 2020.

 In other words, the strict, hierarchical treaty structure built after World War II is steadily being eroded by digital processes and networks. Bio-engineering and artificial intelligence are close behind. New patterns of influence and definitions of power are rapidly emerging. The results are not always comforting. Radical democratization is threatening traditional benign monopolies such as the press, libraries, and even universities.

Fortunately, Western leaders can call on new forms of Western unity which are already in place. During the past thirty years, America and Europe have quietly transformed their original defense alliance into a community of democratic peoples which stretches from the Russian border in Europe to the border between the United States and Russia in the Bering Straits.

This community is home to nearly one billion prosperous, well-educated, and productive citizens who share much national heritage. It is organic rather than bureaucratic in nature. And has been amazingly resilient. It is already being networked by values tied together by modern Western technology.

Just as the West has endured for more than 400 years, this new community can outlast most any sort of political and social upheaval. Two world wars, for example.

As President Biden suggested, the problem is not the absence of dialogue. It is delivery. Our current platforms have become dysfunctional. We need urgently to learn how to operate a new platform upon which Western democracies can build the infrastructure of the twenty-first century.

Values Create Value

None of this will be automatic. Some real thinking needs to take place. We need a true “moment of creation” as Secretary of State Dean Acheson described the founding of the Atlantic partnership in 1949.

Philosophers are becoming as important as engineers. We need a new vocabulary that helps define how to imbed Western values and concepts of individual human rights more directly into our new narrative – not only because we believe in them, but because they work. Western nations create value because of the values we project. Civil society will be more practical than idealistic. Liberal values will increasingly provide a formula for the creation of a modern, functioning society.

But there is another problem. New technologies are steadily spinning out of control. Social networks, for example. The disruption they create could soon overwhelm even our most hallowed institutions.

It will not be possible to control every new process or to convince the Chinese and Russians of the world to follow our lead. Only by embedding values and goals into the brains of these new devices and programming them to operate on newly energized global Atlantic values, can we hope to protect the way of life which we share primarily with Europe.

Thus, the fundamental lesson: Atlantic nations cannot escape each other any more than a tree can escape the soil in which it is planted. We are constituent parts of one another in ways that we are not with any other part of the world.

These choices were described by Richard Koch and Lord Chris Smith in the May 17, 2006, edition of the Financial Times:

Western civilization has reached a fork in the road. Down one road lies cynicism, aggression, indifference, neo-conservatism and ultra-liberalism. Down the other lies a recovery of nerve, confidence in ourselves and cultural unity within and between America and Europe…. The road chosen will determine whether our civilization collapses or reaches its destiny.

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