One year into the Trump presidency, the transatlantic relationship looks shaky. SERGEY LAGODINSKY, MILAN NIč, and CONSTANZE STELZENMÜLLER exchange their views.
There’s been a lively debate in Germany recently on the future of the transatlantic relationship. Is the postwar alliance destined for the dustbin of history?
SERGEY LAGODINSKY: I really don’t think it’s possible to replace the transatlantic relationship, its vision and values. And another point that is important to me: you cannot have it all! If Europe does not have a special, close, westward-looking relationship with the United States, then the continent will be drawn toward the East. We Europeans are not strong enough to develop and sustain our own sense of mission. Rather, we will come under pressure from the East.
One thing is new, though, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel touched on this recently: For the first time since World War II, we need a foreign policy strategy for the US. The question is, what kind of strategy?
Gabriel also spoke of a vacuum that exists as a consequence of US President Donald Trump’s policies. What if the other player in this relationship no longer shares the same values and goals in foreign and security policy?
LAGODINSKY: You have to keep trying, you have to be inventive, and you have to be interesting to the other party. And the other party is not just President Trump. There are a variety of other players in the US we can work with – on climate change, on refugee policies, and so on. This is something we are doing at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The underlying idea is that, yes, we have to have a strategy vis-à-vis the present US government, but also one that addresses US society in its complexity and in its diversity, including on the level of the federal states. We should not write the US off as a country just because Donald Trump is making calls we cannot identify with.
Constanze, you are currently visiting from Washington. How does the debate look from your perspective?
CONSTANZE STELZENMÜLLER: Managing the fact that now, there are two completely different conversations going on in Washington and in the rest of the country is incredibly challenging for us Europeans. But Sergey is right to say that we Europeans should do better at reaching out to those Americans—in Washington and elsewhere—who continue to believe their country should engage with the world.
We do also need to see that the hardliners in the current US administration believe that globalization and alliances are bad for America. They want America to make its international relationships transactional and based much more on interests than on shared values. This thinking is by no means limited to the president. It exists not just in Washington but in other parts of the US too—and in some quarters in Europe as well, of course.
For those of us who want to defend the model of a non-transactional alliance, of a relationship that is based on an embrace of globalization and a liberal international order, we have to realize that this dark view is more widespread than we like to believe. So we also have to find ways of countering this dark narrative. There are two ways of doing this: by taking on a greater share of the burden ourselves; and by striving to correct the disadvantages globalization has brought to some groups in our societies.
How does this argument look from a Central and Eastern European perspective? When we are talking about the forces on the rise in the US―is that something that we also see in Eastern Europe?
MILAN NIč: Superficially, yes―there’s a less critical view of the Trump administration. But you have to realize that Central and Eastern Europe is no monolith; it doesn’t have a unified view. So there are the Polish and Hungarian governments voicing general agreement with Trump’s approach, and then you have critical voices – from within Poland and Hungary and elsewhere, like Slovakia where we see a more balanced view.
Overall, people do distinguish between Donald Trump on the one hand and the rest of the administration and Congress on the other. Arguments you hear often include: the US presence at NATO’s eastern flank is as strong as ever; the US effort to counter-balance the Russian threat is not lessening; there’s no decrease in the support for Ukraine, although that might be coming. You may call it delusion or denial, but the fact is that there’s a more optimistic view in parts of Central and Eastern Europe regarding the Trump administration. Some State Department appointments have certainly contributed to this – Kurt Volker, who is a very active Special US Representative for Ukraine, and Wess Mitchell, the new Assistant Secretary for Europe. Both are considered “friends of Central Europe,” and not so critical, if you will, toward the current governments in Poland and Hungary.
STELZENMÜLLER: Does it help the Poles or Polish society if the US government refuses to criticize the fact that the PiS government is rewriting the Polish constitution to undermine political pluralism and the independence of parliament and the judiciary?
NIč: It doesn’t help them, but the fact that the US keeps quiet helps the PiS government. It was no coincidence that Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the PiS leader, decided to proceed with the controversial judiciary reform a few days after Trump’s Warsaw speech last July.
At the same time, people in the Polish government were very nervous before Trump’s speech. They realized that they didn’t have any control over its messages, and they worried that Poland could be used as a platform to divide Europeans. They didn’t want that and still don’t. Unlike in Hungary, Poles are predominantly focused on the Russian threat, and they are concerned that if we are divided as Europeans, and Poland splits from Germany and France, it’s not good for Poland.
Hungary is different. Budapest has a different strategy of working at the margins of the EU and NATO and has its own independent relations with Russia and China. That said, there is still some criticism coming from some quarters of the US administration, especially the State Department, concerning illiberal tendencies in Hungary and Poland.
STELZENMÜLLER: That’s true. The State Department rebuked the Orbán government for the anti-Semitic campaign against George Soros and his organization, as well as for the crackdown on NGOs.
NIč: I think Orbán was caught by surprise, he expected a much smoother ride with the Trump administration. That hasn’t been the case so far. None of these illiberal leaders from Central Europe has been welcomed to the White House yet. In contrast, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis met Trump in the Rose Garden.
STELZENMÜLLER: Yes—but let’s get back to Trump’s Warsaw speech for a moment. He stopped just short of comparing the EU to the Soviet Union. He suggested that the West was under threat—not the West of open, liberal, representative, democratic society, but a Christian West of hyper-conservative values. There was a lot of dog whistling in that speech, and not just against the EU, but also against Germany. Trump repeated similar criticism of Europe very recently, in a speech in Pensacola, Florida.
NIč: Nevertheless, for many Europeans, the calculation runs like this: There is Vladimir Putin, and in the short term he is our biggest threat. Thus we need to keep the Americans engaged in NATO and slow down their disengagement for as long as we can. If Trump tells Europe, “Buy more arms and comply with the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense,” Central and Eastern Europeans are more understanding. But some of them are like many Germans who know that they will not get there that fast.
Poland is among the few NATO members that spend more than 2 percent, but Trump’s transactional approach has not really paid off for them lately. Warsaw wanted to purchase Patriot missiles, but now it seems that the sale will not go through. When Trump was in Warsaw, he promised the US would deliver more liquified natural gas to Poland – but again, there are no contracts yet. In other words, the Trump world view isn’t always based on realities.
LAGODINSKY: The question is: by focusing so much on the US president, don’t we invite our publics to start believing that the US is fundamentally different from us, that the election of Donald Trump heralds an irreversible change?
STELZENMÜLLER: I’m not saying that. But there are other people who are using this turbulent and confusing phase to claim that America is abandoning Europe, and that Atlanticism is over. Including in this country.
LAGODINSKY: That’s why when other German Atlanticists and I published the Transatlantic Manifesto back in October 2017, we stressed that Trump is not necessarily representative of the US at large. We called him a president sui generis.
STELZENMÜLLER: I think all three of us are in agreement that America has not changed fundamentally, and that we Europeans still have allies in America, including in Washington. Take the mayors or governors who want to stay in the Paris climate agreement. But there is another school of thinking that genuinely wants to disengage. And I’m saying that we need to work harder to convince that part of America that this is a really bad idea—bad for us and bad for them.
What will remain after Trump, though? The US engagement in the world has changed dramatically since Obama. Do you really think that the US will come back and play its former role again?
LAGODINSKY: No, history doesn’t repeat itself. But there is a good chance that after Trump the US will again be a more active, more internationalist, although maybe not more interventionist. We should not rule it out.
… and as focused on Europe?
LAGODINSKY: I think that despite the demographic change within the US and a changing global landscape, US elites still are interested in Europe, and they are frustrated about Europeans turning away. Obama called for the pivot to Asia, but was still interested in Europe. I have a feeling that in a sense the hasty turn-away from the US by many Germans is not caused by their emancipatory self-understanding, but by their betrayed wish to be loved and taken care of by America. This longing for fatherly love turns into complete rejection of “post-Atlanticist” as soon as reality falls short of their expectations. We need to grow up.
But Europe has lost its “father,” right?
LAGODINSKY: We’ll see – but even if that’s correct, we are still part of the same family. We should not start getting rid of our Western roots and our orientation toward the US just because we aren’t getting the attention we think we deserve. We should not underestimate the risk that our non-Western roots will lead to authoritarianism and populism.