Monday, March 30, 2020

What we used to call the West: The US under Trump has become a risk factor in transatlantic relations

By Karsten D. Voigt

In the past several years and decades, the European Union has become increasingly important to German politics. At the same time, the United States remains unchallenged as Germany’s most important partner outside the EU. Today, in spite of President Donald Trump, Germans continue to be bound by common interests with the US. And yet, when it comes to the American president himself, it is almost impossible to speak of a shared system of values. Indeed, many of his words and deeds stand in direct contrast to the values that once formed the very basis of the “West” after the horrors of World War II.

It is true that there has always been an asymmetry of power between Europe and the United States. Europe has constantly tried to reduce the imbalance, but has never succeeded in completely doing away with it. The most intelligent American presidents made careful use of this asymmetry; however, they did so without forcing their superiority directly on Europeans.

But Trump is different. He is making brutal use of his nation’s political, economic and military power against US-allied European countries. This approach has inflicted wounds that will continue to fester long beyond his term in office. In addition, the resulting loss of confidence in American leadership of what used to be called the “West” will no doubt persist for years to come.

For example, Trump did not content himself with pulling out of the internationally sanctioned Iran Deal, which had been created in an effort to contain that country’s nuclear weapons program; he also issued sanctions that were targeted – in theory – against the Iranian regime but were aimed – in practice – primarily against the policies of allied countries and the companies operating there.

Trump followed the same pattern when deciding to impose sanctions on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. In this case, he sought to use the economic dependence of partners and allies on the US as a bargaining tool against them. Even erstwhile opponents of the pipeline agree that this approach is entirely unacceptable. While it is true that anti-American prejudices continue to exist and should be combated where possible, it is also clear that the current rejection of President Trump’s policies is not based on prejudice, but on well-found analyses and judgments.

Many Germans of my generation are known to have demonstrated against US foreign policy on several occasions in their lives: for example, against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and, decades later, against President George W. Bush taking the country into a war with Iraq. Still, even while we opposed these US policies, we never doubted that American democracy was – in spite of its dark sides – more stable than that of the Federal Republic of Germany. Today, under the Trump presidency, many Germans have lost this confidence.

The commitment of American society to liberal values, democratic rights and equal opportunities for minorities continues to be impressive. But the president is not a credible representative of these same values and democratic traditions. He has become a risk factor whose name is rarely mentioned in the Bundestag, if at all only by the AfD. Still, the extent to which Trump and his acolytes were able to take populist right-wing positions and transform them from marginal phenomena into a controversial yet powerful and effective component of American political culture in the past several years should serve as a warning to us all.

Anyone who sees the transatlantic community of values as an integral part of a stabile world order in the future must take a sober look at the dangers coming from the US under the leadership of President Trump. We must also take a decisive stand against these dangers both at home and abroad. Whether or not the AfD is capable of emerging as a serious threat to German democracy will be decided by German voters themselves. And it will be up to Americans voting in the 2020 elections in the United States to decide the future of the transatlantic community of values.

Karsten D. Voigt
was Federal Coordinator for German-American Cooperation from 1999 to 2010. He represented the SPD in the German Bundestag from 1976 to 1998.