A Difficult Ally (I)

In view of the US presidential elections, Berlin is calling for alignment of interests with the USA. Think tanks have been working on this for months.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - For the aftermath of the US presidential elections, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is calling for a "new beginning in the transatlantic partnership." However, "partnership" should not equate "blind allegiance," Maas declared. "Distinct perspectives" of "Europe" and the USA should be recognized and foreign policy "closer coordinated." For months, several influential foreign policy think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic have been exploring options for coordinating transatlantic interests, with the aim of overcoming the fierce controversies of the past four years and to "move closer together," in view of the escalating crises and conflicts, as former Foreign Minister and current Chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke, Sigmar Gabriel, explained. According to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), one of the reasons why the United States would remain "a difficult ally" - even with a possible President Joe Biden - is the growing inequality and massive polarization within the United States.

"Move Closer Together"

In view of US presidential elections, foreign policy think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic have intensified their search for a renewed alignment of interests between Germany, respectively the EU and the USA, on the one hand, because of the fierce controversies with the Trump administration that had responded with various coercive measures to Berlin and Brussels' attempts to be "on a par" with Washington.[1] These measures included the imposition of punitive tariffs as well as extra-territorial sanctions against European companies, the attempt to prevent the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and efforts to impede a common EU foreign policy by firmly integrating particularly Poland and the Baltic countries into US strategies.[2] On the other hand, it has repeatedly been suggested that the currently escalating crises and conflicts - from the Covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic crisis to climate change and the historic power shifts due to the rise of the People's Republic of China –call, more than ever before, for a coordinated joint approach to global politics by a unified West. "We must move closer together," admonished Germany's former foreign minister and current Chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke, Sigmar Gabriel and John B. Emerson, former US ambassador to Germany, and current Chair of the American Council on Germany, in their joint article published last week in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.[3]

Transatlantic Task Force

The importance attached to aligning interests can be seen in the fact that influential think thanks have launched relevant initiatives that also include distinguished experts. Already back in December 2019, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) together with the "Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt Foundation" (BKHS) established a Transatlantic Task Force, which has just presented "recommendations" for future transatlantic policy. The "Task Force" is chaired by GMF President Karen Donfried and Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and includes several members of the US Congress, two former EU commissioners as well as representatives of companies and think tanks from the USA and several European countries. Last spring, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) formed an "expert group" that is currently analyzing long-term trends in US policy and their impact on transatlantic relations. Its members include around two dozen people, including specialists from various think tanks, academics, assistants of the CDU/CSU and Green parliamentary groups, officials from business associations as well as foreign ministry representatives. The group, which has just published a brief analysis, is financed by the German foreign ministry.

Inequality and Polarization

In their study, the SWP's expert group warns - in alignment with the grand majority of observers - that the United States, "in all likelihood, will remain a difficult ally, even under a Biden administration."[4] This is not only because the "growing inequality" within its population will engender an intensified "social cleavage" and thus an accompanying considerable "intensification of political and social polarization" thereby undermining the "domestic political foundations" of "US foreign policy ambitions." In addition, transatlantic disputes can be expected in specific transatlantic areas of conflict not only if Donald Trump wins the elections but even if the White House resident changes. For example, it can "be expected" that the economic policy of the next US administration will be "permeated by nationalist and protectionist tendencies" - with the objective of "supporting or promoting the USA's manufacturing industry." It can also be assumed that differences in the policy toward China will persist. (german-foreign-policy.com will soon report.) If Joe Biden wins the elections, it may be possible to draw closer in terms of climate policy. However, even then, any "US government will give priority to its own ideas about how to deal with the consequences of climate change and climate protection," which in turn "will not automatically harmonize" with "the climate policy priorities of Europeans and other international partners."

"In the Same Boat" Militarily

The Transatlantic Task Force, founded by the GMF, presented concrete proposals for joint transatlantic activities following the US presidential elections. For example, it is calling for coordination of the efforts for economic recovery in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.[5] In climate policy, it proposes that there be cooperation at the subnational level, for example, it suggests that individual communities, enterprises, or NGOs, cooperate for renewable power generation. In climate policy, at times, US cities and communities stand in stark opposition to the Trump administration. The Transatlantic Task Force also calls for maintaining a "robust" U.S. military presence in the EU, as well as for the NATO allies to carefully coordinate defense expenditures. On Friday, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer called for the massive arms buildup of the Bundeswehr and a reinforcement of the western war alliance, with the "continuation" of "nuclear sharing."[6] There is broad consensus on both. Sigmar Gabriel (Atlantic-Brücke) and John B. Emerson (Atlantic Council on Germany) are urging a reinforcement of NATO, as a common defense alliance. "We're, sitting in the same boat."[7]

"No Blind Allegiance"

The German government as well as German think tanks are unanimously insisting that German interests be clearly enforced in relationship to the future US administration. "Our goal is European sovereignty" announced Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the weekend in the transatlanticist "Welt am Sonntag." "Partnership" does not equate "blind allegiance."[8] "America and Europe" have distinct perspectives" on "Russia, China, the Middle East, Africa or the Indo-Pacific region." "The gulf between Europe and America is widening." "We can recognize," suggests Maas, "that different approaches can serve a common goal and indeed reinforce each other." We should seek "closer coordination of our sanctions policy, as well as potential offers of cooperation," for instance to Russia." Gabriel and Emerson call for an end to US efforts to prevent a unified EU foreign policy. Instead, there should be "joint support for the Three Seas Initiative," The latter aims at setting the EU's eastern Baltic countries down to Croatia and Bulgaria in opposition to Russia, in close alliance with the United States. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[9]) Berlin's significant participation in this enterprise would take the levers out of the US' hands.


[1] See also On a Par (II) and Transatlantische Rivalen.

[2] See also Osteuropas geostrategische Drift.

[3] Sigmar Gabriel, John B. Emerson: Wir brauchen einander. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 21.10.2020.

[4] Jenseits der Wahlen. SWP-Aktuell Nr. 82. Berlin, Oktober 2020.

[5] Together or Alone? Choices and Strategies for Transatlantic Relations for 2021 and Beyond. Washington, October 2020.

[6] AKK: Rede zur Verleihung des Medienpreises. bmvg.de 23.10.2020.

[7] Sigmar Gabriel, John B. Emerson: Wir brauchen einander. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 21.10.2020.

[8] Heiko Maas: Es ist Zeit für einen transatlantischen Neuanfang. welt.de 25.10.2020.

[9] See also Osteuropas geostrategische Drift.