BY SHASHI MALLA
There is widespread perception among intellectuals, academics and media pundits that US President Donald Trump is endangering the world order. The trans-Atlantic alliance has been crucially debilitated, and Europe must now fashion new processes and construct security structures.
German Establishment Perspective
Wolfgang Ischinger, 72, has 40 years of diplomatic experience with the German Foreign Office and was also based in Washington and London. As the chairman of the influential Munich Security Conference (MSC) – probably the world’s most consequential gathering on security issues – he speaks on a regular basis with international politicians, government leaders and intellectuals. His latest book “Welt in Gefahr” [“The World in Danger: Germany and Europe in Uncertain Times”] explores Germany’s search for a sustainable role in a fast-changing world. He spoke about this pressing issue with Germany’s leading news magazine Der Spiegel.
Herr Ischinger realized that the old world was slipping away – not first with Trump – but way back to that single moment in February 2007, a year before he took over the chairmanship of the Munich Security Conference (MSC). He recollected that Vladimir Putin was speaking at Munich in an extremely aggressive tone and called into question the US claim to international leadership. Sitting in the audience, he overheard the remarks of a journalist sitting behind him: ‘This is going to change the world. It was a turning point [in world history]…the beginning of something new [developing].’
The beginning of a new era was not clear to him then, he conceded to Der Spiegel. He, like others, ignored the war in Georgia in 2008 and denied reality until March 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimea. He is now of the opinion that we “experiencing an epochal shift” in world politics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation has not been as challenging as it is today. Primarily and generally, ‘mutual trust’ has vanished in international relations.
Currently, we can only surmise the vague outlines of what will actually emerge in the new political age. Russia is aspiring to a nascent role and China is a rising power with expansionist tendencies. There are violent conflicts around the world such as the one in Syria which has particularly affected Europe. Turkey, once a very reliable partner [in fact a NATO member], seems to be going its own way. The European Union (EU) itself has experienced significant instability. However, there is no doubt in Herr Ischinger’s mind that no politician has unsettled the world to the degree that Donald Trump has since taking office in January 2017: “the entire liberal world order seems to be in danger”. Unfortunately, Trump makes matters worse through his mindless words: “Trump’s words act like poison to the cohesion of the West.”
At the same time, Herr Ischinger is a realist and predicts that Trump will have left a scar that will be difficult to heal. The era after Trump will be qualitatively quite different, especially for Germany. For decades, it was comfortable in being able to outsource its security, but Trump has now forced it to begin the process of ‘emancipation’: “This relatively harmonious relationship between the superpower and its voluntary subordinate European partners is coming to an end and will not return to its erstwhile form”.
Add to this the indubitable fact that unease and uncertainty have increased in the external environment. The lulling belief that “all territorial questions in Europe had been definitely resolved” turned out to be a chimera – thanks to the Crimea annexation. Any security attack on any alliance member will be treated as attack on the entire alliance.
Germany, in particular, is faced with new policy choices to encounter the new situation. Especially after the end of the Cold War, there was the perception that it was surrounded only by friends, all its neighbors, with the exception of Switzerland, were members of the EU or NATO, or both. However, it did not take into account the periphery and the neighbors of the EU – Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa – which could be sources of tension.
Der Spiegel and Herr Ischinger are both of the opinion it is imperative for Germany to adapt to a new role in world politics. However, the former diplomat considers that the government must invest more in both the EU and NATO. It is not enough for “the largest, most substantial and most prosperous country in Europe” to be bogged down by the discussion on increasing defense spending, but must consider the significant strategic challenges. Even if the Germans in general are deeply skeptical in changing course, it is crucial to explain convincingly the necessity to protect its vital interests and fulfill its alliance obligations – in the face of new realities.
Herr Ischinger concedes that it will be difficult, but Germany has no choice but to reform when it comes to security policy. There are some hard decisions that have to be made and European foreign policy goals have to be set. He argued that it is not a question about Germany becoming a military power again, but about whether and how to promote European interests. He insists that “Crisis diplomacy is easier to exercise when it is militarily backed” and that in many respects Germany is shirking its international responsibility, although being the strongest country in Europe: “Germany often only does the bare minimum. That is not a recipe for leadership”.
The veteran diplomat makes the pertinent point that vital ways and means have to be explored to “transform European defense from the scattered regionalism of the 19th century into the integrated Europe of the 21st century.” For this more defense spending is, of course, necessary, but at the same time these funds have to be utilized more intelligently and strategically – for joint training, joint procurement and joint projects. Only then will the EU states achieve a coherent foreign policy and military credibility. As a first step, the ‘principle of consensus’ on European foreign policy decisions should be abandoned, and a move made toward ‘majority decision-making’.
German Foreign Minister’s Perspective
In another interview also with Der Spiegel, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas lamented America’s rejection of multilateralism and said that Trump had abandoned the US role as the leading power among liberal democracies. In order to counter Trump’s rejection of a global order based on international rules and agreements, last summer Maas had previously called for the creation of a world-wide “Alliance of Multilateralists”. This alliance was to be an open network for all who valued the power of law and felt bound by a rules-based order. Initial steps had already been taken with France and Canada to cooperate even more closely in international organizations.
On the question whether the US was still a reliable partner for Germany and Europe, and could be depended upon for external security, Herr Maas conceded that Europe could no longer assume that it would be involved in decision-making or even consulted, citing the Syrian example. To the possibility that the US might even pull out of Europe, the foreign minister replied that ultimately it was in Europe’s own inherent interest to take on responsibility for its own security.
Steps had already been taken to develop the EU’s joint security and defense policy. Member states are now ready to improve their military capabilities jointly and in cooperation. Germany itself wanted to become more involved in crisis prevention and to establish a centre for that purpose.
Germany is also very interested in developing new, global rules for transparency and control of nuclear weapons. Thus, the issue of medium-range missiles had long since expanded beyond the U.S. and Russia, and Germany was promoting a dialogue that also includes China and other countries. It would use its seat on the United Nations Security Council [since January of this year, Germany was elected to a non-permanent seat for two years] to launch an initiative for a new arms-control architecture.
With regard to NATO, Herr Maas highlighted that the alliance has taken the security interests of the East European members seriously. After all, they feel more threatened by Russia than others. Consequently, NATO strengthened troop presence in Poland and the Baltic countries and Germany is highly involved. He also made it clear that Germany would remain a power for peace.
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