The storming of the Capitol is a wake-up call that populism needs to be dealt with robustly. The new administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris opens a window of opportunity to reformulate and reformat the transatlantic points of commonality.
At no time in the recent history of stable democracies has the handover of power from one President to the next been so overshadowed and jeopardised by such crisis-level polarisations and escalations. What is currently happening in the US, the oldest continuous democracy in the world, is hugely symbolic of the global clash between democratic societies and the threat to them posed by authoritarian political players attempting to snatch power. The storming of the Capitol, the seat of the foremost democratic institution of the US – with the serving President effectively egging the rioters on – leaves behind a situation of great uncertainty, but is also a wake-up call, warning that populism and the way it undermines democratic principles must not merely be resisted, but tackled head-on. The defensive potential of democracy and the resilience of the institutions are right at the top of the agenda and have now also become a central theme of transatlantic solidarity. The new administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris opens a new window of opportunity to reformulate and reformat the transatlantic points of commonality. There should not be a return to the good old days, which were in fact never quite as good as they seem in hindsight.
Firstly, it should be noted that the transatlantic relationship is a central pillar of German and European policy, from foreign policy to trade policy via social policy. The four years under the 45th President have made dents and cracks in the pillar, but it is still standing. The transatlantic relationship is currently looking strained, even battered and bruised, but the causes of this lie on the one hand with a US government that has positioned itself against the European project and, on the other, domestic policy crises on both sides of the Atlantic. A whole series of misunderstandings and irritations can be imputed to the fact that neither party made clear what they hope and expect their roles to be in the new world order of the 21st century.
A revitalisation and reorientation of the transatlantic alliance is what is needed! In the future, it will not be enough to fall back on old patterns and arguments, in the guise of general references to a community of values, gratitude for democracy and freedom, the historically founded cultural solidarity and, above all, the needs and pre-eminence of security policy.
The underlying process of the demographic, democratic and social structural changes of our societies, together with economic changes driven by globalisation and technology, mean that a new direction for the transatlantic alliance is necessary in at least three respects:
1. Get the people on board who will shape our transatlantic relationships in the future!
The obvious question is: who will carry the alliance ten or twenty years from now? Civil society organisations have long established close contacts, it has long been clear that the perspectives of younger generations, to whom the Cold War is nothing more than a chapter in a history book, need to be both expanded and brought up to date. It has long been clear that the point of view of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPoCs) must be taken on board. The people who will carry the future transatlantic relationship must include the young people, who have a different view of their country and want to move beyond its traditional image. Internationally networked women’s movements and minorities who have grown up with a differentiated view of the US and are connected globally with local issues. Not only in the US but also in the EU, the Black Lives Matter movement, a reappraisal of the colonial heritage and a push for the rights of marginalised groups have become mainstream. Climate protection is one of the most, if not the most important issue for young people, not merely in terms of CO2 emissions, but also as regards social and global justice, inclusion and a new societal and intergenerational contract. Without these people, civil society movements and issues on board, any redefinition of transatlantic relations is doomed to failure.
2. The idea of Europe is the cornerstone of transatlantic relations
Good German-Transatlantic relations need even stronger European-transatlantic relations. Europeans cannot tackle the challenges of climate protection, digitalisation and trade at the level of their individual countries. If the European Union is strong, external partnerships can be measured by the criteria of human rights and liberal democracy. The European single market and trade policy are of existential importance for the overall muscle power of Europe and a basis from which to pursue mutual interests with the United States. A close European-transatlantic cooperation and alignment will allow for an effective and coordinated approach towards Russia and China, in economic matters, but also in terms of security policy matters, such as arms export policy or protection in cyberspace. It was therefore welcome news when the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) submitted a joint paper shortly after the US election, setting out their visions of a redesigned transatlantic relationship. This clearly indicated self-awareness on the part of Europe. Right now, opportunities for cross-border European cooperation and projects are opening up. In addition, there are new prospects of transatlantic city partnerships and communities in which societal changes are already hoving into view.
3. Rethinking transatlantic solidarity
It is about so much more than managing crises – coronavirus crisis, economic crisis, climate crisis, endangerment of democracy due to the weakening of its institutions: solidarity means unpicking the joint basis of the values of democracy, freedom and diversity and creating strong connections at all levels – beyond purely official government contacts. Recognising solidarity as the new core value must be the foundation stone for future transatlantic relations – standing alongside the majority of US society in defence of democracy.
Transatlantic solidarity is both a prerequisite and an outcome of greater independence and autonomy of both Germany and Europe in terms of industrial and trade policy, geo-economics, climate protection and digital attacks on our democracy. Mutual solidarity as a theme, then, also offers the opportunity to set transatlantic relations on a strong dual footing, rather than pushing Europe’s unilateral dependency on the US to the forefront of any debate, from global health policy to world trade policy via the response to Chinese digital totalitarianism.
Making use of the momentum of the Biden-Harris administration for a new transatlantic relationship is the objective of a cross-party group of experts united in their intentions of thinking and planning beyond a single White House term.
The aim is to transform old certainties, introduce new perspectives and jointly push forward something that will defend and develop democracy and freedom.
The text is meant to be a discussion paper including different perspectives. The opinions expressed in the paper do not reflect the views of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.