Joschka Fischer: Ball now in Europe’s court to renew transatlantic alliance

As Donald Trump prepares to leave the White House, the greatest mistake European leaders could make is to sit back and resume their subordinate role in the transatlantic relationship
Joschka Fischer: Ball now in Europe’s court to renew transatlantic alliance

It is time for Europe to redress its relationship with the US. Pictured in 2018 at the G7 summit
are German chancellor Angela Merkel, US president Donald Trump, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. File picture: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Despite all his whining and wailing, Donald Trump’s presidency will end on January 20, 2021. He will be history, but, sadly, his political legacy will endure. With almost 75m Americans voting for him, Trump mobilised an extraordinary and unexpected level of support among a base that will continue to steer the Republican Party toward his brand of nationalist isolationism.

Like a revenant, Trumpism will haunt US politics for a long time to come, and some version of it will be on the ballot again in 2024 — that much is already clear. To vanquish Trumpism, Democrats needed to muster a “blue wave” of electoral victories all the way down the ballot. They didn’t.

The idea that Trump himself will run again is unlikely, given his age. But younger populist heirs are already jostling to claim the mantle. From both a European and transatlantic perspective, each of which has an existential interest in America remaining committed to multilateral co-operation, Biden’s election represents victory in a decisive battle, but not in the war.

In Europe, we must not forget that, after four years of Trump’s incompetence and mendacity, almost half of US voters decided they wanted four more years of the man. That disturbing fact has far-reaching implications for the future of European policymaking.

Europeans could make no greater mistake than to lean back comfortably and cede responsibility for the transatlantic relationship to the Biden administration. Biden and his advisers may be infinitely more competent than Trump, but the future of transatlanticism will depend in no small measure on what Europe, and particularly Germany, does in the coming years.

While the Trump years forced European leaders into a defensive crouch, Biden’s election requires the opposite: a proactive push for transatlantic renewal. 

Restoring the relationship requires that Europe act like an “adult” and co-equal vis-à-vis the US, moving beyond the Cold War-era subservience that still endures 30 years later.

For example, European countries’ disproportionally small share of the burden of military spending within Nato is simply inexplicable to most Americans, and not just Trump supporters. This should be resolved as quickly as possible.

But Europeans must make clear to the Biden administration from the start what Europe can and cannot do. America is a global power with global interests and unrivalled military capabilities. Europe, by contrast, consists of many small- and medium-sized countries, each of which has only limited ability to project power and influence.

Past experience with military missions outside of Europe has shown that the perspective of a global power differs fundamentally from that of a small- or medium-sized power. European voters recognise this, and it will have a strong bearing on whether they accept such missions in the future.

In the context of the transatlantic relationship, Europe’s role is to defend Nato territory and its precarious periphery. In Eastern Europe, this concerns primarily the Baltic states (all Nato members), the war in eastern Ukraine, and other “frozen conflicts” in Europe’s neighbourhood. Resolving these, or at least achieving some sort of stabilisation, will require a much more forceful European diplomatic response than we have seen so far.

Moreover, mass migrations and the fight against terrorism will force Europe to deepen its engagement on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, and in West Africa. The eastern Mediterranean is increasingly becoming a new hotspot, owing to tensions between EU and Nato members (Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey) and the unresolved conflicts in the Western Balkans. Europeans should focus primarily on these challenges, and on developing capabilities needed to manage them; that, in itself, would strengthen European security and thus Europe’s contribution to Nato.

As for world politics, Europe must leave this domain to the global superpowers — a title it cannot claim for itself. This is particularly true when it comes to China. 

The EU needs to establish a close mutual understanding with the US on this issue, particularly where common values are concerned. 

In the area of trade policy, a new set of shared strategic interests will emerge, both vis-à-vis China and in the transatlantic region. The reduction or even elimination of trade imbalances will remain a high priority.

Meanwhile, storm clouds are gathering on the digital policy front. Europe, an important market for US tech giants, is insisting on its digital sovereignty and introducing comprehensive regulations to protect European data and privacy, and to rein in the power of the biggest digital platforms. Here, differing interests within the transatlantic sphere are threatening to collide. 

Even with Biden in the White House, there will be no going back to the comfortable old dependencies that long defined the transatlantic relationship. After four years of Trump, Europeans know what is at stake. Likewise, continuing to harbour any illusions about China would be both naive and dangerous. There is no better alternative to a renewed transatlanticism. By spurning Trump and electing Biden, America has delivered. As Americans say, the ball is now in Europe’s court.

  • Joschka Fischer, Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

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