Germany has a chance to change the narrative about the transatlantic relationship. But it won’t. What was billed as a major speech by foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel on December 5 in Berlin amounted to a confused presentation of the challenges Germany faces.
Gabriel, a Social Democrat, pressed lots of the right buttons. He said his country has to think and act strategically. It has to define its interests. It has to accept the fact that the United States is no longer “a reliable guarantor of Western-influenced multilateralism.” The global order and regional balances of power are shifting, with China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran “on the offensive.”
Yet for all that, the long speech failed to address three fundamental issues. One is the future of Atlanticism. The second is how to deal with Russia. The third, astonishingly absent from mention, is how digitization is affecting the conduct of diplomacy, economies, politics, and democracy.
First, Atlanticism. It is becoming fashionable to refer to a “post-Atlanticist era.” This is correct in one sense. Even before Donald Trump was elected president, the United States was slowly withdrawing from Europe. But the United States is still Europe’s security guarantor. And without the United States, the European Union would not exist. Just imagine Germany without the EU. And whether Europeans want to accept this fact or not, the United States and Europe together represent the liberal values that underpin democracy, the rule of law, and open economies.
However, the current definition of Atlanticism and the West has become too narrow and exclusive. Instead of arguing that Europe, the United States, and Canada are entering the post-Atlanticist era, it would be more useful to argue for a new Atlanticism that would include Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and several countries in South America.
These countries cherish the same values. They have vibrant democracies. There is no reason why they could not forge closer ties to NATO. As it is, their ties to the EU are growing stronger, thanks to trade deals that are immensely important for projecting values about procurement rules, transparency, the norms for market economies, and a plethora of exchanges that boost this wider definition of the West. Values and interests coalesce.
For Gabriel, “a focus on values alone, as we Germans like to underline in our foreign policy, will no longer be enough to enable use to stand our ground in a world characterized by economic, political, and military egoism.” Relate that to Russia and one will quickly understand Germany’s—and especially the Social Democrats’—obsession about not wanting to alienate Moscow.
Gabriel brought up Nord Stream 2, the second pipeline that Russia, German, and other big western European energy companies are building under the Baltic Sea. It will bring gas directly from Russia to Germany. Both the Obama and the Trump administrations opposed Nord Stream.
European energy companies doing business with Russia had initially been targeted for sanctions by the United States. “The sanctions that the U.S. Congress imposed on Russia last summer also affect existing German pipelines that run to Russia. These sanctions pose an existential threat to our own economic interests,” Gabriel said.
Existential threat? What economic interests? If it’s about Gazprom offering Germany cheap gas, knowing that the price is Germany remaining dependent on Russian energy, is that really in Germany’s interests?
Gabriel then went on to argue that there is “no such thing as a German Ostpolitik today.” Nord Stream surely disproves that. Instead, he called for a European Ostpolitik if “our new NATO and EU partners in central and eastern Europe are on board.”
Essentially, Germany’s Social Democrats still hanker after a détente with Russia, as if the Cold War years were comparable to today’s crises.
To achieve this new détente, Gabriel proposed to Russia a lasting ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Europe would help rebuild Donbas “and also initiate the first steps towards removing sanctions.” It would fall short of fulfilling the Minsk accords, Gabriel argued. But it would be a “major step towards a new policy of détente with Russia.”
It’s as if Russia’s decision to tear up the 1975 Helsinki Final Act (that endorsed the inviolability of borders) when it annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 didn’t matter. If all the other EU countries bought into Gabriel’s plan it would make a mockery of the EU’s democratic principles and values, in addition to undermining the West.
These values and principles are increasingly under threat from the digital revolution that Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries are adept at exploiting. Democracies and their open societies are only beginning to grasp the scope of the disruption on traditional forms of governing and elections and security and defense. That existential threat to the West didn’t occur to Gabriel.
Yet the digital revolution could be a chance for a new Atlanticism, in which members would understand how values and principles need to be upheld as shifting alliances and interests of non-Western players challenge much that the West stands for. It could be a chance to establish guidelines, practices, and new regulatory procedures with giant social media companies. The task would be gargantuan. But Western democracies have to grasp what is at stake as the contest for influence from new players increases. One awaits Germany’s input.