There will be a time after the U.S. president. Yet there are problems that will continue to exist. Europe and Germany must rethink their roles in the world.
America has gone crazy. At least one could come to that conclusion from observing the condition of the U.S. today. Domestically, a permanent hysteria dominates all political and societal debates. There is no longer an exchange of reasonable arguments with the goal of finding agreement, but instead, just shouting and circus, a substitution of reality TV for politics. In foreign affairs, the once-leading power of the West, which had formerly been a reliable if not always an easy ally, is now behaving erratically, brashly and pubescently. The world is waiting for the president in Washington to reveal what he is thinking via Twitter. And as soon as he does, one waits for him to change his opinion again.
When Angela Merkel meets with the president this week in Washington, their joint statements will be the usual boilerplate text. Then there will be talk of the evolved partnership that can withstand differences of opinion, of the long ties, of shared values and interests. Diplomats are paid to think up such empty phrases.
Is It Time for Germany and Europe to Break Away from Leading Power U.S.?
But everyone will know that that is a sham, if not a downright lie. Over the friendly picture, some unpleasant questions will be hanging like dark storm clouds that cannot be dispersed with empty words: Can and should this America, led by this president, still be the most important partner of Germany and Europe? Isn’t it time for Germany and Europe to break away from a leading power that no longer knows the direction it should be leading and whose stumbling no one actually wants to follow?
These are not trivial questions. They touch upon the post-war order in the world from which the U.S., Europe and especially Germany have profited so spectacularly. No matter how Germany and Europe answer this question, it can have dramatic consequences for them. Therefore, one should not decide upon an answer naively. The naive hope that everything will be as good as before will not come true. Nor should one answer hastily. The old, liberal world order is faltering. Starting up the wrecking ball out of fear of collapse instead of moving in new support beams can’t be the answer either.
Perhaps it will help for a start to break down where the actual problems lie. The acutest problem is certainly Donald Trump. The president is not only breaking with diplomatic convention in the relationship with Germany and Europe, he is also breaking with a fundamental belief on which transatlantic relations have rested for seven decades. Trump does not see America as the leader or protecting power of “the free world” or “the West” with all the rights, duties and costs, but also profits, that that role brings with it.
Trump is a businessman. And for him, his business as president consists of getting the greatest profit for his country, sometimes with the Europeans, sometimes without them and sometimes just against them. If anyone is currently breaking away from the old American-European alliance that never functioned according to these bookkeeping rules, then it is Donald Trump, not Germany or Europe.
There Will Be a Time After Trump
In addition, there are a few personal qualities that make dealing with Trump difficult: his ignorance, his constantly exaggerated opinion of himself and his penchant for lies and chaos. On the other hand, Trump will still be in office for at most seven, although perhaps only three years. Afterward, one will be able to look at what damage he has done to transatlantic relations, what can be repaired, what can be cleaned up and what will possibly have to be built anew.
It is certain: There will be a time after Trump. This will not necessarily be better, but it could be. Some things that constituted “the West“ will endure. The U.S. and the Europeans (at least most of them) will remain market-based, constitutional and more or less liberal democracies, and therefore natural partners for one another. In any case, autocracies like Russia and China are not a serious alternative as U.S. allies.
Yet there will also be problems in the aftermath of Trump. These have less to do with the question of whether the Americans, Europeans and Germans will go their separate ways, but rather what the burden sharing between them will look like. The retreat of the wearied American superpower had already begun under President Barack Obama. He was admittedly more polite, but he shares with Trump, and a majority of American voters, the belief that the U.S. should no longer be the world police, investing blood and money in distant places where there is nothing to be won.
The absolutely legitimate dissatisfaction of Americans with providing for order in the world will not simply vanish when Trump leaves office. The questions that Europeans and Germans must therefore pose and answer are: Are they prepared to help fill the vacuum that America leaves behind? And what does the internal European power and cost balance look like? German dreams of a leading role in Europe and the world have proven to be nightmares often enough. And up to now, there is no evidence that Europe has a mutual will to play a strong political role in the world.
These are not encouraging diagnoses. But in the end what applies to America also applies to rest of the West: Donald Trump can only destroy what one lets him destroy.