Those who have followed events in the Arab world during the past few weeks must have been impressed by one fact: Are the Americans the only ones who can talk seriously about how to help the Libyans? Regardless of the many changes taking place in the world, the global balance remains amazingly dependent on American engagement.
And let’s be honest; it’s going to stay that way. America’s influence is not based solely on the talents of its leadership, or even on its power, but on a sort of spontaneous combustion which arises from within its national life. The unique mixture of peoples and cultures which makes up American society somehow repeatedly defines new directions. The most recent example? Barack Hussein Obama himself.
Somehow the contradictions, the disorganization, and the narcissism of Arthur Holitscher’s “irritating country” contribute repeatedly to the establishment of new sorts of channels, which serve as mechanisms for the renewed application of American influence. Through a unique mixture of American hard and soft power, both friends and opponents of America are drawn together almost randomly and subjected to American influence.
And here is the dilemma. For many foreigners, America’s unique personality remains impenetrable. In times of crisis, conventional judgments about the United States become increasingly inexact.
American is like a cubist painting by Picasso. We can see the outlines of the figures, but the details remain hidden from us. That should not be surprising. The end of the Cold War has robbed the United States of a good part of its identity. The task of managing a complicated “multipolar world” makes Americans feel increasingly insecure.
The confusion is heightened by the fact that massive economic and technological change has contributed to a dramatic restructuring of domestic life in America. The social costs of such a relentless and ruthless system are high. But it is one of the peculiarities of American psychology that such a difficult situation prompts more patriotism and nationalism instead of less. Foreigners are surprised by the growth of conservative ideas even in a time of economic weakness. The sense of loss which results from the disappearance of old values is apparently more important for many people than saving the economy. Foreign policy will not be spared these pressures.
Here is where a sea change is under way. America’s role in defending against fascism and communism after World War II overcame to a considerable extent traditional suspicion of the rest of the world. But today there are no longer any major building projects which can serve to engage American energy. Since the world fails to provide a mirror for our goals and ideals, we are steadily drawn to the traditional American fear of foreign engagements. Rather than being the focus of American designs for a better future, the world increasingly is becoming a collection of threats.
The job of diplomacy is to keep threats as far from our shores as possible. The current foci are terrorism, arms control, non-proliferation, and the economic crisis. Our major trading partner, China, is being portrayed as a currency speculator and a growing serious military threat.
American has not lost interest in Europe, but it cannot relate the slow-moving European processes to the urgency of defending against a growing list of dangers. George W. Bush made it very clear: Results are more important than alliances. Things have not changed that much with Obama. Good allies are those who recognize the new dangers and contribute to fighting them. When Germany resisted steps to redress “global imbalances,” this close ally was thrown into the same pot as China.
The upheavals in the Arab world are playing a role similar to that of the Balkans twenty years ago. They are highlighting the deep gap which has grown between American and European perceptions, above all that Europe cannot meet the new security challenges. Europe will not be able to prosper without American protection. But the rhetoric of today’s European Union provides a new generation of American diplomats with little motivation to continue the security umbrella.
First on the agenda should be a new strategy for Atlantic relations. But this time the imitative should come from the European side. Europe has essentially made itself uninteresting for America. The U.S. must be offered more than a continuation of bureaucratic processes, which many Americans consider to be empty of content. Obama is right on one thing: He gains nothing from a summit with EU notables.
Let’s get down to basics: The Atlantic Alliance provides a world-class economic power such as Germany with global protection, at an affordable price, which cannot be found elsewhere. With Europe becoming increasingly fragmented, only a strengthened transatlantic community can offer Germany the means to both meet competition from emerging industrial powers and deal with the dangers of regional conflicts.
Ultimately, this means offering more Europe by demanding less Europe. The vision of a two pillar Atlantic world will fade in the face of new realities. Instead of repeating the same endless debates on competing projects such as security policy and climate change, Europe and the United States should focus on common goals which demonstrate how Western values can help master the practical problems of globalization. In other words: The Atlantic must again become an inland sea.
Ambassador John Kornblum is a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, an AICGS Trustee, and Senior Counselor at Noerr Stiefenhofer Lutz Rechtsanwälte.
A German version of this essay originally appeared in the March 8, 2011, edition of Die Welt, and in the March 11, 2011, AICGS Advisor.