Donald Trump’s election as American president is the latest and most dramatic sign of a major political and social sea change, the effect of which we are just beginning to understand. The break with the past has been so dramatic that Europe too risks being engulfed in a wave of the sort of populism which contributed to Trump’s victory. Old political formulas are so longer sufficient to describe what is going on. European leaders are faced with the task of convincing not only the United States, but also their own voters, that they are capable of dealing successfully with the dislocations of a radically new era.
So far European elites have reacted to this upheaval with the usual mix of resignation and indecision which too often characterizes their approach to new challenges: Rather than using Trump’s threats as an opportunity to break through political malaise, they worry instead about the End of the West; they repeat old mantras about “deepening European integration” or even explore new structures outside the Atlantic framework. But the fact is, Atlantic nations find themselves in the same boat. Without clear and workable transatlantic approaches neither the Americans nor the Europeans will be able to manage voter anger in years to come.
The task is immense. Sooner or later even Trump will come to understand that without transatlantic cooperation he won’t get very far in dealing with the many problems he faces. Strong evidence of European engagement can help leaders on both sides of the Atlantic by demonstrating the sort of transatlantic common purpose which has been painfully absent since the end of the Cold War. The West is not fated to disappear. Especially if it learns to deal with the new situation. But if the democratic peoples of the West don’t step up to what has clearly become the most important political and philosophical challenge of the twenty-first century, there will be a real risk of decline and global impotence.
Trump is a populist. He seeks out “deals” which, according to Nobel Laureate Robert Schiller, demonstrate to his electorate that he is keeping his promise to meet their needs. But Schiller also believes that Trump’s tax cuts and infrastructure programs will not do much for his middle class supporters. “To the contrary, businesses will use the benefits of his programs to buy new robots and expand automation which will actually destroy even more industrial jobs.
But something even more fundamental is afoot which will deflate the pretensions of Trump and his European counterparts. They have profited from the fraying of the postwar social and political consensus and understood that emotions are replacing reason. But they seem not to have comprehended how revolutionary the processes of globalization will be. Sweeping promises to reverse the effects of digitalization will not reverse the technological revolution. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has suggested that, “In a few years, we will reach a point at which almost everything has been digitized.” Even if “facts” are ignored, mounds of impartial data will expose the hollowness of even the most grandiose of schemes.
It is at this point where Europe, with its broad-based social system and its focus on collective equality, has something to offer. America is the unchallenged leader in the field of digital technology. But Trump’s America will not be able to cope with the social consequences of the rapid spread of this technology. Europe does not have Silicon Valley, but it does offer a solid social foundation which can be better adapted to the harsh winds of digitalization than Trump’s deal making could ever achieve.
It is likely that the differences between Europe and Trump’s America on critical challenges such as globalization and digitalization, civil rights, and data protection, will grow more pronounced. If Europeans can offer independent workable solutions which also meet American needs, they can ultimately help Trump steer through the contradictions of his populist approach. And, if I may state as an American: We need a strong European voice which can help us protect our liberal traditions.
Many Europeans and Americans seem to agree that there is only one country that can act credibly in both Europe and America to meet these needs. There is only one country and one leader who can fulfill this task: Germany and Angela Merkel. The world press reached this conclusion long ago. Barack Obama underlined the point during his visit to Berlin right after the November election. Only Germany itself is not too happy about being nominated for this role. Maybe Germany would find it easier to understand its new role if we substituted the world “responsibility” for the word “leadership.”
The future has already arrived. Our needs can no longer be served by grand initiatives “led” by great powers. World order will in the future be the result of interconnected strategies and integrative systems. Only then can we deal with problems such as the euro, refugees, or the environment. The modern Federal Republic of Germany is well suited to the task of building such systems. But at the moment, it is still a nation which has for seventy years been trying so hard to define its reality as “normal,” that it now finds it difficult to imagine itself adapting to the “normality” of others. Germany lacks the self-confidence to integrate easily into the new conditions of a twenty-first century globalized culture.
Germany should never be expected to become a great power in the traditional sense. It has an even more important role to play. It has the ability to reach out to help build interconnected networks from Europe to both Asia and North America which are the foundation for new sorts of global economic and security systems. Neither Europe nor America can afford to ignore this historic new opportunity. What we need now are mutual efforts to help make it work.
This article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on January 6, 2017.
John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees.