Donald Trump’s election as US president is the dramatic result of a major political and social sea change, the effect of which we are only beginning to understand. The break with the past has been so dramatic that Europe too risks being engulfed by the wave of populism that underpinned Trump’s victory. Old political formulae are no longer sufficient to describe what is unfolding. European leaders are faced with the task of convincing voters that they can successfully deal with the dislocations of a radically new era.
European elites have reacted to this upheaval with the usual mix of resignation and indecision which too often characterises 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 do so while parroting old mantras about ‘deepening European integration’ or even by exploring new structures outside the Atlantic framework.
Atlantic nations find themselves in the same boat. Without clear and workable transatlantic approaches, neither Americans nor Europeans will be able to manage voter anger. The task is immense. Eventually even Trump will come to understand that he won’t get very far in dealing with the many problems he faces without transatlantic co-operation.
Signs of European engagement can help leaders on both sides of the ocean by illustrating the sort of common purpose which has been absent since the end of the Cold War. The West is not about to disappear. But if these democracies do not address what has become the most important political and philosophical challenge of the 21st century so far, there will be a real risk of decline and global impotence.
Trump and his European counterparts have profited from the fraying of the postwar social and political consensus and understand that emotions are replacing reason. But they seem not to have comprehended how revolutionary globalisation will be. Sweeping promises to reverse the effects of digitalisation, for example, will not reverse the technological revolution. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, has suggested that ‘in a few years we will reach a point at which almost everything has been digitised’. Mounds of impartial data will expose the hollowness of even the most grandiose political schemes.
It is at this point where Europe, with its broad-based social welfare system and focus on collective equality, has something to offer. The US 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 may not have Silicon Valley, but it does offer a solid social foundation which can be better adapted to the harsh winds of digitalisation than Trump’s deal-making could ever achieve.
The differences between Europe’s and Trump’s positions on critical challenges such as globalisation and digitalisation, civil rights, and data protection, will become 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. He can benefit from a strong European voice to help America protect its 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: Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Barack Obama underlined the point during his visit to Berlin right after the November election, even if Germany seems unenthusiastic about being nominated for the role.
The world’s needs can no longer be served by grand initiatives led by great powers. World order will come as a result of interconnected strategies and integrative systems. Only then can problems such as the euro, mass migrations and climate change be dealt with. The modern Germany is well-suited to the task. But it is still a nation which has, for 70 years, been trying so hard to define its reality as ‘normal’ that it now finds it difficult to imagine adapting to the normality of others. Germany lacks the self- confidence to integrate easily into the new conditions of the 21st century globalised 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 help build interconnected networks which will be the foundation for new global economic and security systems. Neither Europe nor America can afford to ignore this opportunity. What is needed now are mutual efforts to help make it work.
John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.