Transatlantic Relations: The Air of Freedom


In the "Transatlantic Manifesto" published by DIE ZEIT in October 2017, the authors emphasise the necessity of a strategy based on preserving and fostering to transatlantic relations. Critics take issue with this approach and are calling for a "new post-Atlanticism foreign policy", an attitute that Sergey Lagodinsky believes to be based on fundamental misunderstandings and fraught with danger.

Demonstrant beim Million-Woman March in Downtown Chicago

In 1993 we packed our bags and moved to Schleswig-Holstein, but in reality we moved to the West. The motivation of economic prosperity certainly played a role, but the most important thing for us was being able to breathe: open and free thinking, guaranteed space to move around in, and the certainty that minorities would not be oppressed by the majority. That was new to us Eastern Europeans shaped by life in the Soviet Union, and as thinking human beings it was like breath of fresh air to a person who has difficulty breathing – a feeling of simultaneous relief and gratitude. In the clash between East and West, we chose the West. Not Germany.

At the time we could not have imagined how much of an historical oddity this ostensibly Western country of Germany was. Neither did we grasp how quickly Germany would get used to its own oddness and come to consider it permanent and normal, come to forget the uniqueness of its special position in history.

Admittedly, nowadays it is hard for all of us to defend the main elements of Germany’s free and liberal Western orientation. Especially those of us who had never experienced a lack of freedom. They never knew what it was like to grow up in circumstances in which freedom was not only suppressed but also an entirely unknown concept, in your life, your parents', in their parents' and their parents' parents’. In our lives there was no trace of anything west of the Wall, and no trace of what some people had to the east of it: access to Western media, if only to have a visual idea of freedom; occasional visitors from the West bringing stories from over there; and even private property and small-scale entrepreneurship (as a privilege of socialist Eastern Europe over the USSR, where people vanished into prison or the Gulag).

Perhaps that is the reason for the objection that stirs in me when reading the ZEIT authors' reply to the manifesto for a strategy toward the USA, which I co-signed: Jörg Lau and Bernd Ulrich have spent their whole lives in a world that usually revolved around maximum levels of carbon monoxide in the air of the free world, while the oxygen of freedom - at the core of their very existence - was taken for granted. It is perhaps this sheer normalcy of freedom that leads to the misunderstandings and illusions contained in the text.

"The Atlanticists" do not exist

On the matter of misunderstandings, it may be possible that these words are indicative of my own pique at being misunderstood. Jörg Lau, whom I respect and admire, and Bernd Ulrich, whom I admire equally but do not know personally, did not understand the authors of the transatlantic manifesto yet did not hold back with their string of generalisations and homogenising adjectives. The "Atlanticists", they say, are the ones who have always underestimated and trivialised Trump (as though "the Atlanticists" were a political party and the proponents of Eurasian friendship had all predicted Trump's victory). Yet it is more problematic that the ZEIT authors see paradoxes where none exist. They construct a dichotomy with no real opposites, as if there were only two opposing schools of thought: the pro-American slave drivers on one side, and the EU/Germany emancipators on the other. That is incorrect. The point of the kind of US strategy we would like to see lies in calibrating European emancipation and at the same time acknowledging America as a partner. Yes, debates thrive on constructed dichotomies and abbreviations, but the response from the ZEIT authors is founded on inaccurate and overly convenient opposites.

The "Atlanticists" do not exist, because the group known as Atlanticists is very diverse. There are left- and right-wing adherents, consumer NGOs and industry representatives, scientists conducting research on both sides and teaching each other their methods, and environmental and justice advocates who understand and learn from one another how public campaigns or civil disobedience function. There are feminists who further develop and spread the methods of critical feminist theory abroad, and there are fighters of racism who are learning the ideologies of anti-racism in the USA.

The West as a concept of freedom

Yet the misconception of the "Atlanticists" stems from an incorrect definition of transatlantic relations as an alliance primarily concerned with security and economic policy. Nothing could be further from the truth: transatlantic relations reflect democracy and culture and are a mirror of cross-pollination in all areas, from art to non-fiction. The transatlantic alliance is a frame, not the picture. It is informed by values, but its content is neutral. People can use it to create wars and peace initiatives in equal measure, to produce the cheapest of blockbusters and the best of writing traditions, the most hideous of pop-stars and the very best in contemporary art.

Transatlantic relations are both: values and networks. But whereas much is possible at the network level, the level of values is not arbitrary. Whether we are concerned with the primacy of civil rights over group pressure, the value of self-determination or the priority of creativity over authority, this spirit is the anchor that defines the West - unimaginable in China or modern-day Russia. These values are also the corset that slows the pace at which all societies develop and transform themselves. Germany's alignment with the West and the transatlantic alignment of the USA is the best device for protecting both from their own inner demons. This concept of freedom represented the big bang that gave birth to the West; the  corset aims to hold both sides together and save them from themselves.

However, that is clearly not the ZEIT authors' understanding of the transatlantic relationship. Perhaps that is also why the term was truncated to "Atlanticists". Atlanticist refers to a direction that, from Berlin's perspective, can only point toward the USA. "Transatlanticist" refers to a bridge that can lead both ways. It is from this slapdash shortening of transatlantic relations that everything else follows: for Atlantic-sceptics, the relationship imploded with Trump's inauguration, which marked the point of no return, irrevocably breaking the connection. For them, Obama is just as anti-Atlantic as Trump, because Obama prioritised Asia. Both assertions are false: Trump endangers the West not because he has less respect for NATO but rather because he is destroying the general consensus as to what liberal democracy and liberal diplomacy mean. Obama never questioned this. On the contrary.

But just as Obama did not symbolise the USA, neither does Trump. America, to which our gaze is drawn "despite everything", is a concept. It is diverse, crazy, contentious and quarrelsome. Indeed, America is a political system that managed to produce Trump just as it produced Obama. Yet the USA is, above all, home to a legal system, a free press and a civil society that defy Obama and Trump alike - and have still not given up the struggle!

Trump is not America

Trump is a president sui generis not because he has betrayed Germans' trust, but rather because he has betrayed the trust of his own American democratic system. This was inconceivable during the administrations of all presidents before him and will (hopefully) not be possible under any who follow him, even if we are all aware of the risk of having reached a tipping point in American political culture. Far from turning our backs on this endangered American democratic system, we should show it more solidarity.

Trump is not America, and transatlantic relations consist of more than just security policy. The Transatlanticists’ manifesto is based on these axioms of modern transatlantic self-conception, and the ZEIT authors missed this. End of treatise on misunderstandings.

German hubris

Let us now consider illusions. No matter how much Lau's and Ulrich's opinion may be shaped by misinterpretations of the "Atlanticists'" positions, their conclusions for Germany's foreign policy are based on two illusory assumptions: the ZEIT authors overestimate Germany and underestimate the challenges of our country's geostrategic environment.

The overestimation of the historic power of Germany's 70-year-old democracy is all the more astonishing because the ZEIT authors hastily attest to the failure of American democracy, itself more than 200 years old. Yet if it is true that America’s liberal tradition will collapse within one year with Trump as the "guarantor of democracy", that it has forfeited its "moral, military, and political claim to leadership", then how long can the democratic tradition in Germany hold out?

The authors' problem is that they have been caught in the undertow of German hubris against the backdrop of America's Twitter president. Sensing a coup, they criticise the string of American "absurdities" in the USA, as though everything in Europe and Germany were under control. Among their list of lunacies in the USA are such circumstances as "the gap between rich and poor", "the elitist education system", "rampant racism", "increased nationalism", "horrendous energy consumption", and "religious sectarianism". This list reflects a blindness to one's own state of affairs, as if we in Germany were living in the middle of a thriving, socialist Internationale.

A surprised reader may wonder which country the authors at ZEIT live in and whether they have ever heard of discrimination and xenophobia in Germany, let alone in Europe as a whole. An American reader would probe even further and realise with astonishment that insufficiently gifted children in Germany are assigned to the lower-tier Hauptschulen while still in primary school, that sexism is the order of the day, that affirmative action for minorities is as non-existent as the fundamental legality of abortion (which has been legal across the USA since 1973, despite the many issues at state level).

An American would also note that a Republican president introduced civil partnerships to the USA, while the current German chancellor took a decisive stance against it; and that the American Supreme Court decreed equal rights to marry while the enlightened German government (one of the last in Europe!) clung to the unwritten privilege of marriage between man and woman. The astonished American reader would condemn the aggressive German discussion about Scientology as an infringement on religious freedom, and would view the relations between church and state (including church tax and religious instruction in schools) in Germany as a spectacular violation of the enlightened separation of state and religion.

Above all else, the bewildered American would wonder at the unexpectedly strong revival of their German friends' self-assurance in believing in the stability of the civilising, enlightened pedestal of their own society, while at least a third of the country enthusiastically supports parties who wish to dismantle the basic principles of liberal democracy, and 60 per cent want to finish discussing their own history. And it thus becomes apparent that the first illusion to which the ZEIT authors critical of the Atlantic have succumbed is an illusion of themselves.

The geostrategic environment

The second illusion lies in the misinterpretation of their own geostrategic environment. This environment is not a neutral one. Europe is not the USA or Russia; it is incapable of moving quickly to become a powerful pole of security policy or ideology in the international magnetic field. Worse still, Germany is not a giant of international policy, a kind of "global Switzerland" in a position to behold neutrally and patronisingly the adversaries that are the USA and Russia. Germany is too weak to quickly develop its own magnetic pull so that it can resist other forces. Whether we like it or not, our country is located in the middle of the contested  field of Central Europe. It would be less serious if, at the very least, the democratic challenges were comparable in quality at both magnetic poles. But Trump and Putin differ in one aspect that is crucial for us: Trump is a dangerous person, Putin is a system.

It is not a Cold War that is raging outside but rather a battle of systems or, to be more precise, an attack against the liberal-democratic system. The attack is unflinching and it cannot be isolated. The onslaught is being conducted with the full battery of ideological and technological weapons. The attack on liberal democracy is being directed from Moscow but is increasingly expanding from Budapest to Ankara. Even more critical is the fact that the onslaught is not stopping at Germany's borders. There is no helping those who cannot see the ideological intervention. Be it on social media, in YouTube videos from Ruptly or Russia Today, be it in Russian, German or English – the liberal-democratic system is under siege. Here in Germany, the ideological bombardment is making contact with deeply insecure and disoriented segments of society, who of their own accord reject the West as a liberal-democratic concept in their own countries, and yearn for authoritarianism and majority rule. This combination of external intervention and internal demand is historically unprecedented, and is an explosive combination.

Germany has reached a crossroads, and must make a decision! But before we choose which way to turn, we must be clear that the decision is binary: there is no third option. There is no equidistance in a magnetic field. Any hesitation will mean the country being swept off its feet in the riptide of anti-liberal ideology. The danger and the decision have less to do with security policy and more with domestic policy and identity. In that sense, a trans-Atlantic unravelling amounts to an unravelling of Germany’s image of its own liberal self. Despite all our justified pride in the achievements of the past 70 years, our country cannot look back on a stable, Western democratic tradition – even though it has that tradition to thank for the highest state of moral development that it has yet achieved. God help those who cannot see this. In any case they should keep a suitcase close at hand for when they set out once again in search of the free West. 

A shorter version of this article appeared under the title "Deutsche Illusionen" on 26 October 2017 in DIE ZEIT.