1. Democratic Setbacks in a Transitioning World Order
Just a few short months ago in November 2019 (what now seems like a previous lifetime before the pandemic), the world celebrated 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe. We paused for a moment to remember this inflection point for democracy in Europe and a time when a unified Germany became one of America’s closest partners on the world stage. We reflected on the years that followed when the U.S.-Germany relationship secured a prized position in the transatlantic relationship. We remembered how the values of democratic and free societies that propelled the movements of 1989 became the foundational pillars of the transatlantic community, and no more so than in U.S.-Germany ties.
Today, the euphoria of 1989 has given way to democratic setbacks in the same countries that were once the bright lights of liberal transformation. Societies on both sides of the Atlantic are grappling with powerful populist and nationalist movements. In the U.S., President Trump rode a right-wing populist wave to the White House and continues to maintain a strong base of support, while far-right parties now have a presence in 23 out of 28 European parliaments. In these challenging times for democracy in the transatlantic community, the lessons of how democracy was advanced in 1989 are newly relevant.
Yet at time when we should be renewing and fostering the lessons of 1989 and strengthening the transatlantic relationship for a new geopolitical era, trust between the United States and its European partners is at the lowest point in recent memory. Divisions in the relationship make it underprepared to meet present and future challenges emanating from authoritarian states, technological advancements, migration, and growing inequities within our societies. While the Trump Administration has deeply exacerbated tensions between the U.S. and Europe, Europe is under strain from its own set of geopolitical, societal and economic challenges.
In the last decade, Europe has faced a series of crises including the 2008 global financial crisis; the subsequent eurozone debt crisis; Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine; intermittent terror attacks in major European cities; a refugee crisis which surged in 2015 and continues today; Brexit; a rising and divisive China; and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding fractured ties with the United States, Europe has become increasingly vulnerable to external interference and influence. As a community comprised of the world’s most advanced and prosperous democracies, setbacks within the transatlantic relationship affect global stability and the liberal character of the international order.
2. The Return of Geopolitics
Even before the coronavirus pandemic brought the world to a standstill, 2020 was shaping up to be an inflection point for the transatlantic relationship. Within our societies, a long-term decline in trust among citizens for their governments was being propelled by combination of factors including a lack of government transparency, corruption, rising inequality, and the excesses of globalization. Meanwhile, a digital revolution promised to upend societies and push new debates on issues ranging from newly automated industries to digital privacy. U.S. foreign policy had already undertaken a shift in focus away from global terrorism and toward state-based competition with authoritarian states, most prominently Russia and China.
The United States concluded that both Russia and China, using different means and with different strength, seek to achieve three objectives: to develop military and economic spheres of influence in their regions; to weaken democratic institutions and norms that challenge their own internal legitimacy; and to diminish Western dominance of the international order. Europe has also drawn conclusions about China, albeit different ones. On one hand, Beijing represents an important economic and multilateral partner for Europe. On the other, the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to gain technological dominance and advance a digital authoritarian model throughout Europe and elsewhere have driven European policymakers and citizens to question Beijing’s intentions.
Lamentably, as the transatlantic relationship struggles to deal with democratic deficits and challenges from authoritarian states, the United States has emerged as an additional destabilizing force in Europe. President Trump, according to many Europeans, is the first U.S. President in the post-WWII era to not only disregard the European project but to also show open hostility for it. On the economic front, the Trump Administration has pursued a tariff war with European partners, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs under the auspices of national security and threatening auto-import tariffs. In security matters, President Trump has consistently questioned the value of NATO while treating the alliance like a protection racket. Politically, the United States has pulled out of multilateral agreements of critical importance to Europe such as the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran Nuclear Agreement. In an era of great power competition, the Trump Administration seems to view the European Union as a competitor and even a ‘foe.’
3. The Post-Pandemic World
These were the daunting challenges facing the transatlantic community before the pandemic struck. Moving into the post-pandemic world, it is likely that the coronavirus crisis will only accelerate these internal and geopolitical challenges.
Internally, the resulting health and economic crises are poised to exacerbate the very economic insecurity and inequality issues that were already deepening mistrust in democratic governments. Looking abroad, it is clear that Russia and China are using the crisis to consolidate power at home and expand influence abroad. China in particular is promoting a slew of conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus while painting U.S. and European responses to the pandemic as ineffective and weak. Moscow and Beijing have long aimed to weaken the United States, blunt the appeal of democratic institutions, and sow divisions across the West. Their goals in this crisis are no different. And their efforts should remind Western leaders of the ongoing geopolitical challenges percolating beyond the pandemic.
4. Finding Optimism in Crisis
Present tensions brought about by a decades-long run of destabilizing factors, power plays from Russia and China and now the immediate threat of the pandemic, however, should not lead us to lament the future of the transatlantic community and the U.S.-Germany relationship. Rather, this moment is a renewed call for progress and resilience in a transitioning world order.
At home, strengthening resilience will involve reworking social contracts between governments and citizens to address the drivers of economic discontent and distrust in democratic institutions. In its bilateral and multilateral relations, the Europe and U.S. also have an opportunity to promote a values-based agenda. This agenda includes addressing challenges from China, advancing democratic standards in AI and emerging technologies that meet the needs of free societies, integrating a strong climate agenda into our economic, political and social lives, and promoting tough anti-corruption measures.
Above all, we must recognize amidst crisis that our democratic institutions and norms need to be constantly defended and revitalized. Democracy will always remain an unfinished project; but it is imperative that governments and our societies emerge from this crisis with a renewed focus on climate, social justice, and equity. We must also focus on countering threats from authoritarian actors within our borders and outside them to strengthen the foundations of free societies in the transatlantic community. We need to demand - and elect - accountable and transparent political leadership. The pandemic has highlighted the dangers that nationalist divides pose to critical cooperation - from vaccine research to coordinated economic and fiscal responses. The pandemic has also shed a light on why we need each other more than ever. We should not let this moment of clarity pass us by.
Torrey Taussig ist Forschungsdirektorin am Belfer Center des Kennedy Instituts der Harvard-Universität. Sie leitet unter anderem das Projekt «Transatlantic Relations 2021», eine Kooperation mit der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (DGAP).