Six decades ago, Western Europe was at its lowest. The Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis had raised fears of war at exactly a time when the United States was occupied by a military mishap in Southeast Asia. A French boycott of the European community institutions and the decision of President Charles de Gaulle to leave the NATO military structure have added to the pessimism.
The future of Europe looked bleak. From my perspective – as someone who has worked in the Atlantic for almost 50 years – the similarities to the transatlantic relationship today are striking. A big question, as always, surrounds Germany – a country which then, like today, had to operate under the alluring historical and geographic hold of the East.
The parallels over 60 years are embodied by an extraordinary figure in post-war France: Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. He was a wealthy and influential publisher who felt that dramatizing Europe’s economic stagnation represented an opportunity to develop circulation and a hammer to attack de Gaulle, whom he despised.
In the columns of his magazine L’Express and in a bestseller The American challenge (The American Challenge), JJSS has become a global personality. He described the United States and Europe as engaged in a silent economic war, with Europe being outclassed on all fronts: management techniques, technological tools and research capacity. The results have been the resurgence of French nationalism, the stagnation of European integration and the growing alienation of the United States.
Six decades later, the European Union must do without Britain’s global competences. He again lost the technological race with the United States. Her self-confidence seems as low or lower than it was in the 1960s.
Faced with this discontent, many Europeans feel that they have no choice but to strengthen their traditional steel economy in China and Russia. Europe seems to ignore the geopolitical, cultural and moral drawbacks of this mercantilist approach.
Germany has invested billions of euros in research, construction and protection of eastern markets. He joined other EU members in the desperate search for a means of “digital sovereignty,” used as a cover for regulatory strategies aimed at limiting Washington’s technological advance.
The United States drew attention to China’s miserable human rights record, its threat to its Asian neighbors, and the challenges to Western digital hegemony posed by China’s surprising industrial progress .
German leaders argued that dialogue is more effective than confrontation, especially with neighbors to the east. Leaders as diverse as former chancellor (and Nord Stream chairman) Gerhard Schröder and conservative candidate for chancellor Armin Laschet are calling on Europeans to reject the new ‘cold war’ the US is allegedly stimulating in the Far East -East. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas appeared to have recently forgotten Russia’s aggressive role in Crimea, when he argued that the German sale of defensive weapons to Ukraine would mean taking sides in what was essentially a Ukrainian internal conflict.
Schröder is sort of the JJSS Nowadays. But his activities as a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin seem increasingly problematic. Disputes with the West over Russian action in Ukraine, the poisoning of opponent Alexei Navalny and now the illegal interception of the Ryanair flight over Belarus raise even more doubts about Schröder’s position as president of Nord Stream. His role as de facto spokesperson for the Russian government has become untenable.
What Europeans would call a “balanced” approach seems designed to achieve a European role of intermediary between the great powers, making trade with East and West equally lucrative.
Barely five months after Joe Biden’s presidency began, officials in Washington are already calling this unexpected eastward tilt a “new German problem.” In turn, some German commentators are beginning to question whether Biden’s focus on revitalizing the Western Alliance is little more than a continuation of President Donald Trump’s efforts to control Germany’s ties to the United States. Russia and China. And the controversy over the Nord Stream gas pipeline – even though the United States has pulled back from imposing sanctions on Western companies involved in its construction – made matters even worse.
Such feelings are familiar, but not very disturbing. The Germans’ particular fascination with the East reflects an old Berlin fixation which has almost always failed. It resurfaces whenever Germany feels pressured by the alliance to modify its objectives according to Western needs. But reality catches up with us quickly. Europeans know they have no alternative to the United States, but many seem to misunderstand Washington’s political dynamics and hope Biden will turn a blind eye to their maneuvers.
Biden has no choice but to maintain a hard line on Russia and China. It will be very difficult for him to harmonize his objectives with German strategies as Henry Kissinger did when he was Secretary of State in the mid-1970s when he joined the Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt .
Europe’s recovery from the Trump shock may take longer than expected. But no one can know exactly how long and what the costs will be. Are there any potential Brandts and Kissingers waiting backstage? Can Biden find a way to handle American domination in a way that protects the Western alliance? These central questions for the Atlantic partnership will be burning issues for the years to come.
John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Advisor at Noerr LLP and member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.