A troubled partnership

Trump's domestic agenda needs enemies, but friendships die hard, writes Helmut K. Anheier.

Times have changed. It seems now that the transatlantic partnership, guarantor of peace for over seventy years, may have run its course. At the root of this troubled partnership is America´s domestic weakness - inequality, racism, the economic ravages of the Great Recession - to name a few, compounded by President Donald Trump´s disregard for hard-won norms and alliances, and Europe´s disunity and helplessness on the global stage.

Amid this festering crisis, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier travelled to the United States. Not on a state visit, but on a cultural mission to deliver a message: transatlantic relations are indeed alive and well, and have taken up residence at the recently opened Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles, home to a new fellowship program fostering dialogue on democracy.

The literary giant Thomas Mann, one of the most prominent and outspoken German refugees in the United States during World War II, was a staunch defender of American democracy. In 1938, while Europe descended into the darkness of fascism and populism, Mann lectured on “The Coming Victory of Democracy” during a coast-to-coast speaking tour of the United States.

The 82-page essay that grew out of these lectures is still relevant today. For Mann, democracy was the form of government and society inspired by a deep respect for human dignity. In fact, this concept is now enshrined in Article 1 of the 1949 German Constitution: “Human dignity is inviolable.” Mann would have been very pleased to see the spread of democracy and the rise of a liberal social order around the world in the last decades of the 20th century.  By the year 2000, more people in more countries than ever before lived in a democracy.  

But Mann also cautioned repeatedly that democracy can never be taken for granted.  A democratic government requires a democratically inspired society. But it is precisely that mutually re-enforcing relationship that had already begun to erode even before Trump came to power. 

American democracy has long suffered from the excesses of campaign financing and gerrymandering, discouragement of voter registration and low voter turnout.  American society has equally suffered from growing social inequality, the racial divide, the decline of civic engagement, and simply from the inability of successive administrations to address the nation´s pressing social problems. 

Some, including many Europeans who benefitted from America´s democratic vision and largesse in the past, hope the country´s checks and balances are strong enough to withstand populist extremism and autocratic leanings. But they also worry about the deep political, racial and social divisions in a country with the highest incarceration rate and largest number of guns in the western world. And to many, the prospect of maintaining a mutually re-enforcing connection between government and society, inspired by respect of human dignity, appears ever more utopian. “No other democracy in the world has proved to be as resilient and renewable as that of the United States,” Steinmeier reminded us. But democracy is a “task for which one needs partners,” he said.

Now, instead of harnessing the democratic power of globalisation, Trump's domestic agenda is increasingly weakening the forces that keep democratic polities and societies together, and infecting the domestic affairs of other countries. Put more directly: in true populist manner, Trump´s domestic agenda requires external enemies to serve internal constituencies. Creating strife, rather than brokering peace, is critical to winning votes.

This means pitting Canadian steel makers against Pennsylvania steelworkers, Chinese coal against West Virginia miners, Mexican migrants and unemployed Texans, or German cars and Michigan automobile workers. Internationally, it means undermining the United Nations, erecting the border wall with Mexico, placing tariffs on the EU. The ultimate goal is to devalue multilateralism to serve isolationists and please economic nationalists.

We can only speculate as to where these politics will lead and how they can possibly “make America Great Again.” What seems ever-clearer, however, is that we are on a dangerous path to dismantling the international order. Ultimately, the democratic character of American society is at stake, as is its current form of government, and, indeed, the liberal international order the United States helped create and champion.

In Europe, the 2015 migration crisis, the 2016 Brexit shock, and anti-democratic tendencies in Poland and Hungary have fomented uncertainties about the EU´s future and laid bare its many weaknesses. These include Europe's failure to find common solutions; the tendency to free-ride and target “Brussels” in a political blame game; underspending on internal and external security; and widening differences between member states. Thus, a changing Europe finds itself ill-prepared to engage a United States that has changed as well. America no longer sees itself as the benign hegemon willing to carry a disproportionate burden.

Steinmeier said he feared the “damage caused by the current upheavals could be deeper seated and longer lasting – and most importantly, it could be irreparable.” And he emphasized that the forces driving the US and Europe apart existed before the current administration and will not disappear with the next.

At times like this, it is non-state partnerships, and the extensive and varied web of social connections they facilitate between America and Europe, that are vital to shoring up the transatlantic partnership. In the future, government and politics may play a lesser role, while private relationship in business and civil society fill the void. Indeed, for Germany, Los Angeles or New York could be more important anchors of this partnership than Washington.

Citing Abraham Lincoln´s Gettysburg Address, Steinmeier noted that in America's hour of deepest division, Lincoln committed the country to ensuring that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  “No, not just ´from this country´," Steinmeier noted. "But ´from the earth´.”

This article was originally published by the Dahrendorf Forum.

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