Ex-US ambassador John Kornblum warns of great dangers for democracy. In the interview he says that the alienation of people is terrifying.
Actually, the former US ambassador John Kornblum still lives in Berlin. Because of the Corona situation, however, he has been living in the US state of Tennessee for more than a year. From there, too, he closely follows the relationship between the USA, Europe and Germany. He spoke to t-online about the great transatlantic challenges.
t-online: Mr. Kornblum, the Chancellor will meet Joe Biden in the White House in mid-July. How important is this last visit from Angela Merkel to the USA?
John Kornblum: Your visit is very important for two reasons. For Germany, because it will be Merkel’s last visit and the future direction will be discussed. It matters to America because, as Joe Biden puts it, America wants to regain leadership. In the global triangle of power made up of China, Russia and the Atlantic world, Germany is needed as a permanent partner. Germany is the leading and determining power in Europe. The Americans know that.
What topics are Joe Biden and Angela Merkel likely to talk about?
There are two main categories. The geopolitical questions are: How do you deal with Russia? And how do you deal with China? What do you do in the Middle East? Then there are the important civilizational questions such as climate change, refugee movements and also the whole area of digitization, the internet and of course health issues. For our future, these civilizational aspects are actually much more important than the question of how our relations with Russia will develop. But Germany plays a central role in both categories.
The US understands that even as a great power it would not advance alone. Are Europe and America equally dependent on each other?
It’s about realizing the relationship, and that’s not the case at the moment. On the European side there is the feeling that we have been taken by surprise. We got on the defensive somehow. We have to assert ourselves because of Trump. On the American side, there is a feeling that Europe is not fulfilling its own role in a positive way. It gives the impression that the Americans have always given and the Europeans have given nothing back.
What could improve the mutual picture?
In the USA I always try to convey the following: Europe is a group of states that are very important and that have more or less defined world events for over 500 years. That is 500 million inhabitants, most of whom are well educated and to a large extent very democratic. So it would be foolish not to try to bind these partners to us as closely and positively as possible. To do this, however, both sides need to have their emotions a little better under control.
What do you mean?
The Europeans have to understand that one is not only dependent on America for a few important basic issues. Europe is 100 percent dependent on the US – for security, technology and finance. But for us Americans, as I said, it would be utterly stupid if we simply pushed away 500 million people who are closely connected to us and want to enjoy our protection in the event of differences of opinion, as Trump did.
In Berlin and Brussels it is said that the Chancellor would not only fly to the United States, but also plan one last trip to China afterwards. What do you think?
I would advise against it. That would of course be exactly the wrong signal. In a sense, German China policy is at a dead end. Many German companies have built large businesses in China. Which is also good. But it is mostly business in areas that are not really promising for the future. They are areas from the old industrial economy. As we know, Europe is a bit behind in the new digital economy. The danger for Europe and Germany is to make themselves dependent on China for digital issues and thus open to blackmail. The example of Huawei and 5G is just one of many. This is a very important point about which Americans do not understand Europeans.
For an exporting nation like Germany, this dependency is at the same time vital. A decoupling from China, as the USA is promoting, is not even possible.
No, you can do both – economic relationships and still set clear boundaries. Because the Chinese also need Germany and the Europeans. It’s not just Europeans’ fault either. During Donald Trump’s time, the United States did a lot to ensure that Europe had no choice but to orientate itself differently. They were afraid that Trump wanted to weaken them, which is true. Incidentally, Apple, whose devices are almost exclusively manufactured in China, has made major cuts in human rights. This is a problem that not only Europe has. It’s our common problem. But Germany in particular is trying to define itself as a mediator between China and the USA. It’s just not possible.
Do you mean the – to put it politely – typically German reluctance to foreign policy?
The reason western companies can be so successful in China is because of the support of the American military. Without this protection in the back, one would not be able to get involved in such a way. I admit that Europe and Germany still have to solve this riddle. But the West is smart enough to do it.
Europeans are concerned about another Trump shock soon. Isn’t it justified to be wary of a blind approach to the USA?
That is without question justified. Trump was a shock to us all. But it was a symptom and not the cause. And these symptoms also exist in Europe. That is why it is so important that all of North America – Canada, the USA and Mexico – redefine the West together with Europe and secure each other. Great Britain has – I say nicely – an inconsistent government. That led to Brexit. An incredibly heavy loss for the EU. We don’t know what will happen next year in the French election campaign. We see Poland and Hungary drifting away. Fascism is very strong in Italy. People don’t like to talk about that, but it’s true. These are all challenges for our democracies in which we have to support each other.
That sounds like Joe Biden, who wants to organize the struggle of the democracies against the autocracies globally. What should that look like, do we need a new alliance, an expanded NATO?
It doesn’t have to look so official. It’s more about a political-mental thing than an organizational one. Joe Biden said in his first foreign policy speech at the Munich Security Conference: “We have to deliver.” And he’s right. Our peoples believe that our democratic policies do not deliver. The electorate is upset and that’s putting it mildly. Large parts are completely alienated. It is extremely dangerous.
In what way?
I’m not going to say now that we have to expect a war. But it could be that we are entering a phase like the one we had at the beginning of the 20th century. The alienation of people is terrifying. The January 6th storm on the Capitol was just an event. The Reichstag was also stormed in Germany, albeit with a mild outcome. It was a much smaller group of right-wing people, but they were also willing to use violence.
What do you attribute this alienation to?
This also has to do with the consequences of globalization and the loss of jobs and our own importance, but not only. Overall, we are facing a task of the century and do not even have a common vocabulary to describe everything that is actually going on.
Did Joe Biden at least find a common language again during his European trip?
He did, but I don’t 100 percent agree with him. He did two things to consolidate relations with Germany: Before his trip, he more or less gave up the fight against Nord Stream 2. For this he was and is heavily criticized in the USA. And after his return, he stopped the delivery of military equipment to Ukraine. I consider both to be questionable. One hears that even his own foreign minister, Antony Blinken, disagreed. After all, he was Biden’s foreign policy advisor for 10 years.
Who benefited more from the Geneva summit – Putin or Biden?
This is a hotly debated issue here in the United States. I mean, they both won something. That is always the yardstick for a successful meeting, especially with such a complicated world situation. Putin won because the meeting took place at all, without any public confrontation. Biden was able to benefit because he has resumed contact with Russia and because he spoke to Putin rightly and very harshly. In this way a foundation was laid for further development of the relationship. In six months we shall see how Putin acted.