US President Donald J. Trump has overturned many things, changing long-standing practices and conventions. NATO was recently certified brain dead. The EU is preoccupied with Brexit and the rise of nationalists within its member states. Bad times for transatlantic relations, you might think.
A clear signal in favour of the maintenance of strong transatlantic relations and of their importance was sent by the second FOTAR Conference in Hamburg. Together with the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung staged the conference “The Future of Transatlantic Relations: The Transatlantic Security Partnership in Turbulent Times” on 30 January 2020. One hundred and fifty guests and 12 international experts assembled in the atrium of the Hamburg State and University Library to discuss the future of global security policy.
What is next for transatlantic relations in a time of constantly changing parameters? Professor Markus Kotzur, President of the Europa-Kolleg Hamburg, had a straight answer: “There is no straight answer.” It would be presumptuous to come up with an absolute or definite answer. And that was precisely why it was important to talk about these pressing issues.
The Chairman of the Management Board and Managing Director of the Bundeskanzler-Helmut-Schmidt-Stiftung, Dr Meik Woyke, also emphasised that we were living in complex times. “Helmut Schmidt was a staunch European and multilateralist. His policies can be a compass in complicated times.”
It is not only since Donald Trump assumed office that the international community has begun to turn its back on multilateralism. Since then, however, the possibility of the US leaving NATO has become a focus of debate. It that really conceivable? And what would it mean for security structures in Europe?
Europeans were well aware that there was a security problem, said Janusz Reiter, former Polish Ambassador to Germany and the US. That harboured great potential for conflict within the European community. The question of who should shape the security framework was particularly contentious. Europeans were more inclined to accept the EU than NATO when it came to issues of security. “We need the West, we need the community of the US and Europe,” he stressed.
But how is NATO faring? The defence alliance does not get a good report from Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. “NATO is always in crisis,” said Pletka, criticising the NATO of today for being more of an ideological alliance than a defence alliance. She was particularly scathing about Germany on account of what she calls its embarrassing record of insufficient defence spending.
Dr Henning Riecke assessed the situation differently. “NATO has never been stronger,” and it had more money than before. However, the political scientist and Programme Director at the German Council on Foreign Relations would like to see the defence budget increased. And yet he sees a tragic irony when it comes to arguing for it: because it was Donald Trump – on the whole unpopular in Germany – who was calling for higher spending, making the case for it would be difficult. Opponents could thus argue against higher spending precisely because they refused to be dictated to by the American President. Advocates of a bigger budget therefore had a particularly hard time of it.
It was not only the US seeking to influence matters. For several years now there had been a new player at the table who was keen to have an ever more important role. How ought Europe and the US to react to China? “It is good that we are actually dealing with the issue. For a long time that was not the case,” explained Zachary M. Hosford, Deputy Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States’ Asia Programme. And we still had a lot to learn, he argued: In the case of the new Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative), for instance, we were still trying to find out its details.
More than 100 countries are involved in the infrastructure project that the Chinese government has been pursuing since 2013; it is regarded as the largest in the world. Hosford’s fear was that countries such as Sri Lanka could become too dependent on China and lose their autonomy. But how should the West react? “China couldn’t care less” about the fact that Europe and the US had doubts about the project, said Professor Eberhard Sandschneider, China expert and Professor at Freie Universität Berlin. The project would be a success – that had been clear from the outset. “Unsuccessful projects are simply thrown out of the initiative.”
It was less easy to judge how the Chinese leadership would cope with the outbreak of the new strain of coronavirus. The party would have to prove that it could deal effectively with the outbreak, otherwise it risked incurring the wrath of the Chinese population, said Professor Sandschneider. “The crisis is revealing weak points within central government,” agreed Dr Yu Jie from the London-based think tank, Chatham House.
Many online products also reveal weak points – a problem that is often underestimated, as cyber security has long been neglected. For too long? Cybersecurity expert Melissa Hathaway is critical of the lax approach to cybercrime, insecure products and vulnerable infrastructure. “Discussion of the problems started far too late,” she says. Even now the approach was far from being confident and comprehensive. In the US, for example, the focus was almost exclusively on the security of the 2020 presidential election, with other topics, such as securing the financial market, being neglected.
Professor Robin Geiß struck a more optimistic note: “In time we will get better at coping with the threats.” Naturally dangers existed, but we would learn to deal with them, said the Director of the Glasgow Centre for International Law and Security. The Head of the Cyber Policy Coordination Staff at the German Federal Foreign Office, Wolfram von Heynitz, noted that, while it used always to be said that cyberspace was unregulated, that was no longer the case. “All the international laws and norms apply equally to the Internet.” There were, however, doubts as to how well these laws were respected.
(At the close of the conference participants were invited to Hamburg’s City Hall. At the Senate Reception in the Kaisersaal, the First Mayor and President of the Hamburg Senate, Dr Peter Tschentscher, stressed the importance of transatlantic relations and of exchange and debate.)
By Jacqueline Vieth
Go to impressions of the first Transatlantic Conference in 2018: FOTAR2018: Challenges in Trade, Security and Environmental Policy