Americans, Go Home?

DIE ZEIT: Stephen Wertheim, President Biden says “America is back”. You as an American historian think this idea is dead wrong – while Franziska Brantner, as a German member of parliament, is relieved to hear the message. What is so wrong about an America that embarks again on common missions with Europe like combatting climate change or countering authoritarian threats?

Stephen Wertheim: There’s nothing wrong with cooperating on common threats like these. I just don’t think that that’s what the United States has mainly been doing in the world for several decades. I worry that “America is back” means a return to the United States putting its global military dominance at the center of its foreign policy. This quest for dominance divides the world into subordinate allies and permanent adversaries.

ZEIT: Franziska Brantner, as a Foreign Policy expert of the Green Party, do you feel that Germany is a “subordinate ally” to the United States?

Franziska Brantner: No. I’m happy that we are an ally again and no longer a foe, as Donald Trump put it. I think Biden has rightly recognized that we face a global competition between democratic and authoritarian forces – between nations, but also within our democracies. Biden acknowledges that we must fight authoritarianism at home and abroad, and that our enemies unfortunately do cooperate quite well.

Wertheim: Sure, the United States should be a reliable partner for countries with common interests and values. But an alliance is about warfighting, not friendship. The United States serves as the military protector of dozens of countries. Countries excluded from those alliances ask themselves: What are these alliances for? Whom do they oppose? That’s part of the difficulty that we have had in relations with Russia. Even worse, intensified military competition with China has the potential to become a kind of Cold War, which could very well escalate into a hot war. That’s why the United States can orchestrate more partnerships by pulling back militarily.

Brantner: Are you suggesting the U.S. should leave Nato?

Wertheim: In the next ten years or so, the United States should reduce is forces in Europe and allow for Europeans to gain more autonomy in their own affairs. This will empower Europeans to create a security architecture for the threats, like that from Russia, that affect Europe more than they affect the United States.

Brantner: It’s true that we Europeans should take on a greater share of the burden ourselves. But the US is still playing an important role in securing peace on the European continent. Speaking as a German, I know even 75 years after World War II and the atrocities of Holocaust, we are still not fully trusted, especially not by some of our Eastern European partners. So don’t just kick Nato out. We have to acknowledge that wherever the US withdraws, other powers start coming in. Unfortunately, there is these days no such thing as a vacuum in international relations. Leaving space to authoritarian forces will harm Europe – and the US as well.

Wertheim: What drives US policy is not a systematic approach to supporting democracy around the world. Take the US partnership with Saudi Arabia and how the United States has supported the Saudi war in Yemen over the previous five years. I don’t see the United States fighting authoritarianism there…

“The United States’ power is a blunt instrument”

Brantner: We have no disagreement on Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Wertheim: But when you say that we have to stand up geopolitically to authoritarian great powers, including China and Russia, there is a basic contradiction with the goal of addressing planetary threats. For example, China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases by far. The United States is number two. How is the world going to solve the climate crisis cooperatively if those two powers are both squaring off in pursuit of military primacy in the Asia-Pacific?

Brantner: It is wrong to claim that climate protection and human rights protection are binary opposites. The challenge of our times is precisely to bring the two together and make this possible.

ZEIT: Stephen, are you saying that because of the climate challenge, the West shouldn’t care that much about the oppression of the Uighurs or Hong Kong or Taiwan?

Wertheim: We should care, and there are actions Western governments should take, like economic restrictions. But the fundamental question is: Do we want to continue with an approach that seeks military dominance for the United States, often wrapped in the rhetoric of supporting democracy? The record of promoting democracy by forcible means has been very poor in the past 20 years.

Brantner: Many of the military interventions were not a success. We have to improve our prevention capabilities, to embed the use of military force in a strong political strategy and to focus on new threats such as the climate crisis. But the truth is Europe is not capable at this point to defend itself without Nato. A global withdrawal of the US wouldn’t solve problems; instead it would embolden autocrats, as the Trump era has shown.

Wertheim: A large military withdrawal is long overdue. The United States’ power is a blunt instrument. We oscillate between administrations that want to use American power ruthlessly and administrations that layer on top of that posture rhetoric about human rights and democracy. We have to escape this predicament in order to make American power more productive. Don’t you think a military withdrawal from the Middle East would greatly benefit the interests of the American people?

Brantner: Stephen, as we have seen in Syria, the diplomatic chess game is unfortunately defined by those who have troops and are willing to engage them. The moment Barack Obama decided not to enforce his red line after the chemical gas attacks of the Assad-regime, and when the Russians intervened, the die was cast. Terrible massacres, crimes against humanity by Assad and the Russians followed. So you cannot just withdraw and hope to bring the region together at the same time. But the US can and should improve its regional policy!

Wertheim: The United States has overidentified its interests with one half of the region and made permanent enemies of the other half. That is why we cannot play a more productive diplomatic role.

“The military role needs to be less prominent”

ZEIT: Does this mean that the U.S. should stand idly by when – as was the case in Libya – a dictator is about to kill tens of thousands of people? Or, more broadly: Can there be a liberal world order without a liberal policeman?

Wertheim: It should always be an option for the United States not to act in a conflict. It is a really grave choice when the United States decides to go to war. Look at the way the intervention into Iraq went…

Brantner: Look at Germany! Your intervention and active regime change in 1944 was a success!

Wertheim (laughs): …true. But let’s think systematically. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in 1998 that the United States is the “indispensable nation” because it sees further into the future than other countries do. Who could believe that today? After how the United States has used its power in so many situations? After the presidency of Donald Trump? I’m very skeptical that people in Washington, people like me, can better understand the inner workings of other societies than those societies themselves.

Brantner: Wrong policy choices in the past do not justify today’s wrong decisions, like withdrawing all US power from Europe. The military role needs to be less prominent; that is obvious. But I think if the US signals “We are out”, it will create counter-productive effects on the world “order”. I think Western powers have to become much better in terms of a coherent strategy and policy. The use of force can open political space, but then you must use it to actually develop peace and well-being. That was never done in Libya for example.

Wertheim: We agree about some of the mistakes, but we place a different amount of trust in American military power. The problem with respect to Syria wasn’t that Obama didn’t enforce his red line but that he made the statement in the first place that Assad must go. He adopted a regime change policy.

Brantner: Assad is a mass murderer! And by the way, Biden is no longer promoting any kind of regime change.

ZEIT: President Biden called Vladimir Putin a “killer” in an interview last week. This suggests the new US administration is willing to call out Russia’s – and other regimes’ – aggression in a much more outspoken fashion. Is this a change to the better or to the worse?

Wertheim: I suspect the president was signaling to a domestic audience that he is different from his predecessor, but personal insults will not advance American interests or human values. The United States should not be more alarmed about Russia than countries in Russia’s own neighborhood. Yet that is how American leaders behave. Now the U.S. government seems likely to impose sanctions against European companies that participate in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, punishing Germany and other allies for being insufficiently anti-Russian. This illustrates my main point: America’s pursuit of armed dominance, including through alliances, divides the world and sustains enmities.

Brantner: I welcome the fact that Biden is clear. He calls a spade a spade. Putin is strengthening dictators like Assad, occupies Eastern Ukraine, tries to destabilize our democracies with fake news and hacker attacks, and mistreats his own citizens. We must confront Putin in differentiated ways and cooperate where necessary. About North Stream 2: Irrespective of American sanctions, this project must be ended as soon as possible! It is economically unreasonable, climate-damaging and geopolitically harmful.

This debate was hosted by Die Zeit.

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