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The transatlantic reunification agenda

Nov 07,2020 - Last updated at Nov 07,2020

By Sigmar Gabriel and John B. Emerson 

BERLIN — For four years, US President Donald Trump’s administration demonstrated that it had little use for alliances. But the fact remains that the US-German partnership is indispensable and will remain indispensable. The “2+4” negotiations that reunited East and West Germany after decades of separation by the Iron Curtain are but one example of how Americans and Germans have stood shoulder to shoulder throughout the post-World War II period.

As in any relationship, there have been ups and downs, with Trump’s presidency representing a near-unprecedented low. But the ties that bind Germany and America rest on more than just history or sentimentality. Not only do we share core values, but we also share core interests.

Each country’s constitution enshrines the belief that all human beings are born equal, and that our freedom is inalienable: government does not bestow it and cannot revoke it. Our liberty is protected by democracy, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and freedom of expression and assembly. These shared principles have shaped the outlook on both sides of the Atlantic for decades.

But the world is quickly changing, and it is clear that Germany and the United States will need to continue to work together to meet new global challenges. China’s confrontation with the West, and with the post-war order more generally, is just the start of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of our interconnected and interdependent world. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of extreme weather events and natural disasters, which, together with violent conflict, often stemming from or exacerbated by climate-related resource scarcity, is in turn fuelling new waves of mass migration.

Moreover, as the post-war non-proliferation regime has eroded, the danger of a worldwide nuclear arms race has increased dramatically. The same digital technologies that have brought the world closer together have also given rise to global terrorist networks, wars and conflicts disproportionately affecting the world’s poorest people. While humanity has grown more prosperous than ever, the gap between rich and poor has widened to potentially destabilising levels.

The pandemic has shown why no country can expect to overcome such challenges alone. Neither viruses nor wildfires discriminate between their victims or observe political borders. The consequences of rising inequality and weakened social cohesion eventually are felt far and wide, be it through refugee crises or international terrorism. Without an effective, widely supported non-proliferation regime, any country that feels threatened will see every reason to go nuclear. Without a global framework for the regulation of data and artificial intelligence, information will continue to be weaponised. And without a credible defense alliance, maintaining peace will become more and more difficult.

In light of these challenges, the common values and interests that characterise the US-German partnership have never been more valid. After a period of uncertainty and volatility in our bilateral relationship, it is time to start rebuilding mutual confidence and trust. We urgently need to develop a forward-looking agenda that can realise the promise, for us and the world that our democratic, free, and open societies represent.

There are several key principles that should guide our common agenda. First, we must work together to develop a pandemic recovery programme, with the provision of personal protective equipment and vaccine research and production given top priority. We also need to start rethinking multilateralism and reforming the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation, and other bodies so that they are fit for purpose, and equipped to manage challenges that threaten to widen social inequality.

Moreover, close cooperation will be needed to provide an economic counterweight to China. This challenge is best understood not as a “cold war” but as an economic competition. Here, Germany and the US should take the lead in reviving the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, pursuing new fair- and free-trade agreements, not least in Africa, and offering a transatlantic infrastructure initiative to serve as a transparent, democratic alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Both countries also have a mutual interest in fostering the green technology needed to combat climate change. Instead of quibbling over individual pipeline projects, we should be developing a joint strategy to achieve energy security by expanding the relevant infrastructure, including new liquid natural gas terminals in Europe, supporting joint research projects, such as in “green hydrogen”, and jointly backing the Three Seas Initiative in Europe.

Similarly, the US and Germany could come together to secure a leading role in ensuring that the next phase of digital innovation abides by Western ethical standards. The absence of a Western alternative to the Chinese 5G giant Huawei is astonishing.

Finally, our two countries must work together to repair the non-proliferation regime and reinvigorate NATO. The recent spats over trans-Atlantic and European defence considerations have been unnecessary; at the end of the day, we share the same security concerns.

To be sure, this is an ambitious agenda, and merely reciting the trans-Atlantic success stories of the past will not be enough to meet the new challenges of an ever-changing world. But the history of the US-German partnership shows what people and states are capable of when they have the political will and courage to work together. In less than a generation, the bitter enmity between former enemies grew into a reliable partnership, and eventually into a close friendship. In light of the daunting challenges facing Germany, Europe and the US, working together is the only viable option.


Sigmar Gabriel, former federal minister and vice chancellor, is chairman of Atlantik-Brücke. John B. Emerson, a former US ambassador to Germany, is chairman of the American Council on Germany. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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