Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff (GMFUS): “We need a robust German-American relationship at the core of NATO”

Dr. Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) of the United States was nominated Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs in the Biden administration last week. Several other GMF experts have already taken up key positions: Derek Chollet (counselor to the State Department), Laura Rosenberger (director for China on the National Security Council) or Julianne Smith (senior advisor to the Secretary of State). Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the GMF, shares his insights about the future of the transatlantic relationship under the Biden administration and the need to reinvent NATO’s conventional defence around German contributions.

What would you expect to fundamentally change and what not under a Biden administration in foreign policy? With what implications for Europe and the transatlantic relationship? 

Some people expect that lots of things will stay the same. They believe the frictions between Europe and the United States and certainly those between Germany and the United States will continue, because the geopolitical environment does not change; the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in selected policy areas does not change; the domestic pressures in the US do not subside. That would lead you to believe that Mr. Biden is a twin brother of Mr. Trump, except friendlier and less brash. But nothing could be further from the truth.

An internationalist is following on a nationalist; a man who believes in alliances and sees them as a force multiplier is succeeding a man who saw alliances as a burden to America; a climate activist is at the helm, following a climate skeptic; a supporter of liberal democracy succeeds a detractor from these principles. I could go on to describe the fundamental differences between these two gentlemen, in terms of their governing philosophy as well as their respective outlooks on international affairs. If such differences will not result in differing policies, then I don’t know what will ever be consequential in foreign policy. These changes will open up new opportunities in numerous policy areas, such as arms control or climate policy; multilateralism will be positively affected, whether we talk about the G7, or the G20, or NATO. 

Where we continue to differ on both sides of the Atlantic, we can approach these differences in a new and more cooperative spirit. Most likely, there will no longer be a vicious circle of escalation. Part of President Trump’s strategy was to solve problems by escalating them. Now we will be solving problems by de-escalating them and emphasising the common ground on which we stand. Areas of frictions will remain, but our means to deal with them will improve.

One thing, however, will not change and will not go away, and that is great power competition. That will be an imperative for transatlantic change. Adaptation to this new environment will be critical.

“Everything is still possible in China policy coordination” 

Is there an emerging trans-Atlantic consensus on the challenge posed by China, which is increasingly ‘dividing and ruling’ Europe, by projecting power and influence through companies, strategic assets and regional formats? Do you see any potential strategic convergence between Germany and the US in counter-balancing Chinese influence and projecting a common euro-Atlantic front? Or does the economic accord between EU and China set a different path?

From the American perspective, China will be the lynchpin of the future transatlantic relationship. The value and usefulness of this alliance will be evaluated and judged by the American side by its usefulness on the China challenge. Europeans may like or dislike it, or find it to be an exaggerated focus. But it is simply going to be a fact. And the external environment in the triangle between Europe, America and China points toward greater convergence of views for a couple of reasons. 

One thing, however, will not change and will not go away, and that is great power competition. That will be an imperative for transatlantic change.

Under the absolute leadership of Xi Jinping, China is becoming more assertive by the day. The alarm bells about the Chinese reach in Europe are being heard increasingly loud and increasingly clear. We are seeing China’s international posture change, which, in turn, results in changing European and American perceptions of Chinese behaviour. Transatlantic interests on China are similar, but not fully aligned. And the question is how to increase and speed up convergence, and whether we can find compromise on how to approach China. So far, we do not even have a transatlantic forum to discuss this question. Is it a NATO issue or an EU issue? Therein also lies an opportunity: everything is still possible in China policy coordination. 

If the China challenge is simply seen as a competition for hegemony amongst great powers, in which allies are integrated vertically as followers to the greater cause of the hegemonic struggle, my prediction is that Europe will try to duck and run. Containing and supressing the Chinese rise in the name of American hegemony will result in economic decoupling. That is clearly a no-go area for Europe and especially for Germany.

But it is not the direction Mr Biden is taking so far. He sees China as a systemic challenger. Military contestation is only part of the larger picture. Mr. Biden does not seem to see Cold War 2.0 ahead, but an interconnected and interdependent world in which even an authoritarian great power needs to be managed within the confines of a rules-based order. A rules-based system with security and technological caveats is a very different proposition for Europe. To find common ground on the China challenge is clearly the goal of the coming months and years. 

A transatlantic renewal

A few years back, in his Washington Quarterly article, Thomas Bagger pointed out that the post-1989 German foreign policy consensus no longer existed. The world has changed, the assumptions and premises of the 1990s are being contested. Can a new foreign policy consensus emerge? Around what core ideas? What needs to change in transatlantic relations and NATO in this context?

In Thomas Bagger’s precise telling, post-1990 Germany, for the first time in 150 years, finds itself on the right side of history. Others, not Germany, had to adapt and Germany itself was in a glide path toward the end of history. According to convergence theory, everybody would become “like us” in Germany and the rest of the West. Therefore, we just had to administer a predetermined change. We would not have to do much. On the basis of post-1990 liberal hegemony, the German question had been solved, in harmony with its neighbours and for the first time since industrialisation. 

This unusual situation has led to a phenomenal period of affluence, peace, neighbourly convergence and allegiance. The benefits of this golden age have turned Germany into the ultimate status-quo power. Why change what has benefited you so tremendously? The downside of this attitude is that Germany is not exactly the speed boat of international relations. It is not a change agent, even when a changing environment requires it. Therefore, Germany’s adaptation to a new environment – especially to one shaped by the return of great power competition and by less American involvement in Europe – has been excruciatingly slow. In fact, so gradual that Germany’s attempt to get out in front of developments has always been slower than the change of the external environment itself. The result is that the gap between the external change and Germany’s response keeps widening. 

A contributing factor to this growing cleavage is the extraordinary stability of the political system that Germany enjoys: a decade of economic boom, full employment, a long-time Chancellor supported by stable coalitions in parliament. The extent to which Germany has been a haven of democratic and economic stability and was able to project this stability outward into the European continent has really been extraordinary. The moderating and unifying quality of this quiet projection of power, stability and universally accepted norms, its effect on European peace, stability and prosperity have sometimes been underestimated domestically as well as internationally. 

If the China challenge is simply seen as a competition for hegemony amongst great powers, in which allies are integrated vertically as followers to the greater cause of the hegemonic struggle, my prediction is that Europe will try to duck and run.

But that period has definitely come to an end and the country is struggling to adapt to an environment that demands to take positions which uneasily remind people of attitudes prevalent during the Cold War. The posture that Germany necessarily needs to adopt is one of robust liberalism – a modest, humble and non-missionary, but also more resilient, more defence-oriented attitude that values the protection of liberal democracy at home, as well as the defence from external threats and coercion.

To have a government that can be forced into submission because it does not have the means to deter such blackmail is increasingly unacceptable. Living off economic strength and acquired respect from others will not be enough during this next period. We will need a renewal based on the principles of liberal democracy, but with a stronger emphasis on resilience, alliance, defence and deterrence, externally and internally. At the same time, we will also need a realistic assessment of the limited means of power at Germany’s disposal. That will limit the country’s ambition. The federal elections will be a turning point. It is unclear whether there will be the same degree of internal stability with any new Chancellorship and what kind of influence can actually be projected outward.

A group of German atlanticists, myself included, have published a manifesto called More Ambition, Please! Toward a New Agreement between Germany and the United States. It includes a few ideas for a transatlantic renewal. And it also includes the outline of what a German foreign policy might look like under the most likely post-election scenario, which is a conservative – green coalition. The greening of the transatlantic agenda will mean to be strong on climate, social justice, democracy, trade norms, human rights; it will mean a degree of outspokenness vis a vis authoritarians in places like Russia and China; but such an agenda will be combined with a more conservative emphasis on security and resilience, a strong focus on NATO and on the idea that the transatlantic relationship is the guarantor and the reinsurer of European integration. It is a combination of classical conservative elements with a multilateralist green human-rights agenda. 

If we don’t have a robust and reliable German-American relationship at the core of NATO, and if we do not have a solid land defence capability of NATO centred around German contributions in conventional defence, there will be a dim future for NATO. Unfortunately, the centrality of Germany’s role for the future of NATO is least understood in Germany itself. That is a worrying sign and it points to the need for political leadership.

In the end, a new consensus is needed. No longer should we be talking about burden sharing, we should start talking about burden shifting. The conventional defence of Europe should largely be shouldered by Europeans. The German contribution is key; it will allow to end America’s overstretch in Europe and make it easier for Washington to concentrate on the Indo-Pacific; it will probably be the precondition to a continued American commitment to Europe (including its important nuclear component). We will need the nuclear component to continuously deter a nuclear-armed Russia, but also because only the American nuclear presence ensures that no additional countries in and around Europe aspire to build a nuclear weapon. In that sense NATO is an instrument of nuclear arms control. 

How should the whole issue of European “strategic autonomy” be understood? There have been tensions between Berlin and Paris in how they each approached it, while in Eastern Europe it was understood as strategic emancipation from the US. Does a new US administration create a new window of opportunity to reframe and channel strategic autonomy in the right direction – and what is the right direction?

The proponents of strategic autonomy or European sovereignty don’t seem to know themselves what they mean when they use these terms. They have a definitional problem. They claim to desire European sovereignty, but need to face the reality that transferring sovereignty to a supranational centre is not supported by a majority of Europeans, as well as their governments. If anything, turmoil has allowed for a bit more centralisation – see the last Eurozone crisis as exhibit A. The proponents of European sovereignty seem to mean ‘capability and capacity’ when they say sovereignty. That’s a bit of an intellectual fudge.

Autonomy is an equally contentious term. When talking about the economic and technological sphere, autonomy always brings a degree of protectionism in the name of national (in this case, European) independence with it. Russia and China are after a sovereign and autonomous data space in order to better control their citizens. Is that really what we want to emulate? Of course not. Which is why the proponents of this idea now start talking about open strategic autonomy to avoid misunderstandings. Again, an intellectual fudge and, to me, a dead-end road. 

When we talk about autonomy in the strategic space it gets worse. Some people think autonomymeans positioning Europe as an independent great power alongside America, China and Russia. That, to me, smells like equidistance and, therefore, the path into a strategic no man’s land. 

A new consensus is needed. No longer should we be talking about burden sharing, we should start talking about burden shifting. The conventional defence of Europe should largely be shouldered by Europeans and the German contribution is key.

What I like about the sovereignty crowd is their ambition. They want Europe to step up and gain muscle. As long as this is done within NATO and with America, I am all for it. 

Is the alliance of democracies at the core of the Biden vision (as projected during the campaign) a realistic construct? Or should it be designed around the logic of ‘the mission defines the coalition’ – ready to be adapted for multiple niche fronts?

The events on January 6th have reinforced the belief in the Biden team that democracy is fragile and precious, that democracy needs to be defended time and again, and that democracies need to stand together in defence of their political system. In fact, this impetus has never been stronger in the United States.

However, it is less clear what the consequences of this insight might be. There are definitional, as well as institutional questions. First, what is a democracy? What about illiberal democracies? What about the America itself at this current moment? There is a credibility gap that the Biden team acknowledges: America first has to get its own act together in order to be able to project outward and command followership in some sort of league or alliance of democracies. And then there is the question of whom else to include. Some tough choices would need to be made. 

The second set of challenges revolves around the question, ‘what type of institutional set up do you wish to create?’ Do you want to build on the “alliance for multilateralism” that the Germans and French created in the absence of America as an internationalist power during the Trump administration? Or do you adapt the British idea of a D10, of ten leading democracies, growing out of the G7? Or do you mean the double Quad – the Asian Quad and the European Quad, as a combination of America’s most important allies on both continents as a practical coordination tool? 

While the motivation and the drive by the Biden administration are palpable, there are numerous questions still to be resolved.

The German-American relationship needs a restart

You plead for a rebalanced transatlantic relationship, where the European pillar should be strengthened and should have more weight. But is Germany ready to change and ultimately reject some of the really problematic policies that created a credibility gap on the other side of the Atlantic, but also in Europe, especially in the East – with the Nord Stream 2 for example?

I certainly think it is necessary; whether it will happen is another question. It will very much depend on the next Chancellor, who will have a key role in recharting the course. If the next coalition has a green component, then some of the contentious issues will be easier to solve – Nord Stream 2 for example; some will be harder to solve, take nuclear sharing. 

Positioning Europe as an independent great power alongside America, China and Russia is a strategic no man’s land.

The larger context will matter, too. How will the German-American relationship be repaired? With little ambition, as a return to daily business in a cooperative fashion? Or as a larger scale investment into the future, something that is designed to outlast the Biden administration? Will such a restart include broader agreements on how to deal with China, on how to see Russia in future, on how to see the role of NATO and on how America can support the EU, rather than undermining it? Only if both sides reinvest into this relationship, will we create a changed political environment. And in such an environment problems will more easily be solved. 

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) where he oversees the organisation’s activities in Germany. Prior to joining GMF, he served as an advisor to Joachim Gauck, the president of Germany. 

A slightly different version of this interview was published in Romanian in the printed issue of Cronicile Curs de Guvernare, No. 91.