Blinking at the Brink: A Munich Moment 

The pilgrimage to Munich for the annual Munich Security Conference begins this week with another chance to perform an annual exam of the world’s state of mind and health. The readings are sure to be less than encouraging. Whether it be escalating regional conflicts in East Asia, the Middle East, or Africa, or the threats of cyberwar, climate change, or nuclear confrontation, diagnoses are dire. The report of the MSC in advance of the conference suggests this in its title “To the Brink—and Back?”

The nervous mood is fed in part by concerns about the United States and about the presidency of Donald Trump. The combination of unpredictability as a tactic and a unilateralist vision of global competition as a strategy has created uncertainty in the global arena. It is also a catalyst for others around the globe seeking to follow a similar strategy. One need only look at the expansion of China’s presence on the global stage as one illustration. Yet the centrifugal forces pulling at the fabric of an international set of shared norms and processes appear to be gaining traction in multiple arenas.

That trend is evident within the European Union as illustrated not only by the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom, but also by the nationalist trends in policy and pronouncements emerging from several EU member countries, such as Poland and Hungary, who challenge the very notion of a European Union.  It is clearly evident in the behavior of Russia by its aggression in Ukraine as well as its military policies and intervention in Syria. We also see the nationalist emphasis of policies in Turkey conflicting with its NATO membership obligations and rejecting further efforts to pursue membership in the EU. In the Korean Peninsula, we see the threats of nuclear war building not only in words but in the actions of North Korea and enhanced by hyperbolic responses in Washington. China has essentially announced that this century will be shaped by its role on the global stage. And there are the ever-continuing fires of nationalism and religious confrontation raging in the Middle East.

While all these challenges unfold, Germany and the U.S. in particular are plagued with domestic political conflicts and uncertainties, which are hindering a coherent response to these challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.

While all these challenges unfold, Germany and the U.S. in particular are plagued with domestic political conflicts and uncertainties, which are hindering a coherent response to these challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Trump administration is consumed with turmoil as it copes with the continuing battles over the investigations by Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, contradictions in policy pronouncements, and conflicts within the ranks of the administration. It is shadowed by low public support levels and a polarized Congress facing continuing battles over budgets, immigration policies, and the erratic behavior of the president. The looming congressional elections in November will heat up these tensions ever further.

The deepening domestic divide over President Trump’s leadership impacts the shaping of foreign policy whether it involves trade negotiations or defense policies. That clash spills over into relations with Europe with regard to debates over NATO, Iran, Russia, or China. The Trump administration’s messages about America’s global role and responsibilities have caused many in Europe to consider alternative policies in dealing with strategic security and trade relations, whether realistic or not. But another impact of Trump’s challenges is the emergence of domestic political forces in European countries that wish to follow the path of a more nationalist set of priorities. Some political leaders in Eastern Europe are more receptive to Trump’s ideas than they are elsewhere on the continent.

In Germany, the political fallout of last September’s elections continues to shake up Berlin. The formation of a government remains uncertain five months later as Chancellor Merkel and the SPD leadership stumble through negotiations over a so-called grand coalition for a third time. While German voters grow more impatient, the lead role Germany has played in Europe is hampered. At a time when the EU confronts major decisions in dealing with Brexit, relations with Moscow, tensions with the U.S. over the Iran nuclear deal, or the conflicts within the EU over immigration policies, waiting for Berlin to get its own political act together is straining relationships.

At a time when the EU confronts major decisions in dealing with Brexit, relations with Moscow, tensions with the U.S. over the Iran nuclear deal, or the conflicts within the EU over immigration policies, waiting for Berlin to get its own political act together is straining relationships.

German debates over its foreign policy continue to revolve around the parameters of responsibility, the role of German military capacity, and the battle over how much to spend. While supportive of the pooling of EU capabilities, Germans are not going to arrive at a substantial increase in its defense budget at the levels expected in Washington. And a fragile coalition in Berlin will not be able to change that anytime soon.

Finding prescriptions for the ailments afflicting both countries will not be easy. Patients with problems are often challenged to change their habits beyond seeking a pill. But that requires a lot of self-discipline and the willingness to admit there is a problem to begin with. Both Germany and the U.S. have their share of challenges that require a significant change in behavior.

In the U.S., a polarized public led by polarizing leaders faces difficult choices that have been ignored or postponed for years. There is also a president who sees no problem in proclaiming “America First” and encouraging every other country to do the same at the cost of unraveling a shared set of values and norms in dealing with international challenges.

In Germany, a nervous public is faced with serious challenges and a fragile consensus on how to confront them, either at the domestic level or within the European arena. Germany’s anchor for managing crisis—Angela Merkel—is now slipping into stormy political seas. And there is no clear successor in sight.

Even if all countries are supposed to be stakeholders in the future of global stability, the perception of what constitutes stability is now in question.

Amid the many experts and diagnosticians gathering in Munich this weekend, there will be no lack of recommendations to help heal the diseases infecting the global body. But whether those who are making policy decisions will heed them is clearly unpredictable.

But at a minimum, they will have the opportunity to listen.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Education:
Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Expertise:
Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.