Streams Falling Into One River: A Threat to Democracy

The American political system is in the most serious crisis in decades, argue Ivan Hodac and Rüdiger Lentz in a double interview with Łukasz Pawłowski. The roots of this crisis go much deeper, they say, and the crisis is not a one-dimensional problem, but different factors have come together, like streams falling into one river.

Łukasz Pawłowski: Over the last years it has become a ritual to complain about the state of American democracy. Now, however, the legitimacy of the whole political system seems to be under huge pressure. Trust in crucial institutions – for example the Supreme Court, not to mention Congress – has dropped to record lows. At the same time, a huge portion of Republican voters dismiss Joe Biden as an illegitimate president and believe in false claims that the last elections were somehow fraudulent. Recently, a former adviser to John McCain, Robert Kagan, in a long essay for The Washington Post warned that the Republican Party has become a threat to American democracy.

ŁP: Is it still just a noise, a form of regular political infighting, or is it a signal of a more profound threat? After 6 January and the attack on the Capitol, is the American political system on the brink of some calamity?

Ivan Hodac: The American political system is in the most serious crisis in decades. Trust in institutions – which is indeed plummeting – is fundamentally important to democracy. But was 6 January the turning point? I don’t think so, I believe it all started before.

ŁP: When?

IH: It was probably the election of Trump and the whole campaign leading to it, which revealed a deep division in American society. People begin to question democratic institutions, democratic processes, and results of democratic elections but we also see the ongoing widening of the ‘social scissors’. And last but not least, there is foreign policy. I realize most Americans are not all that interested in international relations, but the diminishing power projected by the United States globally, coupled with the rising power of China, pose a great threat to American democracy. There is also the East-West division in the United States which is often underestimated. The west coast of the US is basically oriented toward the Pacific region and does not care much about anything else.

ŁP: Do you think the onus is on the Republican Party, which sold its soul to Donald Trump, or are both sides of the political spectrum to blame, because this process long predates Trump?

Rüdiger Lentz: The American political system has always been based on checks and balances between parties, between institutions, between the presidency on one side and Congress on the other.  But now the system is crumbling. The two parties find it more and more difficult to work out compromises. The roots of the crisis go much deeper, though. It is not a one-dimensional problem. Different factors have come together, like streams falling into one river.

This crisis is also about identity. As long as the American dream was widely believed in, everything worked relatively well. John Steinbeck once said that in America even those expropriated today still believe they can become millionaires tomorrow. That was the social glue which kept those diverse people together. Now the rich are getting richer, and the middle class is in tatters.

I travelled through West Virginia 20 years ago and many signs of decline were already all over the place – poverty, crumbling infrastructure, drug addiction, families splitting at a much higher rate than in the 1950s and 1960s. And then came the antagonist forces from the outside.

Back in the past, people used to rally around the flag. Patriotism and the belief that the United States was a force for good, a beacon on the hill, was another type of social glue. Now, there are other beacons for people who think differently. America has lost its aura of exceptionalism.

We need to make sure to stop this malaise from spreading because similar factors are present in Europe as well—renationalization, disconnection with our identities and difficulties in answering the questions of who we are, where we come from and where do we want to go. In Germany, whole segments of society are ‘trumpish’ in their beliefs and actions. This virus is not confined to America. It’s coming to us as well.

ŁP: You say people fear losing their identity, but on the other hand it seems that American politics is now entirely focused on identity—it might be a conservative identity, the identity of a white Southerner on the right, or sexual, racial, gender identities on the left. The number of these identities is, I would say, growing and there is no narrative which would show these people what they have in common.

RL: Indeed, the roof of the house under which different Americans used to come together is broken. People used to be proud of being an American – no matter Republican or Democrat – under one flag, one anthem and one identity. At the same time, for decades it had been an open-minded society which believed that the constant influx of outsiders is precisely what makes America great.

That came into question when millions of Latin Americans started pouring into California, New Mexico and Texas. The question of immigration has once more become a scratch on the smooth surface of an idealized image of American identity. And it became yet another factor dividing society—with Democrats still embracing the idea of bringing more people in, while Republicans turning to a more nationalist view, which puts “America first” and announces that the boat is already full. The same challenges are now coming full-fledged to Europe.

IH: Let’s not forget about the inequality. People see and feel it growing.

ŁP: American society was never egalitarian, but I understand that in the past people used to believe they could move ahead through hard work and now the belief is gone. So, the crux of the matter is not so much the level of inequality, but the lost trust in social mobility, correct?

IH: I think it’s both—the wealth gap between the richest and poorest has always been there, but not as wide as it is now. Or at least that is what people think because new means of communications make it more visible. The fact that people know about it, plays an important role. And the belief that a person has a chance to advance is also gone, especially among the middle class. As a result, the country has become more inward-looking. This is not only an American phenomenon, but when it happens in the US it has global repercussions.

RL: We know how the US coped with traumas in the past. After the Vietnam trauma, it took Ronald Reagan’s two terms in the White House and then the victory in the Cold War for Americans to regain their self-confidence, which then held out through the 1990s.

The attacks on 9/11 became another turning point as Americans discovered they were vulnerable and not universally loved. It was a shock which brought to the surface destructive tendencies already present within society and the political system.

ŁP: How is it all going to impact Washington’s standing in the world? President Joe Biden seems to believe he needs to prove democracies can deliver to their citizens in order to push back the threat of authoritarians, who claim they are better equipped to deal with current challenges. Is Biden right in saying that this is a defining moment in a struggle between democracies and autocracies?

RL: He is right, but we know he needs some support from the Republican side as far as the law-making process is concerned. Do they want him to succeed? Absolutely not, because of their short-term goals. The next midterm elections are coming in less than a year, Republicans want to take back the House and the Senate, and any success by Biden will only make it more difficult.

IH: The fact that political rivalry overrides any consideration of the public good is not a strictly American phenomenon. As a politician in Europe, you also have 4 to 5 years to succeed and the other side instead of working with you tries to undermine your efforts. They may share your view – in the US most Americans agree their infrastructure needs investments – but they cannot let you succeed.

RL: We are touching upon a critical point. The political system in the US has become paralyzed. Back in the past, there were people in the middle, both in the Democratic and Republican Party – so-called red dog Democrats and moderate Republicans – who in times of crisis were able to forge compromises. Now these politicians are on the verge of extinction.

At least since the emergence of the Tea Party, we have members of Congress elected solely to carry the radical message of some of their constituents to Washington without any need to look for a compromise with the other side. Trump only accelerated this process. The center is no longer there.

IH: And it is going to be very difficult to get out of the current predicament in a bipartisan system. It’s easier to deal with the problem of polarization in the multiparty system we have in most European countries. Even though this is now also changing—look at some of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

ŁP: It seems clear you expect the US to steadily decline in the next 5-10 years…

IH: We need to be very careful—when you ask whether we expect the US to decline, do you mean the decline of the political system or the American role in the world?

ŁP: Aren’t the two interconnected?

IH: The country’s global role is already declining. After Washington came out on top in the Cold War, there was no enemy—the Soviet Union was gone, and no other power could take its place at the time. Now there is China. On the one hand, it is a common adversary to the West. On the other, it has not pushed Americans to clearly ask Europeans for help in counterbalancing Beijing’s power. Instead, Americans create the impression they can do it alone. And in my view they are wrong.

To counterbalance the rising power of China, both on the economic as well as the military front, we will need each other. We absolutely need to come to the conclusion as soon as possible.

RL: There has been a lot of talk since Biden took office in which Americans made it clear they would like Europeans to join them in reviving international institutions and the idea of multilateralism. I agree, however, that these messages reached only the political class and fell short of creating a common political movement.

If the United States wants to retake the leadership of the world, it needs allies. And the only true allies are in Europe. Which brings us to a major question for the future: what do we still have in common?

ŁP: Biden’s administration must be of a different opinion as they are actively looking for new allies in the Indo-Pacific region and they are finding them in Australia, India and Japan. These allies have at least one major advantage over the European Union—as nation states they find it easier to define their foreign policy goals and to make political decisions. They also have greater stakes in containing China than Europe.

RL: These countries are indeed under threat which brings them much closer together. The AUKUS partnership showed us not only that the US can act decisively and convince Australia to give up a huge military contract with France, but also that Great Britain may happily get on board. Now we need to carefully decide which position we as Europeans need to take in this new gambit. The figures on the chessboard are now in new positions.

IH: It started when Trump took the Trans Pacific Partnership off the table, which was then replaced by new initiatives created by China called RCEP. We should really not underestimate it, since it includes China, South Korea, Jaan, Australia and others.  American misplayed the previous chess game and are now trying to come back to correct their mistakes. For that, however, they will need Europeans.

ŁP: What exactly do they want from us?

RL: There is an easy answer to that question: aircraft carriers and battle groups of European composition in the Indo-Pacific.

ŁP: We can’t give that to them, can we?

RL: Britain and maybe France might be willing to bring their forces to that region. But can you imagine Berlin joining them? Power projection is not something Germans like. Even our engagement in Afghanistan had been low-key. We always try to find a third way, but now there is no third way – it is either-or – and the Germans need to face that question.

IH: I agree with your diagnosis, but this may fracture the organizations to which our countries belong. Both France and Germany are part of the EU and NATO. Either we are going to act together as NATO, or the biggest countries decide to act single-handedly. The same applies to the EU—if some countries decide to look for their own way of settling relations with China, it’s not going to work. And unfortunately there are already examples  of this.

ŁP: Is it really an either-or situation—either we give our unconditional support to the US, or risk being left out in the cold? The third way may be to build a European military capacity sufficient at least to defend ourselves and project our power in the immediate neighborhood. This would allow us to give up on some of American security guarantees and not be dragged into a conflict with China over, for example, Taiwan, as it is not something Europeans would easily accept.  Do we really need to take sides?

RL: We need to take sides as far as defending our interests in that region is concerned. And that involves power projection. There are important trade routes going through this part of the world. These vital lifelines may come under threat. I believe we need to show our banner there, send a clear signal we want them to remain open.

Taiwan is a different case. Of course, Europeans do not want to die for Taipei. If there were Europeans and American troops in the region, however, and Taipei was attacked, would we simply step back, or acknowledge our commitments to our American ally? You can easily imagine a conflict in which we could not avoid taking a stance.

I agree with you that Europe should become less dependent on American protection. Our military spending is a mess, and we would be able to achieve a lot more with the money we are already spending, if only our efforts were better coordinated. What we need is more bang for the buck!

First and foremost, however, we need to answer the question as to where our main security interests lie.

IH: Creating a European army or European defense capability demands not only money but – above all – political will. We know what happened with the European Defense Community in the 1950s. It never saw the light of day. But maybe the times are changing—see the position of some of the EU member states such as Belgium or France. It’s not easy to get the EU members to agree on this. But we need next to the so-called soft powers and the hard ones.

ŁP: When you say that Europe should increase its defense capabilities, do you think we should do it at a national level, or at a European level—within NATO, or through new institutions created by the European Union?

IH: We should do it at the European level. At the level of nation states we are not strong enough. No European country can match the power of China or the United States. We can, however, work within the framework of NATO.

RL: At the end of the day, NATO is the only transatlantic defense organization which has functioning command structures, ways of communicating and a mandate to act. We know it could work better, but undermining an already functioning body without having anything to replace it soon, would mean giving up one of the major security assets which prevents others from threatening us.

Ivan is entirely right—the European pillar of NATO should be extended, and we could have different plans for different conflict scenarios in which we might sometimes act together with the Americans and sometimes without them. The vision of a total European military independence from the Americans, however, is an illusion as we don’t have the air transport, reserves and there is a question of nuclear capability.

I can predict that the SPD-led government will, in the next four years, try to remove the last American nuclear bases from Germany. I am deeply concerned about that.

IH: Does it mean the Germans would like to acquire nuclear weapons on their own?

RL: Absolutely not. There is no party – except maybe for AfD – which would go for it.

ŁP: What can American nuclear weapons be replaced with?

RL: There is always France with its nuclear capability. This, however, leads us to questions of sharing it and the chain of command when it comes to using it, which would end any discussion before it could even begin. The French would never give up their sole sovereignty over their nuclear force.

IH: I agree, but that means militarily the United Kingdom needs to stay inside Europe and the new pact between the US, Australia and UK should not blind us to the fact that we need the UK military presence in Europe.

ŁP: Do you think the European Defense Budget – which, although increased in the current framework, is still miniscule in comparison with most national defense budgets – is a useful tool to pursue the goal of increasing European defense capability, or is it a dead end?

RL: It is definitely not a dead end. If used right it could serve as the nucleus of a stronger Europe. Javier Solana, who went from being the Secretary General of NATO to being the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, once said that European efforts to build up a common defense policy should be “separate but never separable” from NATO. As always, however, the devil lies in the details—institutions, chain of command and political leadership.

IH: There are member states in the EU which might agree on increasing the budget for military purposes within the EU, but under no circumstances would they give up on the protection they have inside NATO. Poland is one of these countries and the Czech Republic another.

ŁP: When you ask about leadership in Europe, many eyes usually turn to Germany. And yet it is difficult to imagine Germany taking the lead in a project of increasing European military capabilities—especially under the new, more left-wing government.

RL: The new government is in a position somehow similar to Joe Biden’s – it first needs to win on a domestic front. Foreign policy and security policy were not at the top of the agenda when it came to negotiating a coalition agreement.

And no wonder because there are huge stumbling blocks. It is not only about money but also about how to define our goals within the transatlantic agenda, our relationship with France, and our role as Europeans and Germans towards China.

IH: I would like to see German leadership first in Europe, and only then vis-à-vis the United States and China. It is crucially important that the Germans concentrate on moving Europe forward, because that’s where our key interests lie.

ŁP: On the one hand, we often hear that Germany should play a more active role in Europe. On the other hand, in many countries – especially on the right of the political scene – you often hear that the European Union is already entirely subjugated by Germany.

RL: In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – when the United States was the dominant superpower in the West – there were always complaints about these “nasty Americans”.

For some people no matter what the US did or did not do, it was always guilty. If Americans intervened, it was wrong, if they stepped aside and did nothing, it was even worse.

Now in Europe, Germany is cast in a similar role. For example, if we support more financial help to the South, we end up in conflict with the Frugal Four; if we support austerity policies, we are accused of sitting on our money and denying help to those in need. It is an uncomfortable situation but nevertheless it is necessary to take positions. It is up to us, Germans, to find a way to become – along with other countries – one of the respected leaders of Europe.

ŁP: Which other countries?

RL: France but also our partners to the east – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and the Baltics.

IH: The German leadership cannot be a single-handed leadership. Neither can it be a Paris-Berlin axis only. It needs to be a much broader coalition if you don’t want other countries to rebel against it.

RL: I agree it cannot be a tandem. But if Germany and France do not agree on the main challenges, then everything will be stalled. Helmut Kohl always asked himself the question: if I go forward with Paris on certain issues, what would smaller countries think of it. These other countries must be kept in the loop—it is more important than ever but also more complicated than ever.

IH: The same applies to transatlantic relations. We cannot rely on a relationship between Germany and the US—we need to have a relationship between the EU and US. That is absolutely crucial.

ŁP: How does Russia fit into this new reality in which the US is more wary of China, China is more assertive towards the West, and Europe begins to realize it needs to take more responsibility for its security?

RL: You would need to go to Moscow and ask there, although I don’t think they know it themselves. They flirt with China, sign energy contracts, and organize military exercises, even though we can all see this as an imbalanced ‘partnership’ which may cause problems sooner rather than later.

Putin presides over a vast land which – with his shrinking population of 145 million Russians – he is not even able to properly govern and develop. There is a joke about the Olympic games in Moscow in 1980, in which an assistant informs Leonid Brezhnev that archery has become an Olympic discipline and that Chinese archers have just arrived in Russia. “That’s fine” – says Brezhnev. “The problem is, Mr. Chairman” – the assistant replies – “there are five million of them”.

As far as Europe is concerned, I believe Putin fears the democratic ‘virus’ more than anything else. Since democracy still comes from the West and – at least in the eyes of Russian opposition – remains an attractive political system, which happens to be at odds with Putin’s idea of running the country, there is no chance to pull Russia closer to the West soon. In the long run, however, I would not give up on Russia. Economic relations, dialogue, and cultural exchanges with the civil society – these means of maintaining a relationship should remain in place.

IH: I believe we missed an opportunity in the 1990s when we could have brought Russia closer to Europe by signing an association agreement or some equivalent of it. I also agree we should not give up on Russia in the long run. Putin makes it increasingly difficult to maintain a reasonable dialogue, but Russia is geographically a part of Europe. That does not mean it should become a member of the EU, but it cannot be ignored.

ŁP: If there is anything American politicians from the opposite sides of the aisle agree on today, it is a belief that the policy of openness towards China back in the 1990s and 2000s was naïve at best. And yet it seems to me, you advocate a similar approach towards Russia—you say we should engage in a dialogue, maintain economic ties, keep the doors open and thus turn Moscow into a more responsible stakeholder.

IH: Back in the 1990s, China was not a threat but an economic opportunity for many Western companies. So, we went there and helped make China what it is today. Without European and American investments, China would not have advanced as rapidly as it has. Now we need to find a new modus vivendi – a balanced political and economic relationship. We, as Europeans, can only do it if we work together with the United States.

The problem is that in the meantime the Chinese are building economic ties and alliances with our potential allies. The newly created regional free trade area that I have mentioned before includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and one of the articles of the pact opens the door to India.

Despite all the tensions between the two countries, China is doing what it can to attach India to their economy.

RL: We left many regions of the world – including South America and Africa – open for the Chinese to establish their zones of influence there. And they did it in a very aggressive way. That is yet another reason why we as Europeans need to take risks and quickly become more engaged in other parts of the world. That, however, costs money. Try selling that to our public – explaining to them that we need to spend more in order to match Chinese influence. I am afraid it won’t go down well. That is our problem – we can see the world changing before our own eyes but due to our short-term policies and the lack of long term strategies we cannot do much about it.

ŁP: To change that Europe also needs a more unified foreign policy which it currently doesn’t have.

RL: We only touched upon a huge foreign agenda for the next 20 years. But when you have a clear picture of what is at stake and what we are confronted with, it at least opens a chance to join forces and live up to the challenge. But I doubt that Europe is ready to take decisive action. But if it doesn’t, it won’t be because of a lack of analysis, but a lack of reaction. If Europe continues to stay on the sidelines much longer, we’ll be out of the game.

IH: I cannot agree more.  Many political analysts talk today about three global powers: USA, China and Russia. This cannot stay that way.

Łukasz Pawłowski

is a political commentator and advisor specializing in Polish and American politics. A psychologist and sociologist by education, he holds a PhD in social sciences from the University of Warsaw and was an academic visitor at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the University of Oxford. His articles have appeared in, among others, “Financial Times”, “Polityka” and “Gazeta Wyborcza”. He is a co-host of “Podkast amerykański” – a weekly podcast on American politics and society.

Ruediger Lentz

is the founder and managing director of BerlinDialogue. Prior to BerlinDialogue he headed the prestigious Aspen Institute Germany dedicated to foster transatlantic relations and value-based leadership. He is currently also a senior advisor at the Rud Pedersen Public Affairs Group in Berlin. As a former editor at the Spiegel, a senior commentator on national TV and a longtime Deutsche Welle Bureau chief and TV Correspondent in Brussels and Washington he has a strong background and wide-ranging expertise in foreign affairs, economic policies, and public affairs. Lentz is a founding member of the Washington based German American Business Council (GABC), a longtime member of the Atlantik Bruecke and a member of the German Council on Foreign relations.

Ivan Hodáč

is a Founder and President of the Aspen Institute Central Europe. He was Secretary-General of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) from 2001 until October 2013. He was among other a member of a special Advisory Group of experts, which was advising  the European Commission in negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the United States (TTIP), and an advisor to the Czech Government on European issues. He is also a Senior advisor at Teneo CabinetDN, a leading consultancy on the EU. The Financial Times listed him among the most influential personalities in Brussels politics. Before joining ACEA, he was Senior Vice-President and Head of the Time Warner Corporate office for Europe. Previously he was Secretary-General of the trade organization IFMA/IMACE, Senior Economist at Didier & Associates, and Assistant Professor at the College of Europe, Bruges.

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