You know the United States well, thanks to your education, your family ties, and your work as a politician. How can the new U.S. President bring together the divided and polarized country?
Turning the Nation Divided into a Nation United is the greatest challenge that Joe Biden and his administration face. Four years will hardly be enough to accomplish this task. A politician’s most important tool is language. It can have a tremendous effect; we saw that with Donald Trump. Joe Biden, by contrast, has since the early days of his campaign used language that seeks to bridge social divides. I hope he will manage to govern not only through executive orders, but also by working together with the Republicans. The people in the United States need to feel that political action is having a real effect, whether it be the fight against the pandemic, the stimulus plan, education, infrastructure projects, or the health care system. Many of the more than 70 million Trump voters are not white supremacists, Proud Boys, or evangelicals. Quite often, they are normal, yet unsatisfied, people in “flyover country” with “kitchen table” problems. Biden promised to be the President of all Americans. He now has the opportunity to bring these people back into the fold and engage them in a future that includes all of society.
By saying “yes” to the Paris Climate Agreement and the WHO, Biden has shown that he is returning to old partnerships and international cooperation. What specifically do you expect to happen in the sphere of transatlantic relations?
To strengthen U.S. international engagement and diplomacy, Biden needs strong partners. That’s what the Europeans can, want to, and should be. Currently, facing down the pandemic is a top priority. Here, I expect there will be close cooperation between Europe and the United States on production and distribution of vaccines. After four years of Donald Trump, trust needs to be rebuilt. In his first speech to the Europeans at the virtual Munich Security Conference, Biden practically put the transatlantic partnership on a pedestal. His credo is that, together, we can master any challenge of the 21st century. My chief priority is reducing the protectionist trade measures that are having a one-sided effect. I’m talking about tariffs on steel, aluminum, and motor vehicles. I’m also urging we pursue a transatlantic policy on the systemic rival China. Here, we have many common interests, for example regarding human rights and the protection of intellectual property. Joe Biden, Angela Merkel, and Ursula von der Leyen could make clear political statements on these issues. If China continues to abuse the WTO system, effective sanctions must be triggered. Beijing needs to play by the rules. By contrast, economic decoupling is not a realistic option.
This is something that interests many entrepreneurs, not only in the Senate of the Economy. How would you describe the transatlantic economic outlook during the Biden Administration? Will America once again become the EU’s most important trading partner, after China overtook the U.S. as the EU’s largest trading partner – for the first time – during the COVID-19 crisis?
China has taken the lead in terms of trade. Although that’s no reason to panic, it should be a wakeup call. Thanks to the recently signed RCEP trade deal, systemic rivals and economic competitors such as China, Australia, and Japan have succeeded in creating the largest economic area in the world. Our goal must be to establish a resilient transatlantic economic area. We need a free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. This is also about protecting our prosperity and safeguarding our values – respect for the individual, the rule of law, democracy, human rights, peace, and stability. To me, these values are among humanity’s greatest achievements. Neither the Europeans nor the Americans can do this on their own; we need a strong partnership, on an equal footing. What we have going for us is that Biden – unlike Trump and possibly also Obama – understands the Europeans. However, Germany and Europeans are no longer able to duck out of the way; we must assume responsibility. On the periphery of our continent, i.e. in the Middle East and North Africa, we will have to do a lot more. And we need to coordinate our action closely with the U.S.; Europe must finally become a protagonist in global policy.
This includes the defense sector. You once said that we can’t get security on the cheap. When will Germany meet its NATO pledge (the two-percent target)?
For me, the two-percent target is set in stone. These investments are what we owe our partners, as well as our service members. That’s also the majority opinion in the Federal Government. There are some in the current coalition’s other party – and SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich is one of them – who want to go in a different direction. That position is naive, irresponsible, and dangerous – especially regarding the procurement of armed drones or fantasies of nuclear de-coupling from the United States. In 2014, at the NATO Summit in Wales, we agreed after long negotiations to aim at spending two percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Even though our defense budget has grown by more than 45 percent compared to 2014, we are not likely to reach the two-percent goal by 2024. In 2019, Olaf Scholz, Finance Minister and SPD candidate for Chancellor, published key medium term financial planning data. According to these calculations, we were moving away from the two-percent target. That issue has now been addressed. However, this has severely damaged our reputation among our North American and European Allies.
Speaking of security – turning to the digital transformation – that also includes cyberspace. Last year, what were presumably Russian hackers gained access through malware associated with a U.S. manufacturer to FireEye, Microsoft and other companies, including in Europe. They were able to download data and source code. The old U.S. administration played down that event. Do we need closer transatlantic cooperation?
Cybersecurity is a huge issue. Everything related to vulnerabilities, including critical infrastructure, is becoming ever more important. The German Bundestag and the Federal Foreign Office were also targeted in a massive way by hackers – most likely originating in Russia. China, too, is active in this domain. Germany’s intelligence agencies are cooperating very closely with their U.S. counterparts. Without getting into details, I can say that, for many years, Germany has greatly benefited from this cooperation. It is a good thing that Joe Biden has now begun pushing back against Moscow in this regard. And since we are on the subject of cyber, when it comes to the digital transformation, for example artificial intelligence, Germany and Europe need to make a clear leap forward and cooperate closely with the United States. Otherwise, we’ll fall behind economically and in terms of security policy.
Last but not least, what is your personal message during this pandemic to Europeans and Americans?
We need each other. Let’s together start forging a New West!