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Interview: Germany faces a 'watershed' moment

The US seems poised for a period of isolationism, leaving room for allies and rivals to take on a larger role in the global community. Many Germans would prefer watching from the sidelines, says scholar Siebo Janssen.

DW: President Donald Trump has made clear he would pursue a more isolationist foreign policy, and he also warned that NATO states should pull their own weight when it comes to defense. Will this give Germany room to act more independently on the world stage, with America pulling back?

Siebo Janssen: Germany, at first just West Germany and now the entire country, was protected by the US against the Soviet or the Russian threat. The US has always stressed that they have this close alliance because they needed Germany as a factor of stability in Europe and a very important factor in the EU. Now, with Trump, we have something you can really call a brutal isolationist position, where he says: 'I am not interested in what is happening in the rest of the world, I am only interested in destroying ["Islamic State"] and I am only interested in what is happening in the United States.'

The problem for Germany will be that Germany now has a totally new role - it becomes more independent, but also takes on a leadership role inside the European Union and inside the free world.

Can Germany really assume a more dominant role?

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I am skeptical. I am not sure whether Germany can deal with this new powerful position - the reasons being that we never learned it and never wanted it and yet, now we have two major power-related problems. The first is the EU - Germany is the most important player inside the EU since France is in decline politically and economically. We are also getting a more powerful role in the world. Here in Germany, nobody wanted it, and we are stumbling into this role, nobody has dealt with it before.

Everyone knows that Trump will change Germany's position in the world, but no one can accept it at this moment, there are no models for that. 

So what do you think Berlin needs to do, what is the proper way to react?

I think that the European Union has to build up under German leadership - and later, maybe under France - the EU has to build up our own defense and foreign policy. We have to build on two pillars, diplomacy, where we are already very strong, and we have to strengthen the military power of the European Union as a whole, not just for Germany or France.

If Germany and Europe start pursuing their own foreign policy, would it lead to diplomatic clashes with the US?

We can already see that now - we here, in the European Union, for example, have no interest in destabilizing east or southeast Europe, which is what Russia is currently trying to do. If the US turns more and more isolationist, I fear that the EU and Germany would have to deal with their own neighborhood. We can no longer ask the US to do it. We have to do it on our own, and that would be a clash of interest, because Trump already said that he doesn't want to escalate the conflict with Russia.

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If Russia, for example, tries to build up its role in Ukraine, or southeast Europe, or Georgia, then we would have to react to that through the Baltic states. The EU has to react if the US does not want to. We cannot accept what Putin has done in most parts of east and southeast Europe.

You have already mentioned building up the military and boosting diplomatic efforts. What other reforms would you like to see in response to Donald Trump and the new US policy?

In my opinion, we need to get a UN seat for the entire European Union. It would be a clear signal to the rest of the world - to Russia, the US, China - that the European Union is coming together on their foreign policy, and not on national interests. That's why I think it's necessary, but the problem is that, on the other side, we have this decline of the EU. It's getting weaker and we have a lot of internal and external problems, just look at Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Brexit.

You see that we are now facing a watershed moment. We can go into the direction of more European Union, strengthening it when it comes to foreign and defense policy, or losing influence in the world and giving Eastern Europe and parts of the world to the policy of authoritarian systems, like China or Russia and even the US.

Professor Siebo Janssen is a German political scientist and a historian, focusing on the US and southeastern Europe. He teaches at the University of Cologne's Department of Anglo-American History.

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