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PoliticsUnited States of America

Opinion: US vote a wake-up call for trans-Atlantic ties

Thorsten Benner
Thorsten Benner
November 12, 2022

When it comes to US democratic dysfunction, Europeans should follow a simple motto: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, writes Thorsten Benner.

https://p.dw.com/p/4JP3d
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaking at a podium discussion
Germany and Europe need to revisit their overreliance on US supportImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

Yes, the defenders of democracy have fared better than expected in the United States. Democrats have the best midterm showing of any party occupying the presidency since 2002 when Americans rallied around the flag (and Republicans) after 9/11. Given inflation pressures and the historically low approval ratings of President Joe Biden, this is a remarkable result. 

It shows that the story about a neat polarization of the electorate neglects to show the full picture. As research by the non-profit organization More in Common demonstrates, there is an "exhausted middle" that is much less vocal and visible than the extremes but nevertheless crucial for election outcomes. 

However unpopular Biden may be, Donald Trump and his candidates do not seem to be an attractive alternative for many in the exhausted middle. In fact, a sizable chunk of that demographic does not seem excited about much of what US democracy has on offer for them. Most independents in the US crave for more moderate candidates from both parties as another recent More in Common study shows.

European allies must focus on what they can control

Thorsten Benner, Director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin
GPPi director Thorsten BennerImage: Mathias Erfurt/GGPi

But while the Democrats may be relieved by the results, US democratic dysfunction should continue to raise the alarm bells in countries relying on the US for their security, most importantly Germany. 

The dangers of a major democratic breakdown of the US will not evaporate even if Trump is not successful in his bid to secure the nomination for the 2024 presidential elections. Most candidates put forward by the Republican party have not found clear words to distance themselves from the attempted coup on January 6, 2021, let alone from the many conspiracy theories doubting the legitimacy of the 2020 elections. That illustrates the danger zone into which US democracy has entered and from which it will not exit decisively any time soon. 

US allies in Europe need to accept they can do little to influence US democratic health or election outcomes. But they can and should focus on what they do control: invest in their own capabilities to prepare for a future in which the US no longer takes care of European security. The biggest mistake Germans could make right now is to take for granted one positive element of the war in Ukraine, which is that happened during the Biden and not the Trump administration.

After the midterms: Could US support for Ukraine wane?

Yes, we should be extremely grateful for how competently Biden and his team have handled the war, and how much they and Congress have invested not just in supporting Ukraine but also getting Europeans on board and keeping them as united as possible. But looking into the future we should treat Biden as a freak occurrence rather than then norm. 

Biden will go down in history as the last bleeding heart trans-Atlanticist to occupy the White House. Even in the best of all scenarios, with moderate and democratically minded future presidents, Germans would do well to expect much less commitment to providing resources for European security. 

US pressure on Europe

The US' focus will be on the Asia-Pacific where China presents the most crucial challenge from a US perspective. And even if US strategists talk about China and Russia (due to their alignment) posing a "single theater" threat, they expect Europeans to take care of the security needs in their own neighborhood in a much more substantial way so that the US can focus on the Asia-Pacific. 

In fact, as Jeremy Shapiro convincingly argues, we should expect US pressure for Europeans to take care of a much larger share of the costs of supporting Ukraine to grow very soon. And we're talking here about the best of all worlds for Europeans without a Trump type of president back in the White House any time soon which would mean that all bets on security guarantees for Europe are off. 

That is why Germans should invest into capabilities helping Europeans take care of their own security with a greater sense of urgency. There was a moment after the start of Russia's invasion in which fear that Russia would control Ukraine fast and that other European countries could be next prompted Germans to push for greater military and security spending. That was the context for the Zeitenwende (turning point) speech by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February that unlocked an extra €100 billion ($103 billion) to start rebuilding the German military. But with Russia handling the war in a less than competent way and Ukraine resisting so bravely that fear has somewhat diminished. 

Europe must be proactive 

Many Germans may think that given how much equipment and manpower the Russian military has lost in Ukraine it will not pose a major threat to the rest of Europe any time soon. At any rate, Germans would be well advised not to underestimate future threats from Russia regardless of the dismal performance of the Russian military. 

But the main motivation for continuing to invest more into rebuilding Germany's military and security capabilities is the need for Europe to stand on its own feet in a future in which there is no longer a grandfatherly Biden ready to take care of us. Unfortunately, that future will arrive faster than we are able and willing to prepare for it. 

Thorsten Benner is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin and a member of the global board of directors of More in Common. 

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