For a Global Coalition of Responsible Leaders

Europe's Politics at a Crossroads


15 Feb 2017 | Michael Schaefer | Europe and its neighbours

The election of Donald Trump is a wake-up call. Those who saw Brexit as an unwarranted decision by a British population keeping its distance from the Continent now need to understand that the exception has become the rule.

Publication: “Deutschlands neue Verantwortung”

With support from the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, a volume entitled “Germany’s New Responsibility” is published on the occasion of the 2017 Munich Security Conference. The varied analyses, opinions, and recommendations from the fields of politics, academia, and NGOs, focus on the question of what global influence Germany can and should exert in the future. The editors – Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Dirk Messner, director of the German Development Institute – have gathered more than 145 authors, including Kofi Annan, Bill Gates, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Ursula von der Leyen – and Michael Schaefer, chairman of the board of the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. The book will be published by Ullstein and the essays will be available online beginning February 17.

A global power vacuum

The fall of the wall in Germany and of the Iron Curtain in Europe has ended an era of weak political stability which was upheld by the “balance of terror.” Relative stability has been replaced by a governance vacuum. Globalization and digitization are seen as the drivers of a widespread disorientation. The new complexity exacerbates the fear of the unknown, the resulting anger is directed wholesale against the elites and those in power. The old powers are not willing or capable to fill this vacuum and to exercise leadership in an increasingly anxious and disrupted world. The West – inasmuch as one still wants to use this term for a group of states sharing common values and interest – is more fragmented than ever. America continues on the road of self-isolation. Since George W. Bush, losses of control in Asia and the Middle East have led to the country’s increasing withdrawal and seclusion, which could not be stopped even by Barack Obama.

With Donald Trump, we can expect at best an erratic, incalculable foreign policy; his “America First” ideology is likely to put a major strain on the remaining trust in the transatlantic alliance.

Michael Schaefer

With Donald Trump, we can expect at best an erratic, incalculable foreign policy; his “America First” ideology is likely to put a major strain on the remaining trust in the transatlantic alliance. Europe, whose weight and influence would now be in demand both regionally and globally, is going through its most severe identity crisis since the creation of the European Union. Processes of social erosion in Hungary, Poland or Greece, but also in many EU founding states increasingly challenge the foundation of the Union, the rule of law. They not only hamper the EU’s ability to conduct foreign policy, but – and this could be much more dramatic in the long term – also undermine the union’s credibility and function as a global role model. Russia’s Putin uses this weakness of the “West” to pursue a classic divide-and-conquer strategy; he unscrupulously violates international law, which has been the basis of the European peace order since the signing of the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords.

The potential new powers are still a long way off from filling this vacuum. While China is a global power economically, it is still a developing society domestically. The fact that it flexes its muscles in its immediate neighborhood to safeguard its territorial interests should not be confused with a claim to global leadership or hegemony. China’s interest-driven policy has led to a significant global footprint, but not to China’s ability to shape global politics, even should Beijing want to do so.

The image of the global village has become a reality. Foreign policy has become global domestic policy.

Michael Schaefer

The other new global players – the remaining BRICS or the Next 10 – are a far cry from assuming leadership roles beyond their respective regions. This lack of leadership is accompanied by, if not a major cause for a rise in destabilizing trends: the erosion of governance through an epidemic appearance of failing states in many world regions, especially in Africa and the MENA region; a new generation of international terrorists employing state-of-the-art technology and strategies; poverty-driven migration; pandemics and climate change with dramatic consequences for entire regions. These realities remind us every day that our societies are so strongly interconnected that major crises in one part of the world have an immediate effect on other parts of the world. The image of the global village has become a reality. Foreign policy has become global domestic policy. We have known for a long time that no government, no society is able to deal with these challenges on its own, but we do not act in keeping with this knowledge. This needs to change.

A coalition for change: Interconnectivity of responsibility

We have notable examples that this can be done. The Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guidelines for action, or the Paris Agreement, representing an eleventh-hour minimal consensus to tackle the seemingly inevitable climate change, are singular but encouraging examples of how to counteract the trends described above. But to achieve this goal, it took and will take new coalitions, both bi- and multilaterally. The aim is to preserve and expand a norm-based world that can help us achieve a fair reconciliation of interest. Given legitimate concerns that nationalist and populist forces will continue to gain support and that other EU members might turn their back on the Union, “business as usual” is no longer an option. Europe needs to adapt to the new realities. What we need is not “more Europe,” as is often propagated, but a “different Europe” – a Europe that builds on its roots and adapts to the new aspirations of our people. Peace and prosperity may no longer be a convincing narrative for the young, who take these things for granted. But social justice and equality of opportunity, job security and self-determination are goals that a younger generation too wants to fight for. At the political level, we need to oppose those who threaten these goals. But beyond the political realm, we also need joint action in the economic and civil-society sectors. The mainstream of our societies has kept silent once before and thus been partly responsible for the collapse of society. Now responsible leaders from all sectors of our societies who still represent the majority in most societies have to join forces. In this process, Germany, together with regional and global partners, needs to assume an important role.

Over the last years, we have learned that governments alone can no longer meet the complex challenges we face. The SDGs and the Paris Agreement were the result of concerted actions by government, business, and civil society. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has recognized this and made the old proposition by Ralph Dahrendorf to move “From a Foreign Policy of Nations to a Foreign Policy of Societies” the topic of a conference. This is an intellectual and practical approach that we should actively pursue. We need to pool our strengths, both within our society and together with other societies. We need to develop joint strategies and identify shared opportunities instead of building new fortresses. We need to redraw the global map of our relationships and start to think in terms of converging interests. This goes against the trend of the time, but it is time to go against the trend. This is only possible when governments, companies, foundations, and other civil-society actors work closely together. Interconnectivity of responsibility becomes the key principle. The goal must be to share responsibility across economic and political systems.

We need to learn from our mistakes

The primary responsibility of governments needs to be complemented and supported by a much more active engagement on the part of other actors. “Public-private partnership” must no longer be simply a buzzword. This requires a paradigm shift, a systemic change, a new understanding between governments, businesses, and civil society. Therefore, a strategic dialogue between governments and civil-society actors is an important step in the right direction.

We have failed to forge coalitions with business and civil-society actors, without whom it is near impossible to generate long-term stability. And although we have realized this by now, we still do not act accordingly.

Michael Schaefer

We need to learn from mistakes – whether in the Balkans, Afghanistan or Iraq. We have organized processes that were government-driven and tried to establish a new order from the top down. We have failed to forge coalitions with business and civil-society actors, without whom it is near impossible to generate long-term stability. And although we have realized this by now, we still do not act accordingly: Intergovernmental processes can be suited to ending a war but not to creating a stable peace. This is only possible through local actors, supported by a coordinated strategy of governments, businesses, and civil-society actors from third countries. The refugee crisis will continue to be a big challenge for Europe for years, possibly decades to come. The European Union therefore needs to develop a coherent strategy for tackling the root causes of instability and conflict in its neighborhood. There is no lack of instruments and resources within the EU; the problem is an appalling lack of coherence between foreign and security policies, economic and development policies, and other strategic policy areas. This lack of coherence must be addressed and reversed for the EU to be able to respond effectively to the concerns, anxieties, and frustrations of its citizens. This can and will happen only through new coalitions based on reason and composed of the social mainstream.