Constanze Stelzenmüller is a Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, a German international relations analyst, policy and law scholar, and journalist. She is an expert in German, European, and trans-Atlantic foreign policy and global affairs.
In this riveting interview, she discusses how recent events and international politics are likely to impact the global future, including the future for trade and prosperity.
I thought we could start by talking about 2020 before looking ahead. In terms of international diplomacy, what are your main takeaways from 2020?
I just this morning read a Lenin quote, that there are decades where nothing happens and then there are weeks that contain several decades. And honestly, that’s how the past year felt to me. I remember sitting here on January 3rd 2020, when an American strike killed the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, and thinking that was starting off the New Year with a bomb. And so many things have happened since then that it’s head spinning to even consider them.
The past four years of the Trump administration – since I live and work in Washington – have reinforced the importance of democracy and democratic values as the glue that binds Western nations together. And I’m old enough to remember when saying that kind of thing was a somewhat meaningless commitment. The past year has made us all realize that it is a huge mistake to assume that democracy is self-renewing and self-repairing. And that, in fact, if you don’t provide the preconditions for functioning institutions and functioning democratic processes, they may very well be eroded and then we all suffer.
Just take the events of the past week in Washington, D.C. where a violent mob stormed the capital. I think that brought home to the entire world, the consequences of democratic disarray in America for America’s allies, but also for its challenges and rivals.
What can we do about it? Where do we start to ensure democracy? And when I look at myself as an individual citizen, I don’t really know where to put my energy either as a citizen or a trade person. I don’t know where to start with that project.
Let me make a very practical recommendation at the risk of recommending something that I wrote. I was, during the summer, part of a transatlantic working group that issued a report called Stronger Together. It was organised by the Harvard Kennedy School and the German Council on Foreign Relations. And the report contains several action plans, including one on democracy, which I wrote. And that contains a number of very practical recommendations of what allies should talk about with each other. But the truth is that this is not something that is far away for ordinary citizens. There is always something in your own world as a citizen that you can do something about. Even if it’s deciding to vote instead of deciding to not vote, or being very careful in the way in which you use social media to express your opinions.
Or the way that you consume information and use media. I don’t want to put the burden on the individual citizen here. It’s also important for elected representatives in the executive and the legislature and the courts, to protect democracy and not to undermine it. Let me give you a very simple example. In the Brexit referendum, there was a significant segment of the under-25s did not vote. Because they didn’t take the referendum seriously.
Now, four years later, we see the tremendous impact that the Brexit referendum has had and is going to have, not just on British foreign and security policy, but on life in Britain. And also concomitantly on life in Europe, because we’ve lost a key power in the European Union.
So it’s at least keeping in mind that politics do matter – which is something that can be a change of mindset for some of us.
Let me make one final point here. There was a time after the end of the Cold War in which [people] had got the distinct impression that we had entered a sort of post-modern entropy of politics, where it was all about private consumerism and where people thought that political strife was over. The Chinese and the Russians were going to become like us and that the West had won, and we had won, and democracy had won, and therefore, politics didn’t really matter anymore. And we’ve been taught otherwise in the wake of the global financial crisis with the rise of authoritarian, violent, populous and radicals, who are clearly bent on destroying democratic orders in order to implement much more authoritarian systems. And I think it took us an awfully long time in the last decade to realise that that was what was happening.
I remember growing up in a world where the economic power was the strongest. So people would focus their energy on economic and companies and making money to have power. When we clearly see now that politics do matter more than ever. You’ve once written, ‘In an interdependent world, the vulnerability of one is the vulnerability of all’. What vulnerabilities are you the most concerned with entering 2021?
Well, what I meant when I wrote that was that the populists who say that the only thing that matters is national sovereignty, and that it is possible to decouple from globalisation and that globalisation is somehow a false belief, a bad religion, are just wrong. Interdependence is simply, in the modern world, a fact of life. And it’s created by trade, it’s created by human mobility, it’s created by the mobility of goods, such as wine, and it’s created by the mobility of data. And those things are pretty much unstoppable. These are forces over which states have fairly little control.
Now, I think one of the things where we need to discuss right now is whether there needs to be more government and state regulation of certain things. Whether states need the ability to prevent certain kinds of companies and goods from being sold to authoritarian powers, certain kinds of arms, certain kinds of digital technology and so on. Those are all legitimate discussions, but the sort of myth that the populace were peddling was that we could decouple.
That was the Brexit myth: that if Britain decoupled from the European Union, it would once again have complete control over everything. Its politics, its economy, and so on. And I think that that’s a myth and the Brits will find out how deeply they are interdependent with the European Union in many ways.
What I was trying to say when I said that interdependence also means vulnerability, is that it means that you were open to influences from outside, whether that’s propaganda, disinformation, drugs, illicit arms, whatever. And if you think that closing borders isn’t an option, then you are going to have to figure out how to make your country more resilient.
Take propaganda and disinformation, for example. Those enter countries and political cultures freely, because they come via the digital space. And there is a huge debate on how to regulate that kind of movement.
Only this week, we saw a huge event after the storming of the US Capitol, when the social media tech giants decided to throw the president of the United States off Twitter and to shut down his Twitter account. And then, in a second step – as a lot of the right-wing nationalists were fleeing to the Parler app – tech giants like Amazon and others de-platforming that app. That’s an extraordinary event, and I think there is a real debate to be had about whether that’s not going one step too far. And whether it isn’t giving the tech giants an undue power in policing content and hate speech.
Do you think that an event like this one is going to bring tech people closer to politics people?
I’m going to say something cynical now, which is that the fact that the Democratic Party of President-Elect Joe Biden won the Georgia Senate runoffs, and thereby won the majority in the Senate, means that now the Democrats are going to chair all the relevant committees, including the ones on deregulation and digital technology. I would say that that has a great deal to do with the tech company’s sudden eagerness to police hate content. In other words, I think that this is preemptive self-regulation because they are, I think with good reason, afraid of some kind of a regulatory crackdown. I have mixed feelings about this.
I think as Europeans are culturally acclimated to having a government role here, because we think of government and the state as providers of public goods and as arbiters of regulation. I think that it is beyond time for governments to do the same with technology. And I think there ought to be a transatlantic conversation about that. I’m fairly certain that the Biden administration will reach out to Europeans and do exactly that.
And that brings me to a larger point, which is that I think that the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 showed how damaging it is for social cohesion and for democratic stability if the functionality and legitimacy of governments is eroded all the time. The authoritarians like Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Xi Jinping in China, or to come a little bit closer to home, the Trump administration in America, sadly, or the Orban government and Hungary, the AfD in Germany; what all these political forces have in common is that they see representative democracy [as something to be hedged and limited] – they all seek to destroy that. That’s what disinformation and propaganda is for.
That is why the Hungarians rewrote their constitution. That is why in my own country, Germany, Alternative for Germany spends a lot of time fighting court cases directed at undermining representative democracy. And that’s something that I think we’ve learned from these years. It’s been a lesson in democracy in many ways.
In 2019 during ARENI Global’s Think Tank, you talked about the risk of kinetic encounter – war – and the war that would be happening by mistake in some ways, because of different misunderstandings between international powers. Are we entering 2021 facing the same risks of kinetic encounters as we were in 2019?
Based on the cabinet and sub-cabinet level positions that the incoming Biden administration has already been announcing, we see in the next government of the world’s remaining superpower, a return to professionalism, competence, and predictability, which I have to say is a huge relief. This is literally the cavalry coming. I think 95% of all of the appointments that I have now seen are superb, and that makes an enormous difference compared to the past four years.
Let me make another important point. The other huge difference between Trump and Biden is that Biden will stop any cosying up to authoritarians. The catastrophic embrace by Trump of the North Korean dictator, of Xi Jinping, of Putin, all that will stop. So that also takes out of the equation some of the risk factors that were there previously, that had security experts like me lying awake at night.
There is still a risk, obviously and I see there are several places where this could happen in the near future. I’m very anxious about the future of international engagement with Afghanistan.
I am never not worrying about the Middle East. And I think my most burning concern would be Taiwan.
What about the situation of the wine world and Australia? [Given that friction with China has caused China to impose crippling tariffs on Australian wines.]
China become an important market for Western luxury goods of which wine is one. This is something where Europeans have very little to say militarily, but a great deal of economic investment. A lot of market access is at stake.
If there is a conflict between China and one of its neigbours – specifically, a neigbour like Taiwan – then Europeans could be in a very serious bind. The whole point of the Biden administration’s emphasis on an alliance of democracies is to make it clear to Europeans that there is no equivalence in fights like these. You cannot be on both sides of this fight.
If the Chinese were to attack Taiwan, then that is a huge question for the Western Alliance and its viability and legitimacy. Because if we don’t take that kind of thing seriously, what does that say about us as democracies and partners of other democracies around the world?
Are there any other major events that are going to shape the future of the next few years that we need to keep our eye on?
Well, I think the great question is going to be, is it possible in the four years of a Biden administration to revitalise and strengthen the alliance between America and Europe? That is, I think, key if we want to preserve our way of life. And frankly, there will be no market for luxury goods. There will be no producers of luxury goods if we fail this one.
What do you think about the tariffs?
I’m not a trade expert, and I cannot say where the experts selected by the incoming Biden registration will take this. But I have two key points to make. One is that the domestic turmoil in the United States is an important factor in the Biden administration’s trade policies. This will not be a gung-ho Reaganite, free trade, no-holds-barred administration. It will have to look to its domestic voters and what they want. And some of the Biden administration’s trade policies could therefore look quite protectionist.
On the other hand, I expect that there will be one key difference compared to the Trump administration, which is that the Biden administration will not use methods of economic coercion, like tariffs, merely for the sake of punishing its allies for something. It will have a far more sophisticated understanding of the value of trading with Europe, and of the value of working with Europe, rather than against it.
Speaking of tariffs – and wine tariffs – what can normal trade people do?
Companies and the people who work in them are also citizens. And the people who buy their goods are not just consumers, they’re also citizens. We are part of something larger. And we have a stake in preserving the peaceful and democratic nature of the systems in which we live. The lesson is not just to think about growing the wine and selling it and drinking it, but about the societies and the governments in which we do this.
After the President of the United States incited last week’s deadly riots, a number of companies said they were no longer going to support him or contribute to his causes. The Professional Golfing Association said that it would never again use Trump golfing resorts as venues for golf events. That’s a very direct way of expressing horror at last week’s events, and it’s just an example that I use. That’s one example of how companies decide that they are citizens, too.
Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss that with us.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. To hear the full discussion, go to:
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