The Wilson Quarterly

Obama, Merkel, and the questions nobody asked

Obama had “Yes, we can,” and Merkel had “We can make it” — two answers to non-existent questions. With time running out on their administrations, what questions should Obama & Merkel ask, and how should they be answered? Here are four things the leaders cannot afford to ignore.

Bob the Builder, that ever-competent, plucky little hero from British children’s television, he knew how to fix things. Renovations, construction, repair work, painting, digging — anything his villagemates needed. Every request, every inquiry into his abilities was met with a clear answer from his anthropomorphized troupe of bulldozers, trucks, and other machinery: “Yes, we can.”

It’s the same answer that Barack Obama offered during his presidential campaign in 2008. “When we have faced down impossible odds,” Obama told an election-night audience after his second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary, “when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. … Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

German chancellor Angela Merkel has wielded a similar slogan: Wir haben die Kraft, which roughly translates as “We have the ability.” It’s a motto for all seasons. Merkel first used it in 2009 after the global financial crisis rattled Europe’s economy. In the wake of the chancellor’s controversial decision in September 2015 to unilaterally suspend European Union (EU) legislation and open German borders to migrant refugees, the phrase has taken on a slightly different tone: Wir schaffen das, or “We can make it.”

Both Obama and Merkel gave answers to unasked questions. Neither world leader ever bothered to pose the questions that Bob the Builder first posed before uttering his famous catchphrase: “What is it we were asked to fix?” and then “Can we fix it?”

Could they? Partly. Both Obama and Merkel won elections and reelections, consolidated power, organized majorities — and yet, in the end, both leaders’ domestic support shrank and their international luck went from bad to worse. Whenever the challenge did not belong to their own team (meaning: government), or did not originate in their own village (meaning: country), they could not fix it. Over time, the limits of their leadership on foreign matters — the war in Syria, the refugee crisis, urban terrorism, Russian neoimperialism, the decapitation of Ukraine — backfired and began to undermine their domestic authority.

As the time runs down on Obama’s presidency, the “Yes, we can” of the campaign trail sounds like quaint naiveté, and Merkel’s “We can make it” has become a caricature.

As the time runs down on Obama’s presidency, the “Yes, we can” of the campaign trail sounds like quaint naiveté, and Merkel’s “We can make it” has become a caricature.

The Obama administration, like Chancellor Merkel’s government, cannot be blamed for the conflicts it inherited, or those that broke out without its involvement. When such conflicts erupted, both administrations had similar initial reactions to these conflicts: cautious and stability-minded, with an instinct for domestic primacy. But therein lies the problem: for too long, the United States and Germany have been driven by the old instincts of politics as local — limited to the calculations for running their own “village” and reacting to external pressure only as needed — and doing so under the assumption that they always know what’s best for others.

They should have known better — Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea, for instance, took both leaders by surprise. Their instincts (and those of the political class around them) were shaped by the remnants of the Cold War: deterrence and cooperation, the old mantra of NATO’s seminal 1967 Harmel Report. The nostalgic dream of a New Russia told another more complex story, far older than the Cold War. Putin’s point of reference was the acquisition of territories of the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate of czarist Russia, known in the eighteenth century as Novorossiya. Putin was reconnecting not with 1990, but with 1917 and 1764.

The conceptual difference to Western ways of political thinking could not be more startling. The neo-hegemonic Eurasian Union — conceptualized by Putin’s government as a mirror-opposite of the EU — combines imperial traditions with postmodern supranationalism. In response, Obama and Merkel have remained grounded in reality and reacted convincingly. But the parameters of deterrence and cooperation have limits. One lesson of the Russo-Ukrainian crisis: geopolitics remains a function of history.

One lesson of the Russia-Ukraine crisis: geopolitics remains a function of history.

Nineteen-seventeen was the year of the Russian publication of the previously secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Ottoman provinces in Mesopotamia and the Levant between France and Great Britain. The carving-out of these spheres of influence at the expense of Arab ownership over their own lands was the last roar of the old-style British and French imperialism. The current wars in Syria and Iraq, as well as the unresolved Israel-Palestine issue, are the bitter fruit of Sykes-Picot.

In the Middle East, bitter fruit is plentiful. The Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (and Kuwait’s 1991 liberation by a U.S.-led coalition), and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were conceived primarily as reactions not to Sykes-Picot, but to more recent events — respectively, to the 1979 Iranian revolution, to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and to the September 11 attacks. Hardly anybody thought of 1917 and Sykes-Picot.

In the West, the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, including the Syrian revolt against Bashar al-Assad, was spoken of in terms of democracy-building and transformation. No one talked about Sykes-Picot.

But then came Daesh, the Islamic State. And with Daesh came a totalitarian renewal of the caliphate, controlling a growing territory since 2014, marked by barbaric violence and a lust for death. Daesh announced that its next battlefield would be Europe, its targets specifically the signers of Sykes-Picot — the creators of those arbitrary, century-old borders that Daesh had declared void. The attacks on Paris on November 13, 2015, christened their new warzone.

Daesh has a novel combination of old methods: totalitarian politics, fundamentalist religion, modern guerrilla warfare, and international terrorism. In 2016 and beyond, the biggest challenge for the transatlantic world will be to develop a comprehensive and differentiated strategy. Will it work this time, or will the transatlantic partners split once again, as they did in 2003, over who is in charge of hard power and who of soft power, who is right and who is wrong, who will lead and who can be trusted? After 9/11, these strategic matters absorbed too much political capital. Now, in the wake of 11/13, these questions have become matters of survival for Western civilization as such.

Can we fix it? Can we fix this together? Yes, we can, but carefully. For the West to withstand the enemies at its gates, Obama and Merkel must make a priority list of four agenda points for 2016 and beyond.

1. Balancing stronger domestic security with democratic institutions.

This task goes well beyond the mandate of any sitting U.S. president or European leader, the German chancellor included. This year, 2016, is the time that the West must jointly develop an appropriate new transatlantic strategy. It must be based on lessons learned about internal Western mistakes between 2001 and 2015, the changing landscape affecting the West, and the needs for (and limits of) Western leadership.

The first task of any transatlantic leader is to guarantee the security and stability of their own country, territory, and legal system. The old debate about the appropriate balance between freedom and security, privacy rights and protection has gained new ground since 11/13. This time, more so than after 9/11, it must be a common transatlantic debate. And it must clearly begin with enhanced cooperation and information exchange between security services. It should include actions on those matters of justice and home affairs that have been agreed upon but not properly implemented, especially in the EU: data retention, weapons control, efforts to combat organized crime and root out the financing lines for terrorist organizations, and expanded measures to combat the radicalization of young people, especially young Muslims.

This new debate takes place in the shadow of domestic right-wing populism and skepticism over what the Western political system is or should be. The differences between Donald Trump and European right-wing populists like France’s Marine Le Pen are contingent, not structural. Keeping politics out of the hands of radicals is a shared challenge for the United States and the EU, Germany included.

The differences between Donald Trump and European right-wing populists like Marine Le Pen are contingent, not structural.

Right-wing populism makes for attention-grabbing headlines and good internet clickbait. The reality behind its appeal is more complex and more serious. At the core lies growing doubt over governability of Western democracies, which increasingly are faced with a combination of widening social unrest, the constant threat of terrorism, and possible alternatives to Western-style national democracy (including the genuinely postmodern form of EU policymaking). This unrest smolders on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first challenge for Washington, Berlin, and Brussels is to act in such a way that good governance and popular faith in government can again converge, and to revitalize the core values of rule of law, democracy, and social pluralism across the Western world. This is a daunting process, and likely a piecemeal effort, but it is the first step to regaining control in times of leadership uncertainty.

2. To help end the “war within Islam” and create an international peace process in Syria.

This must become the year to definitively defeat Daesh and regain lost land in Syria and Iraq. This can only happen as a joint international military operation, preferably with a United Nations mandate, embedded within a comprehensive military-civilian strategy for an international peace in Syria.

The soft and easy side of the challenge must include stronger humanitarian support for refugee-recipient countries in the region (including Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon), a resolute fight against human trafficking, better control of the influx of refugees through strict and coherent border controls as well as negotiated readmission agreements, and a broad consensus that the universal duty of granting asylum must be balanced by a realistic sense of the number of refugees that a Western nation can take in.

But the root causes of the Syrian civil war will not disappear on their own. The core enemy for the West — as for everyone involved in what King Abdullah II of Jordan has called (beyond the Syrian theatre) the “war within Islam” — is Daesh.

Easier said than done. The most daunting task will be brokering a peace plan in Syria that does not exclude any actor — Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the EU included. A peace organized primarily on Russian terms could prove the greatest threat to the transatlantic partnership this year. It could well come at a political price far too high for the West. A tacit or overt recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the acceptance of a paralyzed Ukraine could become unintended side effects if Russia is permitted to unilaterally dominate the Syrian scene without respecting longstanding Western demands to cease the conflict in eastern Europe, and could force the West into a Russia-defined strategic compromise over peace and the regional architecture. Turkey is particularly exposed to the buildup of Russia’s presence in Syria. The West as a whole should be worried about a potential escalation of Russian-Turkish relations, thus putting Turkey in danger of being dragged deeper into the Syrian conundrum. Russia may be inclined to strengthen its military role in Syria in order to force the West into a deal that would include lifting the painful Western sanctions before the next Russian legislative elections, scheduled for September 2016. The outgoing U.S. president, and the weakened leadership in Germany and across the EU, must resist any solution to Syria that would, in the end, threaten the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine or their NATO partner, Turkey.

3. Designing regional security architectures for a stable peace.

The most burning issue for the United States and its European partners, Germany included, is the search for a regional security architecture in the Middle East. An end to the civil war in Syria will require a political solution along the lines of the Vienna talks which started in October 2015. Should the option initiated in Vienna fail — or come only at the price of a hegemonic Russia dictating its conditions — the West will need to rethink its entire strategy in the Levant.

In the meantime, the establishment of a no-fly zone and a secure haven for refugees may require thinking outside the box and conceptualizing a Syria with separate zones of interest, comparable to post–World War II Germany or the post-Ottoman provinces of Mesopotamia. It is not an attractive option, but it is better than a protracted asymmetric war against a global terrorist army that thrives as long as its external enemies are divided among themselves.

Regional security architecture is also important for Africa, a region shaken by the tremors in the Arab world. The overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya has opened a Pandora’s box of jihadism and terrorism across the Sahara and Sahel. The terrorist attack in Bamako, Mali, in November 2015 demonstrated just how vulnerable the Sahel is to terrorism despite the presence of French, American, German, and other foreign soldiers. Three years earlier, Mali’s destabilization nearly escalated into a jihadi coup d’état. Across the border in Nigeria — and increasingly in other African countries — Boko Haram is an ongoing source of instability and threat to peace. As an organization, Boko Haram is responsible for more deaths than Daesh.

The African Union’s rapid intervention force is slowly being activated in West Africa, but it remains underfinanced and is too weak to go it alone. It needs U.S. and EU backing. The U.S. military budget is 4.35 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP); France’s is 1.8 percent; Germany’s is only 1 percent (about €33 billion net). Nigeria’s military budget is about 0.9 percent of its GDP — only €8.7 billion net. To liberate a country three times the size of Germany from Boko Haram with such a limited budget is simply unrealistic for the Nigerian army. And beyond financial concerns is a practical matter: due to Nigeria’s miserable human rights record in the past, it cannot buy arms from the United States.

The American and German role in African security is complicated. The United States may rank only as Africa’s third-biggest economic partner, trailing both the EU and China, but the U.S. security presence in Africa is enormous and growing. And although the EU is Africa’s greatest partner in trade, investment, and aid, many European policymakers do not see Africa as anything but an exporter of unwelcome refugees. This focus on stanching the flow of migrants renders the EU hostage to the demands of some African leaders: more financial support in exchange for readmission deals.

A mutually beneficial security architecture, with hard power as well as human security dimensions, could provide the grounds to address the root problems behind migration, regional instability, and uneven economic developments in Africa. Taking their cue from the 2015 EU-Africa Summit on migration in Malta, it would be worthwhile for Europe to engage the United States to develop a joint program for jobs, investment, and growth in Africa, coupled with greater African command of African Union intervention troops.

4. Revamping transatlantic relations through a successful Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

The core challenge for the outgoing Obama administration is the completion of TTIP negotiations. For the time being, TTIP negotiations continue between the Obama administration and the EU, the latter represented by Commissioner Cecilia Malmström on behalf of all 28 EU member states. Although a successful end to the negotiations may be realized in 2016, the deal’s potential ratification will bring out the usual complexity of European politics: all 28 member state parliaments plus the European Parliament must ratify any transatlantic trade deal. The issue is perhaps most politically sensitive in Merkel’s Germany; nowhere else is skepticism against TTIP as strong as in the strongest export nation of the European market. The real motivator behind the German opposition to TTIP, it seems, is not fact but emotion — to some degree, opposition to TTIP has become a proxy for anti-Americanism.

Opinion polls indicate that in the United States, the majority of citizens seem favorable to a transatlantic trade and investment partnership. Those who are critical cite a lack of information as their main concern. But the divisive partisan landscape in U.S. politics could lead to bitter controversies after the end of negotiations and even beyond the mandate of the Obama administration. Only one fact is certain: TTIP’s success or failure will be an important part of both Obama’s and Merkel’s legacies.

Where does that leave us? Obama’s “Yes, we can” and Merkel’s “We can make it” will, with hindsight, most likely remain what those slogans always were: answers to questions never asked.

Bob the Builder knew what he wanted to achieve before he called on his team to start working. Now more than ever, the United States, Germany, and the entire European Union need to sit down and again ask the basics: What is the challenge? Can we fix it?

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Ludger Kühnhardt is director of the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) at Bonn, and a global fellow at the Wilson Center.

Photo courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza

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