What will be the Role of Europe in the Changing World Order?

November 29, 2022

Sigmar Gabriel, former state secretary of Germany, discusses European security policy and transatlantic relations in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and rising China on International Horizons.

Sigmar Gabriel appears in a blue shirt and blazer against a faded image of the Chinese, American and European Union flags.

The transatlantic relationship, arguably the bedrock of the post-World War II international security architecture, came under significant threat during Donald Trump’s tenure in office, as Trump complained about European untrustworthiness and talked about pulling the United States out of NATO. Yet in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the transatlantic relationship has widely been seen to recover its strength and to grow in military terms as Sweden and Finland are on a path to become NATO members. What is the state of the transatlantic relationship and why does it matter?

This week on International Horizons, former State Secretary of Germany Sigmar Gabriel joins Graduate Center Presidential Professor and Ralph Bunche Institute Director John Torpey to discuss European security policy and transatlantic relations in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Gabriel discusses the motivations that led Putin into the war in Ukraine, noting that the Russian president saw an opportunity after the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East and amid doubts about NATO. Gabriel delves into the possibilities of a negotiated outcome in Russia’s war in Ukraine. He also analyzes the prospects for geopolitical cooperation and competition, particularly how the U.S. will approach the Pacific region. He sees future opportunities in systems of alliances and shared military burdens instead of subsidizing the existing security systems of Western countries. Finally, Gabriel argues that China is often overestimated and that a potential strategy for the U.S. and Europe could be to offer alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative, as China is now coping with domestic economic difficulties.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:15

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. 

John Torpey  00:32

We are fortunate to have with us today Sigmar Gabriel, the Chairman of Atlantik-Brücke, which means Atlantic Bridge, an organization devoted to cultivating transatlantic and especially German-American relations. Mr. Gabriel was Vice-Chancellor of Germany from 2013 to 2018 as well as foreign minister during 2017-2018. Before that, he was the German Minister for the Economy and Energy from 2013 to 2017. Mr. Gabriel joined the SPD, the Social Democratic Party, in 1977 and studied at the University of Göttingen, where it seems that he and I may have had a class together in 1982. Thank you for joining us today, Sigmar Gabriel. 

John Torpey  01:22

So I suggested in the introduction, that the transatlantic relationship has been the bedrock of post World War II security. Can you say briefly whether you agree with that assessment and why?

Sigmar Gabriel  01:37

First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to be part of your broadcast, and, again, I beg your pardon for my poor English. I was too much engaged in politics when I was a young man; I should have done better by learning foreign languages. But coming to your questions, yes, of course, especially with Germans, but all the Europeans, we were trained that our international relation was always backed by the United States of America after World War II. The idea was that America, although some thousand kilometers away, should become a European power. The Russians, they should not be part of Europe, and the Germans should be under control after two world wars. The idea of America "in", Russians "out", Germans "down", was the logic of the horrible situations which we created as Germans in Europe and in many parts of the world. 

Sigmar Gabriel  02:42

And it worked well. It worked well, because Europe for the first time since centuries did not fall again into terrible wars. We started, accompanied by the Marshall Plan of the United States, the recovery, the economic and social recovery of Europe. And because of the economic cooperation, which started between France and Germany, there developed something which we have today called the European Union. 

Sigmar Gabriel  03:14

And why this was nearly a wonder? Imagine only a few years after the Holocaust and after German tanks went through all the neighbor countries: the French, the Italians, the people from Luxembourg, from Netherlands, and Belgium, they invited us Germans to build a new Europe. I don't think that that was easy to explain to their citizens, because we Germans were known as murderers and killers. But the United States of America was, so as you can say, the umbrella for these countries to invite the Germans to be secure, that there will be not a new war coming out of Germany. And they needed not even one generation, less than one human lifetime, to come from Auschwitz to Strasbourg and Brussels, and the European Union. In less than one generation, we came from better enemyship and hatreds to peaceful and united Europe. And that was because the United States of America backed this development and, of course, took care about the European security against the Warsaw agreement and the Soviet Union. That was the umbrella under which West Europe could develop.

John Torpey  04:44

Right, that had a pretty long and successful run one, one would have to say. It kept wars from flaring up in Europe in the post World War period, except with the exception of what happened in the dismantling of Yugoslavia. But now we have this Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the meantime, I mean, there has been a rough patch. I mean, it had been the case for a long time that American leaders were complaining about the lack of proper funding from European countries, from Germany in particular, over time, and Donald Trump sort of made noises anyway about taking us out of NATO. But now, this partnership seems to be back in many ways in much better in a much stronger way as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. And I wonder if you could say how you think the relationship currently stands. And Joe Biden tried to get past these unpleasant years in a way with Trump. And I wonder how you assess the state of the relationship now?

Sigmar Gabriel  06:01

As I remember, because I was a member of the NATO meeting when Donald Trump came in, and of course he questioned NATO. But don't forget that immediately after he had this question to NATO, there was a common decision of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States that every member of the House and every senator backed NATO and said that this would be on the one of the pillars of the foreign policy of the United States of America. So they cornered the position of Trump in a very tough and smart way. 

Sigmar Gabriel  06:04

But of course, at the same time in Europe, we had a difficult debate. Remember the French President Macron called NATO brain dead. And my explanation was that we saw the end of the post-World War II era; the axis or the centers of gravity shifted from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. And it started in the United States, when George W. Bush, the President of the United States, said that America is a Pacific nation. Until then, America called itself a transatlantic nation. In reality, it was always both; it was always a transatlantic and a Pacific nation. 

Sigmar Gabriel  07:29

Then we had Obama with his pivot to Asia. And although he was very popular here in Europe and in Germany, he was not really interested in Germany and in Europe until his last maybe one or two years in office. And then we had the development with Trump, who called Europe an enemy like China only smaller. So these shifts or the second Westernization of the US towards the Pacific and the Indo-Pacific that ended the, you can call it the Pax Americana in our region. 

Sigmar Gabriel  08:13

And I think that Ian Bremmer, the American analyst and political scientist, he said, "now we are in a "G0" world, a world without order, not G7, not G20. Not the United Nations. A world without order." Because the United States of America wants to concentrate itself on the new competition with China. And they went out of their presence and the Middle East. Obama started with Syria, Biden and Trump both of them started with a withdrawal from Afghanistan. And, I think Putin had the idea that this would be the right moment to step up.

Sigmar Gabriel  08:58

I mean, Russia was in Europe for hundreds of years. Since the time of Peter the Great, it was a European power. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had nearly no influence of the political or economic development; it went down to a kind of big petrol station. And I think Putin wants to change this. He saw that there will be a new world order, and there is a new rivalry about how this new world order should look like. And he didn't want to see China and the US only competing with each other. 

Sigmar Gabriel  09:35

He wants to come back as a global imperial power. And he wants to start it in the region which he calls always Eurasia. And the idea of invading Ukraine,  I think it was a consequence of this "G0 world" and the consequence that he thought. The United States is politically divided; they are in an infight between Republicans and the Democrats; they will want to look towards China and not to Russia. The Europeans were divided between East and West in issues for freedom of judiciary and freedom of press. It was divided between North and South in financial economic issues. And he had a French president who called NATO "brain dead". For him, it looked like a window of opportunity. 

Sigmar Gabriel  09:35

And I think that's the real reason why he tried to recolonize Ukraine. It's a kind of new imperialism. There is a country which went to freedom and to independence, and now the old colonial master, Russia, wants to get it back in the Russian Imperium. And if you listen to Putin, you do not hear a Red Army General or the successor of Lenin or Stalin. If you listen to him, that's the voice of a so-called "White general," of a person who thinks in the idea of the old Russian empire of the Tsar. There is a person who thinks that the categories of the 19th century; he's using the means and the instruments of the 20th century to become an imperialist power in the 21st century. That's what happened there. 

Sigmar Gabriel  11:36

And you are right, he made a big miscalculation. NATO is united more than ever before since the Cold War. Putin will now have 800 kilometers borderline to NATO members, after Finland and Sweden are joining NATO, by the way because of the nuclear umbrella of the United States. That's the reason why they are joining, Finland and Sweden are joining NATO. Putin will have now 2100 kilometers border to NATO. Europe is more united than before. And we have a United States president who again is willing to take side with the Europeans against the foreign power. So that's the state of the game. We are back in a very strong alliance. 

Sigmar Gabriel  12:31

But to be honest, of course, there are many European leaders and politicians who are afraid what maybe would happen if a guy like Trump would become again President of the United States. And I remember when very well, the G7 meeting, when I was secretary of state in Germany, the United States foreign minister said to us we should eradicate the issue of Ukraine out of our agenda, because this was would be not something where the United States is interested in and Japan also not, so it's a purely European issue. We asked him, "Do you really think that's the case?" And his answer was "not that it's my opinion, but I wanted to let you know how my president thinks about that." 

Sigmar Gabriel  13:16

So there is a certain fear that maybe Joe Biden is the last United States president who knows that the real multiplier of force for the United States is the capability to form alliances. That was always the difference between the Soviet Union, China, Russia, and the United States. Only the United States were able to form alliances and to multiply its own forces through alliances. And I hope that also in the 21st century, the United States will always remember that bowling alone is not only dangerous for Europe, it's dangerous also for the United States.

John Torpey  14:09

Right. So I mean, this brings us into the question of the sort of further pursuance of the Ukraine war. And I'm struck by the fact that there are a lot of people obviously concerned about the energy situation, what's going to happen in Europe this winter as cold descends, and also what's going to happen on the ground in Ukraine. And I'm struck by the fact that there have been in the last week or two statements by, for example, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, suggesting that Ukraine's success on the battlefield should be taken now as an opportunity to start to pursue some kind of negotiations about bringing this to an end. And the distinguished and influential commentator Charles Kupchan has made similar kinds of suggestions about the fact that Ukraine is reliant, very heavily at least, on American arms in order to pursue its interests on the battlefield. But that we've reached a point where maybe the United States has to take a more affirmative role in determining like what the next steps and what the outcome is going to be? I mean, how do you see all that developing?

Sigmar Gabriel  15:32

It's normal that countries outside of Ukraine are thinking about are there any windows of opportunity to stop the war to come to a ceasefire or settlement or something like this. I would say, that's normal, because we see that this war is not only affecting Europe and Ukraine --of course, Ukraine has to pay a much higher price than anybody else on Earth-- but we saw during the G20 meeting that other parts of the world, which you can call the Global South, that they are facing famine, that they are facing skyrocketing energy prices. And if wealthy countries like Germany have difficulties with the energy prices, I mean, imagine how difficult it is for countries which are much, much poorer. 

Sigmar Gabriel  16:23

So of course, there are many statesmen and politicians who think, "Is there any opportunity?" But I mean, it's impossible to come to an agreement by saying to the Ukrainians, "please do us the favor, forget maybe 20% of your territory, stop the war by giving 20% of your territory to the Russians." That's impossible. By the way, you don't get any guarantee, therefore, that the Russians really would stop the war, or maybe they will only reorganize themselves and then try to invade Ukraine again in two years. 

Sigmar Gabriel  17:07

So the first thing what we should discuss, what's our security guarantee for Ukraine? And, of course, we have to support Ukraine as long as Russia tries to fight against this country. I don't think that we will be anytime soon in the situation to really have a ceasefire. And the main reason, therefore, is that nobody has an idea how we can organize and guarantee that Russia will not come again. And as a European, and a father of three daughters, I don't want to see Russia to get any success. Why? Because if this lesson would be learned, that you can intervene and can go with tanks in the territory of your neighbor country, then Europe will again be a very dangerous place. And then my kids and grandkids will grow up in a very dangerous Europe again. So that's the reason why I think we have to support Ukraine as long as necessary. And as long as we do not have a guarantee that the Russians will never try it again.

John Torpey  18:24

Right. So as far as the broader transatlantic relationship, I mean, you sort of indicated a couple minutes ago, the problem that many European leaders are concerned about the return of a Trump like figure after Joe Biden perhaps loses in the next election, or in any case, whenever he leaves office. And I wonder if you could talk about, you know, I would say you and I grew up in a period in which this transatlantic relationship was not taken for granted necessarily, but was widely accepted as a kind of successful arrangement for post-war security. And the idea that there should be organizations like the Atlantik-Brücke was something that was kind of that went without saying in a certain sense. 

John Torpey  19:17

And I wonder, now that that post-war era, has moved on, in many ways, and has been around for a long time, it's not necessarily clear that people who were our age when you and I may have first met see it that way. And maybe they may have made a pivot to Asia, so to speak, in their own minds. So I wonder what you would say about what still kind of keeps this relationship together or what may drive it apart?

Sigmar Gabriel  19:45

I mean, you're absolutely right. First of all, whoever will be the next President of the United States, your country will look more to the Indo-Pacific because of economic and geopolitical reasons. That's, I would say, that's normal. I hope hopefully we will find a solution by having crisis management with China. It's interesting what Australia and others are asking for. By the way, they are going back to the old Cold War, and say what's necessary in the Indo-Pacific are instruments which we develop between the West and the East and the old Cold War. Because we should prevent ourselves for unintended conflicts in the time of cyber and misinformation, that's a new, dangerous development. 

Sigmar Gabriel  20:40

But these kinds of second Westernization of the United States will happen, whoever is the next president, and so for Europe is the question, what can we do to play a more responsible role of the transatlantic partnership? When Joe Biden came in office, he made a famous speech in the Munich Security Conference, and he said "America is back." And I would say that was a kind of misunderstanding here in Europe that the traditional role of the United States of America is back and it's doesn't. 

Sigmar Gabriel  21:17

America is back as in so far that they would say we are again willing to lead the Western democracies, yes, but not by our own, not by putting every burden on our shoulders. And for good reasons, the United States accepted for many decades that they have to pay 70% of the defense budget for European security, because they didn't know at that time what would happen if the Europeans would have their own military capabilities, maybe they would go back in war against each other again, but this time is over since two or three decades, and it was not only Trump who asked the German specialists --the Germans, but not only the Germans to invest more. And it's unfair, both economies, the European and the United States, they are equal strong economies, and there is no reason for paying 70% of the defense burden by the United States. 

Sigmar Gabriel  22:17

So we have to be much more responsible. And of course, we also have to debate what can we do to support, by the way, the engagement of the United States for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, for example. So the new transatlantic partnership will be different to the old one. And the European Union was trained not to be a geopolitical actor. Because when countries like Germany were geopolitical actors, that always took catastrophe for the world. 

Sigmar Gabriel  22:55

So after 1945, the idea was that Europeans should deal with economics and under internal development, but for international, geopolitical issues, we have the United States and a bit the Brits and the French as members of the Security Council. But in reality, we projected our international security on American aircraft carriers. And this will not happen again. 

Sigmar Gabriel  23:27

After the war in Ukraine will end, Europe will have to take a much bigger role, and not only on the military side. For example, the Europeans are negotiating since 20 years with Mercosur, so the South American market for a free trade agreement. We do not accept the proposals. Why? Because the Southern Americans and the Latin Americans are not able to fulfill the ecological and social standards of the European Union very fast. That's understandable, because they're not as rich as we are. 

Sigmar Gabriel  24:10

So the Europeans are sometimes very, their ambitions are very high. What happens now is that China comes along. And of course, they told the guys in Argentina, "look, if the Europeans don't want to interact with you, we are willing to do that". So we have to be much more pragmatic. And we have to step up our international engagement, and we can't wait until the United States of America is always solving our problems. And that's, I would say, the most important lesson. And it's a pity that we only learned this lesson by a war in Ukraine. We should have learned it before.

John Torpey  24:58

Yes, perhaps but we grow too late smart, tends to happen in life. 

Sigmar Gabriel  25:05

I asked, the American Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson asked me: "Why is it so difficult to convince the Germans to use military power?" And I said, "Look, because you were so successful, you tried to make us peaceniks, and you did". So that's, I would say, the explanation why we are like we are.

John Torpey  25:30

So you've mentioned China. And I guess I want to ask you, perhaps as one last question, I mean, is China likely to be a source of kind of division in the transatlantic relationship? I mean, I think there are ways in which it seems clear that the Europeans are prepared to sort of work with China, shall we say, or allow parts of its territory even to be taken over by the Chinese, ports and things. The United States seems more to be taking a somewhat more competitive posture, let's say. And so I wonder how you see those relationships playing out and how they will affect the transatlantic relationship?

Sigmar Gabriel  26:16

You're absolutely right. I mean, Germany, for example, our economic system depends on exports. Fifty percent of the GDP of Germany comes from exports. We are exporting services and goods and industrial products to the rest of the world. By the way, the vast majority, more than 40% of the European Union (10%, the United States and 10% of China); the vast majority of the experts are going to the European Union. I think America has an export of 10% of its GDP, so it's not so dependent. But even in the United States, if you ask the financial market in New York, they will answer that China for them as a greenfield for investments. And if you ask the guys in California, they have a much more differentiated position because they are in a tough competition in the tech sector. And when it comes to artificial intelligence, they are much closer to national security. 

Sigmar Gabriel  27:22

So the same as in Germany or in Europe: China is a kind of frenemy. It's an enemy when it comes to the social system, the political system, it's a dictatorship and we are democracies, but they are an economic partner at the same time. That makes it much more difficult than with Russia. With Russia, or Soviet Union in the old Cold War, we had relation in the field of gas and energy but not more. They were dependent on us, not the other way around. And now we are searching ways how to find the balance between confrontation, which we have when it comes to human rights, when it comes to Taiwan, when it comes to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and competition in the field of the economy, and sometimes cooperation, in how we will solve the climate issue without China. Or pandemics. 

Sigmar Gabriel  28:22

Jack Sullivan made it clear in the national strategic review when he said, "China is on the one side, the only country which is able and wants to replace the United States as the major power of the world. On the other hand side, we need China to find solutions for global challenges like climate change." So we all have the difficulty in front of us. Define ways on the one side to be resilient, and not to be too dependent on, for example, raw materials which came out of China. I think the German raw earth materials, they came by more than 90% from China. On the other hand, we need of course, economic and also political cooperation, with this difficult country, because you will not circumnavigate 1.4 billion citizens. 

Sigmar Gabriel  29:29

On the other hand side, I mean, sometimes we underestimated China. Today, my fear is sometimes we are overestimating them. They also have their challenges. First, China will become old before it becomes rich. And for the next decades, they will not be able to invest a lot of money in their New Silk Road because they will need it in their own country. 

Sigmar Gabriel  29:53

Why we don't step up together with the Americans (we as Europeans) and offer to other countries an alternative to the New Silk Road or to the One Belt, One Road initiative of China. We are always complaining that China has a geopolitical strategy. I think that's senseless; a country of 1.4 billion citizens want to be more than a cheap marketplace for their former colonial masters. We should complain not to have a geopolitical strategy as an alternative to China. That's what we should do. And better we do it together, the Americans and the Europeans, then to try it alone.

John Torpey  30:38

Well, thank you for that interesting insight into the likely futures or the possible futures of Europe and the United States vis-a-vis China, which is obviously a huge issue. But that's it for today's episode. I want to thank Sigmar Gabriel, the chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke for sharing his insights about contemporary transatlantic relations. 

John Torpey  30:58

Look for us on the New Books Network, and remember to subscribe and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance, as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song “International Horizons” as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying, thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.