Jeffrey Gedmin: Less World, More America

Americans seem to exhibit signs of tiredness or fatigue, a notion that we have done so much and others have done relatively little. If Europe shows some strategic maturity by identifying priorities and allocating resources to them, you as a continent would help yourself and also the transatlantic ties—says Jeffrey Gedmin in an interview with Tomáš Klvaňa.

TOMÁŠ KLVAŇA: How would you describe the current state of European-American relations?

JEFFREY GEDMIN: We need to consider several aspects. There are things that are structural and have been happening continuously as Europe has become less dependent in some ways on the United States since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. I think that the trend of American retrenchment began under President Barack Obama. Europeans liked him. He was eloquent, elegant and cerebral. But remember that he was also the author of outsourcing Ukraine to the European Union, leading from behind on Libya and pivoting to Asia.

Now we have the continuation of Obama retrenchment but in a more radical, more vulgar and more extreme form. So those who think this began with Donald Trump are shortsighted and don’t see the wider picture. But Trump is a problem in my view. Whatever has been happening, he is the foot on the accelerator, the pedal in the car, and he is not a stable driver. He is impetuous. He is not always responsible, and sometimes he is even reckless. Now we have a car that was going down a troublesome route already, but we have a driver at the wheel who is not entirely responsible in my view.

President Trump is an America first nationalist. He is not focused on alliances as a way of realizing American goals. He has an extremely narrow short-term definition of American interests.

This can be partially ascribed to the fact that Europe is becoming more independent, prosperous, stable and simply more of a player on the international stage. What is your view, however, of the general attitude of Americans towards getting into any kind of engagement in Europe? Aren’t Americans much less interested in Europe than they were 30 years ago?

There is a kernel of truth to that. Americans seem to exhibit signs of tiredness or fatigue, a notion that we have done so much and others have done relatively little. To put it in context, Iraq was a major debacle at one point. Afghanistan? Lots of Americans say that the sacrifice was clear but the result is less clear. Part of the American public—not all, but a significant part—feels fatigued in international engagement defined by different things. It is also true that Americans have always responded to leadership, and we don’t have that leadership right now.

We do not have much in the way of political leaders making a case for responsible political engagement in American interests. Some are reluctant to call President Trump an isolationist, but he is an America first nationalist. He is not focused on alliances as a way of realizing American goals. He has an extremely narrow short-term definition of American interests. On the Democratic side, let’s see who the candidate is for the 2020 presidential election. We do not know it yet, but the Democrats are mostly producing people who are inclined to protectionism and will possibly practice their own version of America First.

Perhaps less vulgar and less mean spirited for sure, but I don’t know that we will revert to where we were 15 or 20 years ago. There is more looking inward. It can be partially reversed. Leadership can speak to the American people, it can explain individual difficult cases worth our attention and bring people out, but the trend is clear: less world and more America.

You’ve spent a number of years in Europe. What should Europeans do these days to have as good a relationship with the White House as is reasonably possible?

You are in a difficult situation because President Trump is a difficult president. And he was not my candidate. Here would be my advice to European friends. Number one, stay calm and stay steady. His rhetoric is inflammatory and provocative; it’s important, I take it from you, but stay calm and steady. Number two, it is true that Europe needs to do more for its defense. Be calm and deliberative, but begin working on your capabilities.

It is not a one-year project, it is not a three-year project, but Europe in the next five to ten to fifteen years—in the context of a robust NATO—needs to do more for its own defense. And number three, Europe needs to define its own strategic priorities with China, Russia and Iran. It must engage and help with the vibrancy of democracies across Central and Eastern Europe. If you demonstrate strategic maturity by identifying priorities and allocating resources to them, you as a continent will not only help yourself, but also the transatlantic ties.

The challenge is that we don’t unlearn history. We have a generation in its late twenties that did experience communism and it is the responsibility of us who remember to appreciate our historical lessons.

It has been 30 years since Central Europe regained its independence and started on the road to democracy. And it is not in the best shape as far as democracy and rule of law are concerned. As the U.S. has played such an outsized role in Central Europe’s liberation, do you think that the special relationship between our respective countries has a future, or will it be more and more subsumed under the overall E.U.-U.S. relationship?

The two aspects can be true at the same time. We have to have a vital, rich and healthy relationship with the E.U., but the E.U. is made up of constituent states, each one with its own distinct character and personality. It is fair to say that Americans have a special place in their heart for those countries that struggled and fought communism for decades and won their freedom. It’s 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution and history and memory matter. The challenge is that we don’t unlearn history. We have a generation in its late twenties that did experience communism and it is the responsibility of us who remember to appreciate our historical lessons.

There are strains on NATO, especially in the context of Turkey, Syria and Trump. The organization seems to be in a kind of limbo.

NATO has gone through different versions over the years. You remember when it was unofficially stated that it was there to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down. That has changed as Germany has become a healthy, stable and responsible democracy. And as you mentioned President Trump, his attitude, his rhetoric is not helpful, in my view. You’d almost think that based on his pronouncements, NATO is there to get the Americans out, the Russians in and keep the European Union down. He seems to have a special fondness for Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t care much about American leadership and doesn’t have great respect for the European Union, does he? I don’t think he’s helpful, I don’t think he has a vision and he clearly doesn’t understand the importance of the Alliance.

Having said that, there are a number of things we can be talking about in the NATO context that would be contemporary, relevant and enormously helpful. One is China, and the other is artificial intelligence. We are stumbling into a world where issues will challenge us across the Atlantic space, but there is an opportunity to tackle them together. Let’s also mention Russia. It is not the Soviet Union, it is not a rising power like China, but whatever condition the country is in, Vladimir Putin as a leader has become skilled at looking at our self-inflicted wounds and taking advantage of them to sow division.

It is not the Soviet Union, it is not a rising power like China, but whatever condition the country is in, Vladimir Putin as a leader has become skilled at looking at our self-inflicted wounds and taking advantage of them.

Perhaps he’s not the cause of our problems but he made it harder for us to fix them. As far as NATO is concerned, there are a number of ways to breathe new life into this organization.

Do you envision that in the near future we will be coordinating our relationships with China more tightly, which could bring America and Europe closer again?

There is an immense opportunity because China poses a challenge in trade, security and we still care about democracy and human rights in China and on China’s periphery in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Mongolia. China for its own commercial purpose depends on European and North American markets, which is a long way of saying that if we could communicate, if we could deepen the strategic dialogue, and if we could find ways to work closely together, we would have a considerably higher leverage with China on all these matters than if we were split. It is an immense challenge and opportunity that needs leadership from both sides. We have differences, we compete with each other but in this strategic arena if we stick together we could achieve much, much more. I am hopeful that people will see that. If we allow China this open field, we would be at a disadvantage.

Speaking of Russia, it is not quite clear what the U.S. policy towards Russia actually is. Is it what President Trump says, or what the State Department and Pentagon do?

There clearly is confusion. The President of the United States, our Commander-in-Chief, is erratic, impulsive, undisciplined and in my view friendly with a couple of dictators. We can only speculate as to why. Within the American foreign policy establishment, however, the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House—meaning the National Security Council –, there the center of gravity is skeptical of Russia and in solidarity with our democratic NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the Baltic countries.

So if you are getting a mixed picture, that’s because we are sending a mixed picture and it is confusing because the President seems to be in one place, he is impulsive, erratic and undisciplined, and his foreign policy establishment, by and large, is NATOcentric, pro-Central and Eastern European and skeptical of, if not antagonistic to, Vladimir Putin’s goals. Let’s see how this works itself out. Let’s see who wins the elections of 2020. The picture is complicated, unclear and often contradictory.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is Visiting Professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.