Chengdu and Houston are located on two distant continents, many thousands of kilometers from Germany. And yet the dispute between China and America, which led to the closing of consulates in these two cities, concerns us much more than most Germans should be aware of. Because it exemplifies the steady deterioration in the relationship between the old superiors of the West and their new rival in Asia. It is the biggest change in world politics since the Cold War. Few countries have as much to lose as Germany.
Our security and prosperity have long been based on two conditions. The most important, often underestimated, was always the alliance with America in NATO. The Federal Republic would never have been able to defend itself against the Soviet Union alone. And just because the Americans took over, West German industry, from which the country lives to this day, was able to develop so well. Reunified Germany also benefited from the alliance, even if it was no longer so direct. It was NATO that ended the Wars of Succession in Yugoslavia before they could do much damage to the European order. And Putin might have gotten a lot more in Eastern Europe a few years ago if the alliance hadn’t existed.
Free world trade is under threat
The other requirement is free world trade, also an American post-war project. The Germans are proud of their export successes year after year and have even been able to call themselves world champions in this discipline for a long time. Before Trump, only a few people in this country knew that it was not just the quality of German goods that made us the third largest trading nation at the moment. There was a political will for globalization in the most important industrialized and emerging countries, without which German cars and machines would never have been able to conquer the major markets from Europe to America to Asia to the extent that has been achieved in particular over the past three decades.
This old world order is crumbling right before our eyes. This is not solely due to Trump, whose nationalist and confrontational politics disturb so much of the German public. Here are long-term historical developments at work that have already emerged under previous presidents. One is America’s turning away from Europe. Obama once called Russia a regional power, which was ultimately a judgment across the continent. From the American perspective, Europe, once the center of world affairs, is now just one region among many. And George W. Bush already asked Europeans to do more to defend themselves. Trump is now exploiting this issue in his own way in the election campaign, as the withdrawal of troops from Germany announced this week has shown. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that America’s interests have changed fundamentally.
Two rival camps
This has a lot to do with the second major trend of our time: the rise of China to become a global superpower. It runs like a textbook, as if a professor of international relations had thought it up. First the country grows economically, then it gears up, brings more and more parts of the world under its control, until it finally comes together with the previous hegemons. None of this comes as a surprise. Washington has been discussing the strategic challenge that China’s strengthening brings with it for many years. Trump’s customs wars have so far found no better answer than his predecessors, and he has even strengthened Beijing in many ways. But his presidency gives a foretaste of the future: Because Russia is not an economic power, the new world order is likely to become bipolar, with an American and a Chinese camp. In the worst case, they will watch each other and fight like the superpowers in the Cold War did.
Taking all of this together, the German model is in acute danger. Where does our security come from when you can no longer rely on America and therefore NATO? How do we protect our interests in important regions when Washington is no longer tidying up there and instead China is spreading? Who is Germany doing business with, should the world fall into two trading blocks, one American and one Chinese? Whose side are we and the EU on in this showdown? None of these questions is seriously discussed in German politics. The country has declared climate change (left) and migration (right) to be the main problems and in recent years has simply closed its eyes to the fact that it has strategically reached a dead end. The next chancellor has to change direction.