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Sep 29, 2022

“On China, Europe Is Not There”

Transatlantic relations are close but could be closer, says Ben Rhodes, former foreign policy advisor to President Obama. What’s missing is greater alignment on China policy. And there’s also the danger of the US turning into an autocracy.

A picture of Ben Rhodes
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Europe is looking at the mid-terms in November in the United States and beyond to 2024, to a possible second term of Donald Trump in the White House. There is even talk of civil war. What do such deep divisions mean for US foreign policy?

It will be challenging for the US to sustain consistent foreign policy initiatives, given the huge swings back and forth between the two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, in the White House. Also, potential shifts in Congress make it harder for a president. But even looking back at the Trump years, there are some basic components of American foreign policy that continue, whether it’s very interest-based approaches toward China or NATO. But in terms of signature initiatives and new directions in foreign policy, I think other countries are going to be wary of going all in and to support a US initiative until they see where American democracy is heading.

The next few election cycles are going to be very challenging in the US. But as dysfunctional as the US is, we are going to have the world’s largest and strongest military for the foreseeable future, we are going to have the world’s most viable and most resilient economy for the foreseeable future. So as honest as I try to be about that diminishing nature of the US’ superpower status, I still think the US is going to be the strongest power in the world for the next decade despite its deep divisions.

It’s widely believed that Donald Trump, had he been reelected in 2020, would have taken the US out of NATO. Is this a real possibility, the United States leaving NATO, should there be Trump or another Republican in the White House come 2024?

If Trump had gotten reelected, he would have very much wanted to leave NATO; a lot of his advisors have been very forthright about this reality. I don’t think, though, that this is shared by other Republicans. I’m no fan of Ron DeSantis or any of the other Republicans who might emerge if Trump was not the Republican nominee; I don’t think any of them would pull out of NATO. They are more conventional, hawkish Republicans. They would probably be pretty harsh in their rhetoric about certain NATO countries doing more and spending more on defense, but I don’t think that they would pull out. And even if Trump got reelected, he might have the instincts to pull out of NATO. But given the war in Ukraine and the overwhelming Congressional support for Ukraine and for NATO, it’s one of the few issues where Republican leaders are willing to break with Trump, and I would expect efforts to tie his hands to prevent him from pulling the US out of NATO. So, Trump is the only one who would do it, and I actually think he would have an even harder time trying it.

Irrespective of who wins in 2024, how important is the transatlantic relationship for the United States going forward? And can it be future-proofed?

I think we have a 50-50 election in 2024. It can go either way and that is uncomfortable. If Joe Biden or another Democrat wins, the transatlantic relationship will be central to what they are trying to do on almost all of their key issues—whether that’s Ukraine, energy, China policy, technology, climate change. Whereas if a Republican is elected, whether Trump or a DeSantis type, Europe again becomes as much of a foe as an ally to that president. I think the Republicans, Trump in particular, find it more comfortable working with a handful of like-minded autocrats around the world and Europe becomes something of a punchbag. What’s more, Trump doesn’t share the same priorities. Joe Biden’s priorities overlap a lot with those of the Europeans, whereas Trump doesn’t care about climate change and a rule-based order, he doesn’t care about NATO or about Europe as a potential partner on trade and economic issues. He sees Europe as a competitor.

And as close as the cooperation has been on Ukraine—and there have been additional notable efforts to work together on key issues whether that’s China policy, technology and artificial intelligence, handling social media or the best approach to finance—I would like to see the agenda evolve further. We need more alignment. The US has to navigate a very complicated international environment. So, the more we are able to get on the same page with our allies the better. And if that means, by the way, changing some of our own positions, this would be beneficial. I would actually like to see the US getting where Europe is on social media and technology and I would like to see the US and Europe find a middle ground on China. Such a coming together will be really important if we continue the cooperation under a second Democratic administration.

And on which fields should Europe move?

There is an enormous project on the way with energy, where the US can play a role. It’s not just dealing with this short-term emergency of mitigating Russian oil and gas, it’s also about how this fits with the clean energy transition generally and our climate agenda. Going forward, I think there is scope to expand the cooperation.

And I would really like to see more dialogue on China. Europe has seen this sometimes as an American-Chinese bilateral competition or confrontation. During the Trump years there was a sense of trying to avoid taking a side—which I totally sympathize with and understand. But I don’t think it’s bad, taking a side. So, we should ask more, what is the European view, or the German view, of the backsliding nature of China’s market-based reforms? What is the European view of supply chain security when it comes to both national security issues but also to basic technology and data management and pharmaceuticals and biotechnology?

There is this massive shift in the US on the way toward securing supply chains and offshoring them from China and, it’s easier and more resilient if Europe is a part of that. So, it would be good for Europe to be putting forward its own approach to China and trying to figure out where the overlap with the United States takes place—because that would make it better for everybody. And frankly, when it comes to human rights and Taiwan concerns, Europe tends to see those as purely US issues. But if there was a conflict in the Taiwan strait, that would affect Europe, too. So, these are not US issues, those are transatlantic issues, too.

So, you are saying there is the need for greater alignment on China between the US and Europe?

Yes. And I don’t think we are getting closer. This was the case during the Obama years, it became even more the case during the Trump years, and I think it continues to be the case. The US decided to shift its mentality—that started under Trump and continues under Biden—toward one of emphasizing competition and even confrontation with China. And that comes to the fore on trade issues, on supply chains, like I mentioned, it comes to the fore in military spending, and on issues like Taiwan and Xinjiang province. And Europe is not there.

Europe is still more inclined to engage with China, more inclined to prioritize commercial relationships. The US does that, too, by the way, but it is shifting. I think, Germany in particular is uncomfortable with the US approach. There is a lot of reluctance to be too outspoken on certain political issues or with sanctions, which are being viewed as potentially unproductive.

What is interesting to me is that the US and Europe do share a lot of the same concerns: We would like to see more effective actions against climate change which requires China. There is concern about the future of data privacy and that obviously implicates China. We are concerned about the erosion of certain aspects of the world’s rule-based order—all these things implicate China and I think there is a greater need for the US and Europe to figure out what their common positions are. It may not be that we have exactly the same China policies, but that we have the same or pretty similar approaches on trade, technology, climate, political and human rights issues. Then at least that is the basis for having more of a shared China foreign policy. So, I’d like to see that evolve. I applaud all the diplomacy on Ukraine; when there is a massive and brutal invasion of a European country it tends to get people’s attention, it drives people together. But in terms of the China relationships, it hasn’t quite done that yet.

Talking about what Germany can do: Berlin has been setting a “Zeitenwende” in motion, the government is promising to spend big on military. In your view, will it succeed, and what will be the consequences?

That’s hard for me to say. I definitely feel like there is always going to be a bit of a German reticence when it comes to military and defense issues—which I prefer to be the case than not. Having dealt with this when I was in government and having observed it from outside, I think it is appropriate for there to be a country to play the role of being a little restrained in its enthusiasm about military endeavors and military interventions. So, relative to France and the United Kingdom, Germany is going to be a bit more cautious, and unlike some other US observers, I think that’s fine, that’s appropriate, it suits Germany’s historical role.

That said, I do think, given Germany’s size and influence in Europe, the reason to increase defense spending and sustain that increase is to invest in the viability of the transatlantic architecture that Germany is at the center of. This is basically about making NATO work and showing other countries that everybody is doing their part—including the biggest countries in Europe and in this alliance.

My sense is that one part of Germany’s restraint on some of these issues was tied to its Russia policy and the belief that Germany could be something of a bridge to Russia, that Germany had this unique energy relationship and diplomatic relationship with Russia—and that’s dead, that’s not coming back, period. There is no Minsk process in this war, there is no way that in three or five years Germany is going to have some normal, pre-Ukraine war relationship with Russia. So, in that regard I do think that there is going to be a new phase where Germany can and should and will likely be less restrained in defense spending, in the provision of certain types of military support to Ukraine but also just in terms of its orientation toward Russia which has, I think, restrained Germany’s enthusiasm for NATO defense expenditure and NATO projecting more force on the ground in Eastern Europe.

When it started out, the Biden administration basically described world politics as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. In Berlin, policymakers worry that this would lead to a “G7 vs. the rest” world, which, in their view, would be counterproductive. And even President Biden visited Saudi Arabia recently. What’s your view on this?

The Saudi trip obviously reveals the constant hypocrisy of the US when we talk about human rights issues. I was not a fan of that visit, but it is unavoidable that in certain cases we are not going to be consistent.

To me, the “democracy versus autocracy” claim is relevant not as a framework of geopolitics but as a framework of what is happening in our own countries, in the US but also in some European states. To me, there is a battle between autocracy and democracy in the United States. So, I don’t mind the framing of the future being determined in this battle between democracy and autocracy as an organizing principle of what some are trying to do in US politics right now and it certainly extends to around the world. But it doesn’t mean that every aspect of foreign relations is going to be governed by that.

What I do think though and were I would challenge the German concern is that, as someone who is pretty progressive and doesn’t seek conflict that can be avoided, I do think that the G7 and other democracies around the world do need to come to terms with the fact that China and Russia today are quite different than they were even a decade ago when I was in government. Russia is seeking to destroy the existing international order and China is seeking to replace it with something different. And that’s a change from when Russia was seeking to disrupt the international order and China was still pursuing its interest within it.

Today, China wants the world to look more like China, that’s what superpowers do. That’s something to be lived with and to be managed, it’s not something you can prevent. I don’t think you can frame the entire world in this, you’re never going to be able to maintain a simple frame of everything is democracies versus autocracies. However, I do think the world’s democracies, those of us who have challenges within our borders, have to understand that democracy prevailing within our countries is the single most important thing we can do. They also need to understand that we are in a different phase; that when China and Russia are much more aggressive, we should be more aggressively pushing back.

For example, the G7, and the US, too, have been reluctant to be seen as commenting on the internal affairs of China—why? The Chinese are commenting on our internal affairs every day! They say whatever they want to about what is happening in American politics. We should be able to say whatever we think about Taiwan or Tibet or the Uighurs. The self-censorship of democracies is, I think, tied to a belief that we are stronger and therefore have to observe these constraints. But I don’t think that is really the case anymore and so I think we should be less bashful about expressing our views.

Another example is Hungary. I think in the EU—and in the US—there were some concerns about calling out what Viktor Orbán is doing because this might push him even further away. Well, he’s gone anyway. And I’m glad to see the EU now taking steps to limit funds or condition funding. These are good examples of speaking out and defending our values, but that doesn’t mean you have to see the whole world in a binary fight. It just means that if people who don’t believe in the things that I believe and that are being very aggressive, then there is no reason we shouldn’t do the same.

As you mentioned, there is the danger that America could turn autocratic itself. How can US society avoid a descent into authoritarian populism?

When Trump got elected, I think people were not sufficiently alarmed. During the Trump years, the alarm was growing. After January 6, people are talking about this a lot more, but I still think people are under-evaluating the danger.

To me, the uncomfortable reality is that the Republican Party has become an extremist far-right nationalist party. If they were in Europe, we would be talking about the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) or Fidesz in Hungary. It is a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, grievance-based political party. This is a provocative thing to say, but it is clear to see what an authoritarian agenda consists of. It’s about changing the nature of the courts, to design laws in favor of power grabs, it’s about changing the voting law so it’s easier for your supporters to vote, it’s about buying up the media through proxies and turning it into propaganda machines. It is not hard to see what the autocratic playbook is that has been used in Turkey, Hungary, and Russia, that is being pursued in Brazil and India. And the US is well down on that spectrum.

Trump is the most reckless, dangerous figure in that he doesn’t even pretend to respect basic norms. His reelection poses the greatest danger. But even if it is not Trump, we are still dealing with a pretty dangerous situation. By the way, this is not completely new in American history; we’ve had some strange politics along the way. There has been a civil war, we had a segregated south—so we have always had a reactionary political strain. It’s just that we are going through a particular vicious phase of dealing with it and social media has made that all more challenging.

I remain optimistic, however, that at the end of the day there is a lot that works against America tipping all along in that direction. There are still a lot of norms and institutions and a lot of traditions—and there is no majority popular support for it. But that doesn’t mean it is not a real threat. It’s going to be a problem in our society for a while.

The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, Joachim Staron, and Alina Ober.


Ben Rhodes is the author of After the Fall, The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We’ve Made (2021) and The World As It Is (2018). He was former US President Barack Obama’s chief speech writer and Deputy National Security Advisor (2009-17).