Germany’s former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg offered a dose of perspective in Washington on Wednesday: Despite the political rancor in the United States, Europe’s problems are far bigger than this crazy 2016 election.
“It’s not only [about] the character of the next [U.S.] president. For me the greatest threat to trans-Atlantic security is a disunited Europe,” Mr. zu Guttenberg said at the start of an open discussion on the state of Europe at Handelsblatt’s Washington camp.
Mr. zu Guttenberg painted a bleak picture of Europe and global security. He slammed the 28-nation European Union as essentially rudderless, lacking in strong leaders and failing to learn the lessons of its many crises over the last few years.
Europe risked becoming a “Ping-Pong ball between the interests of Washington, Moscow, Ankara” and even as far away as Beijing, he said.
“That’s my main fear, and at the moment I don’t see very much light at the end of the horizon,” said Mr. zu Guttenberg, who led Germany’s defense ministry from 2009 to 2011 and has also served as the country’s economy minister.
The lack of leadership is all the more troubling given that many of the world’s problems are happening on Europe’s doorstep, Mr. zu Guttenberg said, pointing to the challenges in Ukraine and the Middle East.
“I wonder whether there isn’t a way to give Germany and China a role [in the Middle East]”
But it’s not just Europe that has abdicated responsibility. Russia had gained the “upper hand” in conflicts such as in the Ukraine, in part also because of weak American leadership, too, Mr. zu Guttenberg argued. Multinational institutions like the United Nations and NATO have also failed to play a significant role as power-brokers in conflicts like those in the Middle East.
Given that vacuum, Mr. zu Guttenberg suggested Germany might be best-placed to play a mediating role in the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and even with Russia. He argued that only two countries have managed to maintain a degree of neutrality that could be useful. One of them is Germany and the other, he suggested, may be China, which has been reluctant to play a significant diplomatic role in the world to date.
“I wonder whether there isn’t a way to give Germany and China a role there,” he said of the conflict in Syria.
And yet, even when it comes to Germany, Mr. zu Guttenberg sounded uncertain about whether Chancellor Angela Merkel is primed to play the kind of leadership role he’s suggesting. Ms. Merkel’s style of leadership has often been to “lead from behind,” he said, with the notable exception of welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015.
Given all that pessimism about Europe, perhaps it’s no wonder the former defense minister, a once-rising political star who was forced to resign from government after a plagiarism scandal back in Germany, said he was perfectly happy living in the United States.
Mr. zu Guttenberg did, however, say there may be a point when he’ll return to Germany with his family. “But I don’t expect to come back with a political role,” he said.