Photo Copyright: Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

US Election 2020 Media Library

"The test of our time will be to figure out how the political center can be stabilized"

Interview with Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF)

AmCham Germany recently spoke with Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff about the upcoming US Presidential Election, prospects for transatlantic trade and the growing rift between political parties. Kleine-Brockhoff is Vice President of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and heads the think tank's Berlin office.

Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff, in many electoral cycles, candidates discuss a wide range of policy issues and recommendations; however, often times, elections are decided over a few key topics. What core issues do you believe will define the Presidential Election 2020?

If the election is about the handling of the Coronavirus crisis and the ensuing economic crisis, Joe Biden has a good chance of winning. The fact that Donald Trump has contracted the virus certainly reinforces this point. However, if Donald Trump’s campaign can continue with its attempt to change the topic of the campaign, he stands a chance of catching some needed momentum and therefore a better chance of pulling off what looks like an upset victory at this point in the campaign. He has tried to redefine Democrats as socialists and to make the case for a law-and-order presidency in the face of a race relations and social justice movement with some violence on the edges. Both strategies seem to have had only moderate success so far. But the opportunity to nominate another Supreme Court Justice might just be the opening the President was looking for. Given President Trump’s illness, chances are that not Trump, but Supreme Court candidate Amy Coney Barrett, will populate America’s TV screens over the next few weeks. She would serve as a mobilization tool for conservatives who otherwise have doubts about Trump’s own relationship with constitutional and other norms.

Transatlantic business relations have weathered many ups and downs in the past. Regardless of the electoral outcome, what can we do to ensure that day-to-day business relations between Germany and the US remain strong and stable?

“Keep calm and carry on”, the old British motto, seems to fit best. But admittedly, it is hard to ignore the noise, the shouting and yelling from across the Atlantic. It will be increasingly difficult to stay unfazed and do day-to-day business when one ally continues to levy punitive tariffs and sanctions on the other ally, and lawmakers call for the “crushing sanctions” of a town on the other side of the Atlantic whose business they do not like.

What would change for transatlantic business if Donald Trump is re-elected President? Conversely, what would change for transatlantic business if Joe Biden is elected?

There is little that can raise the hopes of the German business community. The choice seems to be between populist protectionism and progressive protectionism. A Biden Administration might end the erratic and arbitrary nature of decision making in Washington, and it will certainly end the confusion of friend and foe that the Trump Administration introduced. But Team Biden seems to have concluded that it has to compromise with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party as well as the trade unions on economic and trade policy in order to get its way on the rest of the international agenda. Biden’s recent speech on economic policy could be called the “me too” speech: He, too, wants to be an “America firster”. Therefore, there is little hope for a revamped TTIP or a TTIP light or other new trade agreements – under either administration. Holding the line on trade would have to be seen as a success from a German perspective.

There is one important possible exception: Biden’s stance on WTO reform is not yet known. At this point it is still possible that a Biden Administration would give up America’s current WTO obstructionism, especially with regard to the Appellate Body. If Biden wants to counter China’s norm and rule-breaking jointly with Europe (as he has said he wants to do), the European Union will need to convince him that reform and renewal of the Appellate Body would be the logical starting point.

Partisanship and the divide between Democrats and Republicans is likely to continue past the election. What can the next US Administration do to bridge this rift and how can Congress work together?

Willfully exploited polarization is the poison of politics everywhere in the political West. Therefore, a deliberate attempt to depolarize politics will have to be a priority for the next generation of leaders in western countries. Unfortunately, the answer to polarization and radicalization is oftentimes not moderation, but the mobilization of true believers from the other side of the political spectrum. Therefore, the test of our time will be to figure out how the center can be stabilized.

Are there certain policy issues where you see Congress and the next US Administration being able to reach a consensus?

On several important foreign policy issues that should be possible. If Donald Trump is reelected, he will have created coattails for others to ride on and a Republican majority in the US Senate, at a minimum. In that case it will be easier for him to create support for his Russia and NATO agendas, which Congress has opposed so far. His tough and unilateral China policy will likely find new friends. While consensus or at least majorities in the US Congress will be easier for the White House to come by, the postwar West as a space of joint or at least coordinated political will could come to an end as a consequence.

If Joe Biden becomes President, he too will have created coattails. At a minimum, the US House will be in Democratic hands, maybe even the Senate. Biden’s foreign policy views are traditionalist, in line with long held preferences of the US Congress. Biden will rally Congress around a restorationist agenda and the postwar West would see another day. However, it is less clear that Biden can rally Congress as well as America’s traditional allies around a more nuanced and joint China strategy.

In your opinion, what should the top priorities of the next US Administration be?

For a friend of America, the last few years have been painful to follow. It was as if one could watch the dissolution of the Roman Empire in real time. And even worse: democracy in America is no longer the shining light that it needs to be to keep the family of democracies illuminated. Therefore, the next administration’s top priority should be to rebuild American democracy and try to win the trust of the governed based on these eternal principles. The rest will follow from there.

Thank you, Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff!