I have now lived in Europe for over a year, and previously spent a month here followed by another two weeks. People often ask me what qualities of Europe I’ve found strange or different, what’s shocked me the most. I always have trouble answering – I’m still in developed countries, usually Western, so I’ve just adjusted to the small cultural and infrastructural differences as they’ve arisen. Truthfully, there is only one thing that never ceases to shock me:
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
On the morning of 12 February of this year, 1260 members of the German Federal Assembly, which includes Bundestag members and state electors, voted to choose the 12th President of the Federal Republic of Germany. Garnering over 900 votes, the clear winner was the Grand Coalition candidate Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who served twice as foreign minister and ran for chancellor under the SPD banner in 2008. He has held public office for over 20 years.
On paper, Steinmeier has all the makings of a tame president; he is well-liked and respected in the international community and within the German government. According to Bild, Steinmeier even has the dubious honor of using the German informal “you” with more members of the Cabinet than any other – high praise for those in the German-speaking world.
However, appearances can be deceiving, and surely the Steinmeier presidency will not be without a backbone. During the last year of his term as foreign minister, Steinmeier spoke out strongly against Russian aggression, the inaction of the international community in the Syrian crisis, and the shortsightedness of the Brexit decision. Most notably, he is a decisive critic of US President Donald Trump and of the nationalist movements taking hold around the world.
From Freedom to Courage
Germany’s current president, Joachim Gauck, has spent most of his term promoting freedom. Gauck, who was an East German resistance leader before the fall of the Berlin Wall, has repeatedly stressed reconciliation and social justice in his speeches. His term has not been without crisis – the floundering euro, Brexit, and the refugee influx, just to name a few – but he has continued to call for openness, tolerance, and a need to cherish the freedoms that are easy to take for granted. Gauck embraced the “Refugees Welcome” movement more than any other German politician and at times was harsh in his criticism of those who were steadfastly anti-refugee.
Steinmeier promises to be a different kind of president. After nearly three decades in the spotlight, he is politically savvy and will likely be less concerned with visiting children’s shelters and more concerned with asserting Germany’s role in the world. If “Freedom” was the motto of the Gauck presidency, it is safe to say that “Courage” will be the that of Steinmeier’s. In his acceptance speech following his election, Steinmeier spoke of two kinds of courage: the courage that Germany can give to others, and the courage that Germans must display in the face of rising unrest in Europe and beyond.
Steinmeier recounted a story of a young Tunisian activist telling him that Germany gave her courage. Germany, which not so very long ago represented the opposite of freedom and justice, now has a place as one of the pillars of modern democracy in the West. Germany gives courage, said Steinmeier, because it is proof that peace comes after war, that reconciliation can follow division. In this sense, Germany must continue to be a symbol of courage for countries in crisis.
But Steinmeier also meant courage in another sense. Three important European elections – France, Germany and the Netherlands – are coming up this year, each with its own populist candidate. In the face of Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, and Geert Wilders, respectively the leaders of the nationalist waves in these countries, Steinmeier preached patience, tolerance, and above all, a commitment to the core values of Europe.
The “Anti-Trump” President?
Following his election, the German daily Berliner Morgenpost dubbed Steinmeier the “Anti-Trump President” – a title that has since been reprinted everywhere from The Independent to Bloomberg. Whether or not he enjoys the moniker, Steinmeier has certainly been among the strongest critics of the US President, referring to him at one point as a “hate-preacher.” After Trump’s election, Steinemeier issued the following statement as foreign minister: “I think we will have to get used to the idea that US foreign policy will be less predictable for us and we will have to get used to the idea that the US will tend to make more decisions on its own.” He went on to say that working together with the US will be much harder over the next four years and that Europe must stay the course, despite the unsettling results.
In his speech on Sunday, Steinmeier issued a thinly veiled critique on Trump and his populist counterparts in Europe. He called on all Germans to fight against baseless accusations and fear-mongering. “We must have the courage to say what is and what isn’t,” he said, claiming a universal responsibility to differentiate facts from lies. This, too, will likely be a theme of the Steinmeier presidency. Shortly before his candidacy was announced in 2016, the President-elect decried the rise of right-wing parties in Europe and the US and accused Trump and others of “mak[ing] politics with fear.”
Or the “Pro-Russia” President?
Rather than the “Anti-Trump” President, some may dub Frank-Walter Steinmeier the “Pro-Russia” President. As foreign minister, Steinmeier was regularly lampooned by his CDU colleagues for his mild stance toward Russia. He began his second term as foreign minister in late 2013, only a few months before Russia annexed Crimea. Following the annexation, Steinmeier joined his international colleagues in denouncing Russia and supported upping economic sanctions until the conflict was resolved.
However, Steinmeier has relaxed his stance since then and has insisted on a need to keep channels of communication open. Russia is an important actor in two of the most significant global crisis areas: Syria and the Ukraine. Continuing with heavy sanctions and isolation will do nothing to solve these issues, according to Steinmeier. Over the summer, he was also quick to criticize NATO for carrying out exercises in Eastern Europe. He accusedthe organization of “warmongering” and said, “Whoever believes that a symbolic tank parade on the alliance’s eastern border will bring security is mistaken.”
Thus far, only Russian news outlets seem to believe that Steinmeier will be a friend to the east, but the differences between he and Gauck are undeniable. As a former citizen of East Germany, Gauck was understandably apprehensive about former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Steinmeier, who has worked with the Russia on international issues since his time in the Schroeder administration, will be a welcome change for the Kremlin.
Emphasizing German Leadership
In an interview with television station ZDF following the election, Steinmeier indicated his intention to work closely with both Moscow and Washington. He was very clear that Germany is currently in the midst of a “reorganization of international relations” and that possible unpredictability in the East and the West will mean a greater need for a stable country.
Nevertheless, the role of the German president is not to negotiate with foreign leaders or herald in big changes. The German president is primarily a domestic role; he or she acts as a moral authority, but has very little political power. As the head of government, Steinmeier will be confined to ceremonial tasks like welcoming state visits and approving the Cabinet. The political might in Germany is held by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and by the parliament, the Bundestag. Despite his limited power, Steinmeier is expected to set a tone for the coming years and it appears as though he will be just as active as his predecessor.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take office on 18 March 18 this year. On September 24, the country will vote for new Bundestag representation and a new government will take office.
Throughout history, the struggle between the West and the East has fallen on the shoulders of the U.S. and Russia. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West’s relationship with Russia has always been testy. With the disintegration of the USSR, the US was deemed victorious, while spreading its influence and liberal ideology throughout the world, while Russia and its stalling economy was seen as the loser. Twenty-five years of US hegemony, good or bad, was felt in every corner of the globe, whilst Russia’s global headlines comprised of its propaganda, sniggered at by Western nations, poor economy and the propping up of dictatorships. However, in recent times, it is evident that Russia is somewhat gaining its influence back via foreign policies and especially through the soon-to-be new alliance with president-elect Donald Trump. It is now difficult to ignore the growing power of Russia throughout the world, especially as even its classic nemesis, the US, appears to be bowing to Putin’s charm.
After the events of 2014 there was an agreement in the West to isolate and punish Putin for his actions in, the now-annexed, Crimea. Russia was placed under economic sanctions that were intended to weaken its trade with the western hemisphere and contributed to the poor state of the Russian economy. Also diplomatic ties suffered between Russia and the West and at times have stalled, especially due to Russia’s role in Syria. It had looked like Russia would continue to play second fiddle to the US in the global political field, until the recent turn of global events.
Most significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has not hidden his admiration for Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump praised Putin and his leadership qualities. Trump’s actions are drastically different from previous US presidents who had a frosty relationship with Putin. The oncoming US-Russia relations boom have alerted governmental figures and they have questioned if Putin would have influence in future US policies. Even in choosing his cabinet, Trump causes concern. Rex Tillerson was announced as the new Secretary of State and within hours of this declaration, concerns were raised by both Republicans and Democrats about Tillerson’s close ties to Putin. Were Putin to somehow have influence in US policies, then it is clear that the tide would clearly change in global politics. During the campaign, Russian hackers were blamed for leaking DNC emails, which destabilised the Democratic Party with Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and the raised questions about the DNC’s authenticity. Post-election, Barack Obama called for an enquiry to examine if Russia had any influence on the final result.
Without a doubt, European leaders are concerned that Trump will have a soft approach to Putin and his foreign policy. This year, tensions escalated between the west, especially the US, and Russia due to its involvement in Syria and the continuous breaking of agreed ceasefires. Previously, there was no doubt that the Western block would stick together against Russia, but the stronghold alliance is not as stable as it once was. In France, Marine Le Pen secured a €9 million loan from Europe-Russia Bank (ERB), for her political party, Le Front National, to strengthen her far-right rhetoric which ultimately disrupts mainstream European values. Russia’s growing influence in Europe further demonstrates its tactical aim to have a strong hold in the continent à la pre-fall of the Berlin wall. Recently, during presidential elections, both Bulgaria and Moldova elected men who lean closer to Russia and distance themselves from the Western block. With uncertainty mounting in post-Soviet countries; it is evident that Putin’s foreign policies point to a wish for a quasi-USSR looking map. Trump’s limp response to supporting NATO may only encourage turning Putin’s attention towards the Baltic and Balkan states. In Germany, a warning has been issued from head of security that there may be interference in next year’s elections in Europe by Russia.
Further afield, in the strategically important Pacific region, the Philippine president, Roger Duterte, described Putin as his “idol”, recently claiming that the two have much in common. While creating a gap between the Philippines and the US – for instance calling Obama a “son of a whore”- it is evident that Duterte would welcome a strong alliance with Russia. This would diminish the US’ influence in the region, which has been essential for US interests for many years.
Despite its recent influence in global politics, some political leaders will still create obstacles for Putin and his Russia. Angela Merkel claimed that the sanctions placed against Russia must continue due to the lack of progress in Ukraine. Furthermore, Alexei Navalny, leader of Progress Party has declared that he will run in the 2018 Russian presidential elections and will “speak about things people refuse to talk about”.
Pockets of once assured Western alliances around the world are quickly being challenged by different leaders. With Russia’s frosty relationship with the West thawing with the election of Trump, and other global political party leaders, one thing seems certain: Russia is is finally coming in from the cold.
In 1946 Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that another devastating war could not surely be prevented “without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples… a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The term ‘special relationship’ has been used ever since by leaders of both countries to explain the uniquely close relations between Great Britain and the United States in cultural, historical, and political matters that go far beyond a shared language. However, relations between Great Britain and the US are more complex than the sentimentalized notion of a ‘special relationship’. The intensity of the relationship has always depended on coinciding interests and the personal relationship between leaders of both countries. The last eight years the relationship has become weaker. Instead of focusing on an Anglo-American alliance, Obama repeatedly stressed the need for multilateralism. However, in times where both the electorates of Great Britain and the United States have decisively rejected multilateralism the relationship is bound to become very special again.
Strong bilateral ties between the United States and Great Britain existed long before World War II. But after the war there was a strong urge- particularly in the UK- to articulate the exceptional character of the relationship more explicitly. Whereas Great Britain had historically been the strongest in the relationship, the war radically altered power relations between the two countries. The British government needed US support on the continent in order to keep communist influences limited in the shattered countries of Western Europe. The UK was not as materially affected by the war as the countries on the continent, but the fight against the Nazis had put a great strain on its economic resources. In order to overcome the debt and stagnant economy the UK hoped for US economic assistance after the war. The US did of course stay very much involved in Europe and it is in these first postwar years that the fundaments were laid for a ‘special relationship’. The UK was able – partly through American financial aid- to revitalize its economy and although poverty was still widespread, the country was still considered to be one of the victors of World War II and consequently recognized as a global power. The US also feared a Communist take over in Europe and cherished the strategic alliance with the equally anti-communist UK. The extensive cooperation in matters of defense and intelligence that were established during World War II continued after the war, only this time to fight a different enemy.
The strength of the ‘special relationship’ always heavily depended on the political situation in both countries and has usually been stronger in times where political agendas coincided. This is most clearly seen in the last two decades of the 20th century. In the 1980s UK Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan pursued a similar neoliberal economic agenda and the two leaders developed a relationship that “was closer ideologically and warmer personally than any relationship between any other British prime minister and American president”. Also after the Cold War the ‘Special Relationship’ endured. The 1990s saw the rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK and the election of Bill Clinton in the United States. Blair and Clinton also developed a close relationship and the former described themas “political soul mates”. Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush was more problematic but at the same time proved the strength of the ‘special relationship’. Bush and Blair were political and ideological opposites. However, when Bush made clear to Blair he was going to invade Iraq in 2003, Blair felt compelled to join his most important strategic ally. The disastrous consequences of the Iraq War are well known and Tony Blair is probably painfully right in hindsight when he sarcastically called a possible invasion “my epitaph”.
In the last eight years the ‘special relationship’ has been under great pressure. Instead of cherishing the Anglo-American alliance, Obama pursued a more multilateral foreign policy. This strategy is of course a consequence of the Iraq war, where the UK and US have arguably left Iraq as a more destabilized and sectarian country than it was before the invasion. The biggest strain on the relationship followed from the military operations in Libya in 2011. In a recent interview in The Atlantic Obama saidhe “had more faith in the Europeans” but that the Europeans were not committed enough to the intervention. In the same interview he especially mentions David Cameron, who according to Obama got “distracted by a range of other things”. He also criticized what he called European “free riders” that pick and choose where to military intervene. In the UK these remarks did not go down well. Former UK foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind stated, “if there’s criticism, looking at your own actions is sometimes appropriate” and also other British politicians spoke out against Obama’s criticism. The British outrage over Obama’s statements reveal a deeper-laying development in the ‘special relationship’. Whereas the US enjoyed the UK as a partner in times where it needed an ally in Europe, nowadays its scope is way broader. Under the Obama administration the US has increasingly consolidated its relationships with other countries like Germany, China, and Australia. Some authors even called the relationship with Germany the new “special relationship”, a very sensitive statementin the UK for evident reasons. In times where the global power of Britain is steadily diminishing, a potential break-up in the ‘special relationship’ is a real concern.
However, 2016 might go down as the year where the ‘special relationship’ became great again. The relationship has always been dependent on coinciding political agendas, and the election of Trump in the United States and the Brexit-vote in the UK might realign these interests once again. Both votes revealed that the electorates have had enough of multilateralism and extensive international cooperation. Both Trump and Brexiteers promised to give the countries back to the people in times where the people felt it was taken from them. In his campaign Trump even mentioned that his election would bea continuation of what the Brexit-vote started. In this climate of isolationism it might very well be, ironically, that both countries will need each other more than ever. When the UK loses its access to the single European market, it will need to rely on its economic ties with the US. While Trump’s cabinet is slowly taking shape, it is still very unclear what his international position will be. The UK sees an opportunity here as it hopes to be able to influence his agenda like “Thatcher was able to do with Reagan”. We are yet to see how the new episode in the ‘special relationship’ will play out, but it is clear that the foundations for renewed extensive cooperation are there.
Another important factor also points towards a more intensive relationship between the UK and US. It seems that for the first time it may become a love triangle. During Donald Trump’s campaign UKIP-leader Nigel Farage, one of the lead supporters of Brexit, took the stage on multiple occasions. This has lead to rumors about a role for Farage in Trump’s administration, and Trump himself has spoken of Farage as a potential UK ambassador to the US. Especially the photo of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in a golden elevator spoke to the imagination of many speculators. Although it is merely gossip at this point, the fact that a British politician could play a role in the American Presidential elections and Trump’s remarks on Brexit show that the ‘special relationship’ still plays an important role in both countries. It proves that the foundations for more extensive cooperation have not been eradicated by Obama’s presidency.
Will Donald Trump and Theresa May reignite the special relationship?
The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the EU dominated world news in 2016. For many people it has been a confronting year, a year where it turned out that polls and numbers are sometimes grossly mistaken. Also many will perceive it as a year where global and European cooperation seem to be under grave threat. The actual political consequences of both votes are yet to be seen, but it is clear that the Trump-victory and Brexit created a new impetus for a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. In a time when both countries have turned their back to the rest of the world, they will need each other more than ever.
“… a complete and total shutdown of Muslim Immigration” (Donald J. Trump, December 7, 2015)
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed the deeply grounded reservations Europeans had against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. The religion and its followers are challenging American society in many ways: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and sometimes hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, which is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya: “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, Republican candidate Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, authors also bring claims forward that Islam, uniquely, does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution. Continue reading “Islamophobia: Made in America – A New Phenomenon? US Elections and Discrimination”→
Tomorrow (Tuesday, November 8th) the United States will have an election that could either vote in a Democrat or the Chancellor turned Sith Lord who turns the Galactic Federation into the Empire with extreme responses to acts of rebellion, shoddy weaponry systems and attempts to wipe out a religion because it’s considered a threat to the Sith’s rule.
Setting aside the sheer foolishness of having polls open on a working week day without a sausage sizzle in sight-an act that would surely lead to street riots in Australia- the latest poll on Real Clear Politics showed only one point difference between four years of continuity in the United States and the last four years the United States might ever have.
However, in 2012,voter turnout was only 57.5% and when the approval rating of both candidates is at historic lows, it is unlikely that this election will see a dramatic increase in that number; this means that the countries future is in the hands of the minor few instead of the majority.
Compulsory voting is only enforced in twenty-two countries across the world (and one Swiss canton) and in those countries the fines for not voting are typically so low as to be considered symbolic more than a diversionary tactic. One of the more common arguments against compulsory voting in America is the first amendment of the Constitution which allows for freedom of religious practise, which for over one million Americans who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, means the right not to participate in political happenings. More famously, it allows for freedom of speech, for which it is claimed that compulsory voting is compelled speech and thus a violation of that right. In this case America’s liberty might be its downfall.
It’s a Thursday evening in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the atmosphere outside the US Bank Arena is slightly tense as people queue to get inside, their T-shirts and posters ready to show support for their preferred competitor. We are at the largest indoor arena in the Greater Cincinnati region, boasting facilities that can fit over 17,000 people, and tonight it’s almost full. People of all ages have come here, and we see couples, families, groups of friends mixed into the crowd. As we pour into the stadium with other supporters, the chanting “USA! USA!” becomes louder and the atmosphere more rowdy as we are hit with booming music, chants, cheering- we try and find some seats. The colour red dominates the stadium; T-shirts, lights, posters…
The screens above the field do not show close-ups of the music artists or hockey players that usually occupy the spotlight in this arena. The centre of the arena is occupied by a single stage, with a single podium and single microphone, and shortly after we find our seats, presidential candidate Donald Trump takes the floor. While Frank Sinatra sings “New York, New York” the crowd goes wild and posters and smartphones fill our view. After proclaiming his love for Cincinnati, Trump begins his speech, and the Europeans present try to catch as much of this as possible beneath the deafening cheers. Continue reading “Trumped in America: Undercover Europeans at Trump’s Cincinnati rally”→
How democratic is the American constitution? asks political scientist Robert A. Dahl in his famous essay. His argument does not leave much of a doubt to the answer: the American constitution is by far not the democratic model constitution that many Americans think it to be. Claiming a more critical stance towards the more than 200 years old script, Dahl discusses several questionable aspects of the American founding document. Amongst those aspects, for example, is the unique electoral system whose outcome does not always represent the will of the citizens, as in the 2000 national elections. Another fairly undemocratic feature is the unequal representation of citizens in America’s second legislative chamber, the U.S. Senate, in which the federal states are represented. Dahl defines unequal representation as a condition in which the number of members of the second chamber coming from a federal unit such as a state or province is not proportional to its population, to the number of adult citizens, or to the number of eligible voters.
I believe Donald Trump will be president next year.
A rolling poll from key swing state Ohio has placed him ahead of his democratic rival Hillary Clinton for almost a week now; and broader polls show the candidates are neck and neck with less than 50 days to go until the November presidential election.
Of course polls can be wrong. And it’s easy to see why people assume Trump is too outlandish, too ridiculous, and unreal to be elected. One of his platform policies is to build a wall around America, paid for by the people he wants to shut out. His son recently compared the global refugee crisis with a bowl of skittles. He eats KFC with a knife and fork – surely there’s at least one state where that’s illegal. With every week that passes, he drops another clanging gaffe that reverberates, painfully, across international media: and the world says this could never happen. Continue reading “All hail President Trump: How Brexit will lead to Trump’s Victory in November”→