Martin Schäfer | US elections: A farce of Shakespearian proportions and uncharted territories

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US President Donald Trump arrives to deliver an update on Operation Warp Speed in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on 13 November 2020.
US President Donald Trump arrives to deliver an update on Operation Warp Speed in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on 13 November 2020.
Mandel Ngan

Following the recent US elections, the German Amabassador to South Africa, Martin Schäfer writes that everything is hinging on the inauguration day on whether we have witnessed a comedy or a tragedy. 

A kind of Shakespearean drama has been unfolding in the US elections before our eyes and the world community at large.

I should not dwell on who plays what role and how. People might still differ on whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, as that will very much depend on the final outcome and what will happen on inauguration day, 20 January 2021, 12:00 Washington time.

Who would have ever thought that one of the oldest and most stable democracies in history, that a 240-year-old constitution would be put to a test of such magnitude?

I admit, I certainly wouldn't have.

READ | Donald Trump fires top US election cybersecurity official who defended security of vote

As a young boy, my parents sent me to the United States as an exchange student, for an entire year.

16-years-old at the time, and politically immature, I still sensed the spirit of freedom and the democratic mindset of my American friends and classmates. Having become a foster child of an American family made up, like so many other American families, of immigrants, from Greece and Canada, I could feel the wonderful pledge of welcoming people of all races and walks of life to become proud Americans themselves and carry the flag of freedom and progress. Admittedly, my perspective might have been biased by the colour of my skin and my surroundings in the US. But that is not the point I want to make.

I remember regular heated debates between my host parents, favouring the Democrats, and their close friends, staunch Republicans, around the dinner table, at a braai or a joint weekend in the mountains.

Political divides

Debates about the then President Ronald Reagan, about the threat of a nuclear war, ways and means to foster social justice in a difficult economic environment at the time and so much more. I did not grasp all the issues at stake back then. But I surely felt that my host parents and their friends did not have to cross a deep and dangerous political divide in order to talk to each other.

They could disagree with each other on political issues and stay friends at the same time. And most of all: They did not deny each other being American patriots. Ultimately, they were playing and cheering for the same team.

Just a few years later when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States emerged as the uncontested global leader for a whole generation, with its unrivalled economic and political strength, but also with the soft power of its values of freedom, democracy and the "pursuit of happiness" of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

For me, when - with the unwavering support of the United States, and the consent of all our neighbours - Germans tore down the Berlin Wall and our nation reunited in 1989/1990 it was also an expression of those great American ideals. After all, the United States of America was the first nation that believed democracy in Germany could be rebuilt after the horrors we brought onto the world with the Second World War and the Shoah, and trusted us again in that moment of history when everything seemed possible.

Something profound has changed since those days when some mistakenly predicted "the end of history".

Polarised society

In the last 20 years, possibly sometime around the trauma of 9/11, the United States has become an increasingly polarised society, where being a Republican or a Democrat seems to be more important than being an American, where, for too many, emotions trump facts, where believing means more than knowing, where echo chambers on social media suffice to feel politically at home, and where short-term interests prevail over long-term goals.

Now, what does that mean for us, in Europe and in Africa?

First and foremost, we are far from being exempt from those secular changes in our societies.

Populism, and indeed pigeonholing in simple categories of friends versus foes, is not alien to our societies, either.

No need to remind anyone of some recent debates, and their moral low points in South Africa.

READ | Analysis: Implications of Joe Biden's win for Africa

In Europe, too, we are witnessing a surge of fake news, cheap populism, xenophobia and resentment of anything "foreign", and unfortunately lately often even openly fascist-style movements.  

In the past, social change - in society, culture and our political lives - frequently emerged first in the US and subsequently spilled over the Atlantic Ocean eastwards. With a view to Europe, I dare to say we better brace ourselves, and ask ourselves how we can bridge growing divisions within our own societies before it is too late. It is for the people of Mzansi to judge whether this is also true for South Africa.

Social polarisation divests energy; where domestic political battles rage, they necessitate constant attention of political leaders. Thus, President-Elect Biden will most probably have to focus on domestic issues and his agenda of reconciliation if he, as announced, intends to be a President for all Americans.     

That, of course, will mean less time and attention of the US President for our own challenges and concerns in Europe and Africa.

Europeans, and in particular we Germans, had gotten used to delegating our security concerns to our American partners, within and beyond NATO. It is quite unlikely that President-Elect Biden would be willing or able to return to those times. So we Europeans will have to take our rather pressing security issues into our own hands.

Second, multilaterism has taken a beating in recent years, not only because of President Trump‘s interpretation of his slogan,"Make America great again!".

Other world and regional powers haven't been very helpful either in preserving the multilateral world order that emerged after the catastrophe of the Second World World and that served us well.

The "My-Country-First-Brigades" of many nations found comfort and support from behind the back of the mighty United States.

I really hope the simple truth that we are stronger together and that international cooperation is more than a zero-sum-game will prevail again.

A quick return of the United States to the Paris Agreements on climate change as the President-Elect has already announced, to cooperation with the World Health Organization, to the nuclear deal with Iran would reassure the international community that multilateralism is not moribund after all. However, it would also be our responsibility in Europe and in Africa to play the ball and be ready for the compromises that are the essence of any democratic, multilateral world order.

Third, democracy and the rule-of-law have been on the back foot in recent years. Important players in other regions of the world, big and small, have other interests, and to put it bluntly, prefer authoritarian rule to freedom. The handling of the Corona-pandemics by some in the West has not helped our cause. Hopefully, with some new impetus from Washington, we can stage a turnaround and work together to defend and promote freedom, democracy and the rule-of-law.

Lessons from Europe

In Europe, we have learnt our lessons the hard way.

The global financial crisis in 2008, the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 and now the pandemic demonstrated unequivocally the need for more solidarity, more integration and more focus on our values, within and amongst our nations. To me, the European Union remains the most prosperous, the most peaceful, the most diverse and the most tolerant region of this planet. Times have never been better for young Europeans in search of a meaningful, self-determined and fulfilling life.

However, there is no guarantee for that to last forever more. We have to be willing to tackle our own challenges head-on, be it reforms for sustainable growth of our economies and social justice, trade and investments for our future, be it climate change and a climate neutral economy by 2050, be it digitalisation and the threats posed by big data, both in public or private hands, and so much more.

READ | Phumlani M. Majozi: Tensions between the US and China: Are we in the age of a second Cold war?

As US leadership will never return to Europe or elsewhere in any shape or form similar to what it was during the times of the Cold War (and don't get me wrong: it shouldn't), we will have to tread carefully into uncharted territory on our own. While maintaining and reinforcing the long lasting bonds of friendship as well as common interests and values we share with a United States of America (with its own pivot to Asia quite some time ago), we shall have to find our own path in preparing us for the upcoming secular antagonism between the United States and China.

In doing so, we know we share the universal values of freedom and constitutionalism, democracy and the rule-of-law, multilaterism and empathy with our partners and friends on the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

- Martin Schäfer is the German ambassodor to South Africa. 

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