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“We had times that were at least as difficult”

Condoleezza Rice on the challenges and prospects for the transatlantic alliance

Interview with Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State, United States of America

Whatever one thinks of the initial military engagement leading to the eventual downfall of the country’s leader Muammar Qaddafi, there is no doubt that the international community failed Libya after the intervention. Today, Libya is a quasi-failed state, with multiple governments competing for legitimacy. Its accumulated wealth, its oil and a residual Libyan nationalism seem to be all that keeps the country from further fragmentation. This increasing power vacuum has turned Libya into a conduit for desperate migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. In the absence of a well-functioning state, criminal interests exploit human misery, all the more so as people smuggling remains one of the few viable activities in a collapsed economy. 

The migrant crisis adds a measure of urgency to discussions on Libya and threatens to further divide Europeans at a time when more European unity and strategic vision are needed. The stabilization of Libya and a humane response to the migrant crisis are closely related. Without an effective partner in Tripoli, the EU is unable to stem the flow of migrants in a manner consistent with international law and its own human rights standards. But stabilizing Libya requires patience and a long-term perspective that are hardly compatible with the domestic pressures under which European governments operate when it comes to the question of migration. This has led to a wrong choice of priorities: today the EU and its member states seem more preoccupied with stopping by all means available the flow of migrants than with working for an elusive political solution.

Körber-Stiftung: The German public however, seems unconvinced that cooperation on trade is important. Over months, thousands marched the streets against TTIP.

Rice: You have to show people what trade has done. This system that we built has lifted hundreds and millions out of poverty and has given ordinary people access to cheaper goods. Trade was good for people’s lives and I think you have to say that. Nonetheless, you have to deal with the pockets of places where trade has not been beneficial. In the United States, this means dealing with education and skills gaps. In Germany, I know that some people feel they have not yet even fully benefited from reunification. One has to go to those places and address those concerns rather than just proclaim that the world is better with trade.

Körber-Stiftung: Germany’s large trade surplus with the US has caused discontent both within the Obama and the Trump administration. Is this an issue that affects the relationship?

Rice: I have always believed that trade balances are not a very good way to think about trade relationships. Trade balances are usually not controlled. I think the reason for the German trade surplus really is German competitiveness. And one more thing: I come from Birmingham, Alabama, where the unemployment rate is around five percent. If Volkswagen and Mercedes were not making cars in Alabama, the rate would be much higher. We also need to look at the benefits of Germany’s economic strength.

Körber-Stiftung: Intelligence cooperation is another area where Germany and the US could work more closely together, but again, the German public is suspicious. What is your reaction?

Rice: Intelligence sharing and cooperation is absolutely critical in order to fight international terrorism, which affects all countries. I remember working very hard with Germany to break what was called the “Hamburg Cell” of Al-Quaida. We need more of that. I know that there have been suspicion and concerns after the revelations of Edward Snowden, but I can assure you that the United States and our European allies have more in common about the protection of privacy than we have apart.

Körber-Stiftung: You once said that the biggest challenge for US foreign policy is North Korea. Can Germany and the EU contribute to avoiding escalation at all?

Rice: This is an international conflict, not just a big power conflict. The members of the Six-Party Talks will remain the most important players, but Germany and the EU can support the sanctions regime within the United Nations, or cooperate on intelligence in order to limit the inflow of goods through the North Korean black market. Finally, in situations like when the US citizen Otto Warmbier was detained in North Korea, it also helps if voices from outside the region speak out for these people. The whole world should do this, not just big powers.

Körber-Stiftung: In the past years, leaders from the German Foreign Minister to the Federal President endorsed that Germany needs to take on more international responsibility. Since then, Germany for example equipped and trained Kurdish fighters in Northern Iraq, played a leading role in the Minsk negotiations, and sent troops to Mali. Is Germany finally becoming the international actor the US has always wanted it to be, or do you feel like being back in Old Europe?

Rice: [laughs] I think it is a very valuable turn for Germany to engage in this way. A vibrant democracy and strong economy like Germany has to be active in the international community. I understand the reluctance of Germans, but the days when people did not trust German activity in the international system are long gone. We need others than the United States to play an international role. I would even hope for stronger bilateral ties between our countries.

Körber-Stiftung: Should Germany be more engaged in military operations?

Rice: This is something for Germans to decide, not for someone from the outside to determine. Countries have their own traditions, values and norms about what is appropriate. I think Germany will evolve toward more active roles across the board, but this has to come through German democratic debate.

Körber-Stiftung: Finally, what would be the most important task you would assign to the German government in order to revive the transatlantic relationship?

Rice: NATO. The two percent has much more importance than just the two percent. It is not just that the money is needed, but it is a signal of shared responsibility. The American people see a world in which we have taken great responsibility for a very long time, and we appreciate that the United States needs to continue to take responsibility. But for those of us who believe in a strong transatlantic alliance, and even for those of us who believe in an active and engaged America, it is helpful to be able to say that our allies are sharing in the burden.

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