When values and interests collide, where does Biden stand?

Frau Europa: German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Brussels

While addressing an online conference of legislators from across the European continent on November 30, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hit out at the concept of exceptionalism. Inevitably, Merkel’s remark has drawn much attention at a time when the Joe Biden’s presidency appears on the horizon.

Merkel came straight to the point, saying Europe must stand up for its values in its dealings with China, but given the country’s sheer population and economic importance, there will always be a trade-off between the European Union’s values and its interests. 

Merkel was responding to a demand voiced by some in her audience that she push for a tougher line on human rights violations in China. Merkel said said, 

“We must define our own European interests, and this also includes common ground (with China) on foreign policy, on economic policy and digital policy and many more. The challenge over the next years in relation to China lies in finding a good balance between fighting for our values and our interests.” 

It is no secret that Germany has developed a robust relationship with China. The official formulation in Berlin is that “German-Chinese relations have become very close-knit and multi-faceted while acquiring ever greater political substance.”

There are only two countries Merkel has visited outside the European continent and one of them is China — 12 visits all in all since she became chancellor in 2005. But for Covid-19 pandemic, Merkel was due to have another summit with the Chinese leadership. An annual visit to China had become a constant in her diplomatic calendar. 

Merkel is a very focused politician. She travels fairly widely but her itinerary through her past decade and a half in the chancellery shows that she picks her destinations thoughtfully — destinations where German interests are involved, there is business to transact and personal diplomacy might make a difference. 

Merkel paid enormous attention to Russia because it is a complex relationship of tumultuous historical backdrop which is of vital consequence to German interests. As chancellor, Merkel  visited Russia 15 times. And if that relationship is precariously poised today, it is not because Merkel was not trying.  

Therefore, Merkel’s remark on values and interests is an honest recapitulation of her vast experience in statecraft. Merkel does not hide that Germany has differences with China when it comes to “values”, but she is ever expanding and deepening the bilateral relationship.

Merkel is acutely conscious that for the German economy, which depends heavily on its exports, China is an irreplaceable partner. An updated note of the German foreign office states: 

“China was once again Germany’s most important trading partner in 2019, with a volume of trade of almost 200 billion euro. In the face of international crises and mounting global challenges (including COVID‑19, climate change), great importance attaches to German-Chinese cooperation and coordination under the comprehensive strategic partnership. China views Germany both economically and politically as a key partner in Europe. The regular high-level coordination of policy in some 80 dialogue mechanisms, as well as dynamic trade relations, investment, environmental cooperation and cooperation in the cultural and scientific sector, are key elements in bilateral relations. Germany also advocates closer relations between the EU and China and increased EU unity towards China.” 

The German foreign office note dated 6th November wards off the American pressure on Germany to take a tougher stance towards China over human rights. Merkel has avoided getting trapped in the power struggle between the US and China. 

In her address yesterday, Merkel made another big point about inter-state relationship between allies, while speaking about post-Brexit Britain’s future ties with the European Union. (Germany is currently holding the EU presidency.) Merkel said the UK and the EU “share common values” but must recognise that time is running out on a potential trade agreement.

An EU negotiating team is currently staying in London for additional talks. The UK’s transitional period of informal membership of the EU is currently scheduled to end on December 31, but Britain and the EU are still divided over issues such as state aid, competition rules and fishing.

With just one month remaining for the EU and the UK to come to an agreement, Merkel added, “Britain and the EU share common values. If we failed to reach a deal, it would not send a good signal.” 

Yet, Merkel stated, “We don’t need a deal at any price and we have made this clear. A deal is in everyone’s interest.” What Merkel refrained from saying was that neither can “values” change “interests” nor can values be substitute for interests. 

The catch here is that the EU must defend the interests of French fishermen in the English Channel. France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said on Monday that “Our fishermen are no less important than theirs (Britain’s) and they didn’t have the right to vote in the (Brexit) referendum.”

Merkel’s candid remarks strike a blow at the heart of the western liberal tradition, which assumes that there is a kind of national interest which every country should pursue: being, and being seen to be, a good “international citizen”. 

Indeed, in the real life of nation states, “value issues” turn out to be just optional add-ons to foreign policy. Of course, traditional, narrow view of national interests does not necessarily mean that countries will ignore entirely the essentially moral issues such as atrocity crimes, poverty, disease, the grinding misery of displacement, the use of chemical weapons, the awful human cost of natural disasters, or the risk of deadly conflict in faraway places, but many such values-motivated decisions have been made over the years by governments selectively. 

But the value-based framework expounded by the West has always been something of a hoax — a kind of ad hocery lacking any fixed notions of shape and coherence, lurching erratically from one position to another, and picking up and dropping moral commitments and principled positions on policy issues where the domestic mood is fluid. 

Look at the Quad, which spouses “open, fair, rules-based” international order. Who drew up such “rules”, the Quad won’t say. And at least three out of the four Quad members are notorious for being violators of international law. 

Merkel has shown political courage to reconceptualise national interests in the unsentimental real world of policymaking. Conceivably, she spoke with an eye on Joe Biden’s presidency, which might proceed to resurrect the US’ post-World War II hegemony under the pretext of a value-based liberal international order. 

When Biden says “America is back,” it is profoundly disturbing. As Guardian columnist Samuel Moyn pondered “whether this will mean genuine renovation or mere restoration” no one knows. In a riveting essay titled Biden says ‘America is back’. But will his team of insiders repeat their old mistakes?, Moyn, author and a professor of law and history at Yale, wrote,

“Avril Haines, whom Biden has nominated to direct national intelligence, helped both devise and limit targeted killings in a CIA stint. An eternal campaign of armed drones and special forces isn’t a fulfilment of a promise to “end endless wars”. It merely appropriates a slogan for the sake of continuity.”

“The continuity of personnel such as Blinken, who was Biden’s top aide when he voted for the invasion of Iraq, is the way restoration really works in practice.” 

Being the leader of an energetic, creative middle power knocking at the door of history once again, Merkel is just the right person to survey the epochal changes unfolding in the international arena to sound the warning that exceptionalism as a cover for belligerent western traditions will not work vis-a-vis China.