Heilbrunn: What does that mean? What is more realistic?
Burt: There has always been a kind of romantic attachment that some Germans have had to the possibilities of Russian-German cooperation. It’s actually many centuries old. More recently, during the early phase of the Cold War, there were German politicians, especially in the SPD, who believed that Russia, or the Soviet Union, and not the United States, was the key to German reunification. As it turned out, it was the United States, and it was strong alliance solidarity that led to the end of the Cold War, but I think there were those in Germany that believed that the Russians could provide that solution.
While I don’t believe that the SPD still harbors a romantic view of Russia, I do think that the Germans have stronger interests than the United States in trying to get along with the Russians, and they are being very practical and realistic in this approach. The real issue now is with the Ukrainian problem: are the Russians and the Ukrainians willing and able to cut a deal that could lead to a settlement? The question, on the Russian side: Is Putin prepared to withdraw his people and his support in eastern Ukraine to the separatists in return for a Ukrainian willingness to give the separatists in the Donbass greater political autonomy? In Kiev, it is politically enormously hard for the government to make constitutional changes to provide for greater autonomy. Until that happens, Putin is going to be unwilling to change the existing frozen conflict in the Donbass because, I think, Putin believes that the Ukrainians can’t or won’t be able to get their act together and that the Ukrainian government will ultimately fail.
Heilbrunn: What about the United States? George F. Kennan said that the American public is kind of like a dinosaur. It just sits there, but then when it’s provoked, the tail starts to thrash around wildly. Where are we headed?
Burt: Well the tail is clearly thrashing around wildly, actually in both political parties. The results are somewhat different: it’s messier and uglier and even more violent in the case of the Republican Party, but the tail is also thrashing in the Democratic Party. The interesting thing about American political parties today, in contrast to their European counterparts, is that for all the talk about the establishment, especially in the case of the Republican Party, there really is no establishment. There is no leadership. There is no top-down decision making. They’re both highly decentralized. That gives both parties the capability to coopt these new movements and the result is that both parties are able to evolve, take on new ideas.
The Republican Party, in particular, is currently evolving in several respects. The interesting thing about the debate in the Republican Party in 2016 is that a lot of the issues are not so much ideological as class based. Donald Trump has succeeded in breaking through with a group of people who are angry. They feel they’ve lost out over the last twenty years in the development of the American economy, both because of globalization and because of the rise of various minority groups in American politics. And so he is representing a new group of potential Republican voters that have real grievances. And I think you will see the Republican Party becoming, in my view, less of the party of the 1 percent and more of a middle-class and, in some cases, even a lower-middle-class political party in expressing those views.
So they will not be as supportive of foreign intervention, the wars that take place in far-away places that they don’t understand but that they know are very costly. They will be less supportive of international trade agreements, they will be much more concerned about immigration, and the party increasingly reflects these views. The Republican establishment, to the extent that there is a Republican establishment, won’t send up a white flag of surrender, but it will gradually adapt to those changes. So that’s how American political parties change and evolve. You didn’t see the creation of a European-style Green Party in the United States, because the environmental movement was essentially coopted by the Democratic Party in the 1970s and 1980s. As the political parties adapt, so too will the politics of American foreign policy. With economic globalization and the diffusion of geopolitical power, America’s “unipolar moment” has passed, and with it, expansive and messianic designs for regime change, democracy promotion and military engineering. Unlike Rand Paul, who earlier in the Republican presidential campaign developed a plausible model of “conservative realism,” Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have failed to outline a fleshed-out replacement for neoconservatism. But their statements—ranging from trade to terrorism—suggest that they are acting as midwives to the birth of a harder-edged, more nationalistic conception of foreign policy, focused more on securing American interests than on promoting American values. Trump’s idea of “America First,” in other words.
Heilbrunn: So basically you’re saying big changes are coming, and the elites need to adapt quickly or be swept into the dustbin of history?
Burt: I don’t know if it’s the dustbin of history, but when you talk about the elites, some are active politicians and active politicians have an enormous capacity to adapt quickly if they want to stay in power. Other elites, maybe the so-called “donor class,” the people who are increasingly paying the bills, they usually have their own agendas and special interests and may find it more difficult to make that adaptation. You may see some of those folks, especially in neoconservative circles, actually leaving the party and moving to support those Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, that would be likely to welcome them.
Richard Burt is chairman of the National Interest’s advisory council and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs. Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.
Image: Bald eagle. Pixabay/Steppinstars. Public domain.