A European Plea to Biden

by May 2024
Photo credit: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno.

I admire America and feel nothing but deep respect and gratitude for it. Yes, I’m familiar with the reservations among many in Europe, ranging from Vietnam to Guantanamo, from the death penalty to the right to bear arms, from Afghanistan to the second Iraq war.

My feelings for America are stronger. That’s because they are tied to Berlin, the city in which I’ve lived for decades, both before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, when German reunification began.

Berlin’s Cold War history is closely tied to America’s. Take the Berlin Airlift from 1948-49. The Soviet Union sought to strangle the western sector of Berlin in one of the first major crises of the Cold War. America sent the so-called “Rosienbomber,” or raisin airplanes, that delivered vital food supplies from the air to ensure that the plucky West Berliners were able to hold out against communist oppression.

After the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, John F. Kennedy visited Berlin on June 26, 1963. In an address at the Schoeneberg City Hall, he famously declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner”—I am a Berliner.

Then there was Ronald Reagan who demanded during a speech at the wall on June 12, 1987, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” He was dismissed as a dreamer, if not a warmonger, by the fashionable elites of the time, but he was proved right. The message he delivered was loud and clear: Berlin would not be abandoned by Washington. Europe could count on America.

Fast forward to today and the situation is murkier. In the American presidential election campaign, Donald Trump has voiced skepticism about NATO and the European Union, and he is ahead in the polls. It will not be easy for President Biden to prevail. Above all, in the decisive swing states, Trump appears to be leading Biden. On what basis does Biden believe that the mood in America will change before November 5?

I haven’t heard a convincing answer to this question. Perhaps the polls have got it wrong. If they were wrong in the 2022 Congressional elections, then it tended to benefit Democrats. Whether the upcoming television debates will exert a decisive impact on behalf of Biden is an open question. Biden and Trump’s strengths and weaknesses are hardly a secret. The electoral strategy of the Democrats—to rely on a sudden surprise—seems highly risky.

According to Biden, the election will decide the strength, even the continued existence, of American democracy, which has endured, in one form or another, since 1789. From the German perspective, American democracy is not only at stake, but also the very survival of the Western unified defense—NATO. Vladimir Putin’s Russia stands at the gates of a number of European countries—from the Baltics to Poland. Russian missiles have already landed in Romania. Trump disdains international norms. A return by Trump to the White House will not be calculated to soothe the nerves of the already jittery Europeans.

It’s not hard to conceive of the horror that a Trump victory would create among some of America’s partners. Many would hold Biden responsible, particularly if he had clung to his candidacy until the end despite the mounting negative evidence about his prospects. Biden knows better than anyone what looms with Trump. That burdens him with the responsibility to assess the chances and risks of his run in a rational manner.

During my last trip to Washington with my family, we visited the Jefferson Memorial, where we stood before the citation from a September 13, 1800, letter that Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Tyranny has many forms. It expresses itself in contempt for mankind, as in the case of Putin in Ukraine. It expresses itself in xenophobia and discrimination, in hatred and incitement. Almost all Western countries have encountered these evils in one form or another.

If Trump is reelected as president, then America’s partners will at a minimum want to have the feeling that everything that could have been undertaken to avert the worst was attempted, including the recognition that perhaps another candidate to oppose Trump would have been more viable.

This is why a speech of Biden’s that would begin with the words “out of a sense of responsibility for my country, our partners and the international order” and that would end “I have decided to end my candidacy” would contain a force that would go down in the history books.

Malte Lehming
Malte Lehming is a columnist for Der Tagesspiegel, a large-circulation daily newspaper published in Berlin.
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