Portrait of Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

An interview with Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff


An interview with Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is the vice-president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, where he oversees the organisation’s activities in Germany. Prior to that, he worked as an advisor to German President Joachim Gauck from 2013 to 2017. The College of Europe in Natolin had the privilege to welcome him as part of an international conference entitled How deeply does the current crisis affect identity and values of the West? Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff kindly agreed to answer some of our questions about values in the EU and, more largely, in the West.

Flavia Curatolo: You took on your new role as Vice-President and Executive Director of the GMF Berlin Office on March 17th, 2017. Since your arrival, what kind of challenges have you faced, and what kind of opportunities have you experienced?

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: There is the organisational one and the political one. Of course, the political environment is challenging. We have – and that was the topic of this conference – insecurity, uncertainties, a succession of crises in Europe and the Western world. We have an added level of insecurity with the election and the governance of Donald Trump in the United States. That is a challenge. That is a challenge of explaining, a challenge of responding, a challenge of strategizing.

On the organisational level, I came from the office of the President of the German Republic – which was a bureaucracy – and returned to a think tank environment. So, I think that, even if the subjects are similar, the stage and the impact are much smaller.You can achieve something much more easily on a smaller scale with a different set of actors; which, by the way, is a lot of fun.

F.C.: In what way?

T.K-B.: In a President’s office, a premium is set on experience. There are a lot of people with at least twenty-five years of experience on the job – which makes sense for what needs to be done there. In a think tank environment, a lot of people are mid-career or early-career. There are a lot of young people, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of mission-driven willingness to work. But there is also a lack of experience. It feels differently when you go to work every day.

Thibault Msika.: Let’s quickly pivot to the issue of the internal values of the European Union, shall they be the rule of law, the structure of the society, religion, or economy for instance. The EU seems very divided on such matters. In your view, is it a division between Member States, or is it a deeper division within the society itself?

T.K-B: First of all, I do not think there is such a thing as European values. At no time was there a system of values that was limited to Europe, and at no time, certainly not today, are these values accepted in all of Europe. What I talk about are Western values. They are the political product of the normative project that is the West. They come from the enlightenment and saw their first political embodiment in the ‘Atlantic Revolutions’ of 1776 and 1789. Western values are not just embodied in a political form or organisation. It is not just NATO, it is not just the EU, it is not just the institutions that we have created. The institutions are only a consequence of such values, but not the foundation thereof.

You have rightly stated that there are divisions inside the European Union: north-south and east-west of course, but we are looking at a broader set of issues. They are really not divisions between countries, but something that I would call ‘common western challenges’. It is not as if one of these challenges is present in Poland and not in Spain. They are present to different degrees in the different countries.

Yes, there is an east-west divide on a number of elements. And there is clearly a north-south divide when it comes to economics. But overall, we are looking more at the challenges of globalisation, and in our case in Europe, at a version of globalisation that we call ‘Europeanisation’ through the EU. And that is what I think is observable in all countries. We see a critique of internationalism having gone too far, and nationalism, once considered the root of all evils in European history, now being advertised as the solution to the problem. We are receiving an economic critique of a certain form of globalisation connected with concepts of individualism, liberalism, and free trade. So we are observing a big basket of elements that have been lumped together and given different emphasis in different countries.

T.M.: After such a statement on divisions between different forces, do you see common grounds or values on which to gather?

T.K-B: Let me start with the nationalism-internationalism divide. Post-1989, I think we had an overly optimistic vision of democracy. Not just Europe becoming free, but democracy running the world: the idea that all authoritarian regimes would eventually come around and become responsive, even democratic governments; the idea that the power of economic liberalism plus democracy would sway them all – that turned out to be a ‘transformation fantasy’.

We tend to forget that globalisation is not a phenomenon of the last twenty years. 1914 –the verge of World War One – was the peak of globalisation prior to the current period. Creating a situation like in 1914 is possible but unlikely. Even forces betting on nationalism often only embrace selective nationalism. The Polish government may not be been driven by all around nationalist aspirations. It is not betting on security nationalism, but rather on a system of norms and international rules and alliances and common and joint security plans. That’s internationalism. But the Polish government is less interested in other forms of European and Western commonality and solidarity. The same is true for Germany: our government cares for some versions of commonality and solidarity, but less for others.

F.C.: Continuing this discourse about nationalism and democracy, do you think the EU, considered as a sui generis construction, could be the solution and also a problem as a structure?

T.K-B.: We thought that Europe could be a model for other regions. Within the current crisis, we have come to realise that Europe is rather the exception from the rule, being challenged by more realist and national interest driven states in an environment that is less willing to share sovereignty.

The question then becomes: can Europe retain its model of sovereignty sharing? Can we protect what we have achieved as a joint solution to our traditional European problems in an age of nationalism?

T.M.: Eventually, we are talking about the concept of illiberal democracy, right? Do you think this model could spread and be perceived as an alternative by a part of the population?

T.K-B.: Currently yes. However, I am wondering whether we see the choice between democracy and non-democracy too much as black and white. I think we will be looking at an era of intermediate stages. We will see a lot of grey zones.

But I am not pessimistic. Democratisation has come in waves. It always had to confront backlashes. In fact, the whole history of the West since 1775 and 1776 has been one of betrayal, of contradiction, of backlash, of non-acceptance. The country I come from is a living example of this contradiction. It helped create, through Immanuel Kant, the foundations of Western values, and it has fought tooth and nail against them until 1945.

While, overall, I am not pessimistic about the future, I am also not naive about the force of the current backlash in a number of countries. Look at Turkey. At first, the AK Party looked like a model and as a next step on the road to democratisation. Now, democratization seems years away. We have to think in long cycles.

T.M.: Now moving a bit towards another of your fields of expertise – the EU-US relationship – I would like to ask about a very controversial topic: the TTIP agreement. It has recently disappeared from public debates. Are you aware of the current state of affairs in the negotiations?

 T.K-B.: It is in the deep freezer. And I would suggest for it to stay there for a long while. There is an anti-globalisation mood that the critique of free trade is part of. I can remember when two hundred thousand people protested against TTIP in Berlin. The size of that rally only compares to the street protest against the so called dual track armament decision in the early 1980s. We have a strong – especially a green and a left-wing – Western European base for the critique of trade deals. We had the same thing with CETA, the free trade agreement with Canada. And the question becomes: if you cannot do a deal with our good friends in Canada, who do you want to do a deal with?

F.C.: As you mentioned there were a lot of manifestations all round Europe against TTIP: about transparency, American products, or the safeguarding of European values. Do you think TTIP failed because there was this huge critique of globalisation or do you think that it failed because the civil society of Europe did not want it?

T.K-B.: May I ask you: do you think that, if we had had perfect transparency and every piece of negotiating paper had been online, every day, in real time, we would not have had these protests? I think transparency is an excuse, not a reason. Everybody knows that international negotiations cannot be conducted in full transparency. The reason we have up and down votes for them in Parliament is to enable the executive to do its job. During a negotiation, you should keep negotiating secrets just that: secret.

Maybe I am old fashioned. I want international negotiating to be done in back rooms, and I am not shy to defend the argument. Citizens have the option to vote the negotiator out of office if they do not like the result.

T.M.: The pause in the negotiations between the EU and the US, as you said it, is actually very representative of a value crisis. Could this lack of dialogue between the EU and the US endanger Western global leadership, especially in economic matters?

T.K-B.: A lot of people, including the current American President, do not see TTIP as a norm-setting exercise rather than a free trade agreement.

If we cannot agree on a common understanding across the Atlantic sphere on how we want to do trade at low cost, but at high standards, who would?

TTIP remains to be a strategic project. But with a popular anti-globalist opposition in Europe – mostly left wing – and an anti-globalisation critique from the US – mostly right wing and embodied by the ‘America first’ President – I suggest that we do not even try to negotiate this treaty for the moment. I do not want our people to be the Guinea pig of a trade treaty that comes under the headline of ‘America First’.

T.M.:  Concerning this phrase ‘America First’, Donald Trump gave a much-anticipated speech during the Davos summit in Switzerland. He declared that ‘America first does not mean America alone’. What does that mean exactly, and how should the EU respond?

T.K-B.: Donald Trump has not only been neglecting, but also abdicating leadership of common institutions in the Western world, and in the liberal international order. If he says that ‘America first’ is not ‘America alone’, then what form of cooperation is he thinking of? Does he prefer a bilateralism in which America is the big nation and everybody else is a small nation? The leverage would be clear here. Are we talking about equal rights of partners or about followership?

F.C.: Let us quickly jump to the topic of NATO.

T.M.: Yes, we have been witnessing the re-emergence of the security debate in the EU over the past months. At the same time, Donald Trump has criticised the role of EU countries within the organisation. Is it therefore possible for EU countries to emancipate themselves from NATO and the US security umbrella?

T.K-B: I hope not. Not because I am against European emancipation. I just think Europe does not have a good track record, at least not during the last 500 years. The US has been successfully balancing Europe while remaining offshore. It still fulfils this role. It does not need to have a role in inner-European affairs, but I think that without the United States as a security partner we would be back to a Europe that would resemble the last 500, rather than the last 50 years.

F.C.: How should we compare the EU and US points of view on migration? The US seems to see Merkel as ‘naïve’ on that topic, while European public opinion frames Trump’s approach as ‘evil’.

T.K-B.: First of all, let us differentiate between migration and refugees. Migration is a choice, while being a refugee comes out of necessity. I know that today, it is extremely difficult to distinguish who is who, but we have to make an effort.

We have two extreme choices: we can have zero refugees or millions of refugees. We want to chart a more moderate course, we have to make some middle-of-the-road choices. I think that we should uphold the Geneva Convention as a humanitarian and moral guideline. But we cannot be expected to do more than we can do given the economic situation and the political and cultural environment.

And we should not be forced to do more than we think we can do. Therefore, I believe that Eastern and Western Europe should, and can have, have different approaches. But we should not close our doors. A zero-refugee policy is immoral, but accepting a million people within the span of a year, as my country has done, is very unusual and will not happen again for a long time to come, I am sure.

T.M.: Is it not the solution to have solidarity through harmonization and common instruments?

T.K-B.: That would be too good to be true. Hanna Arendt’s thinking has educated me: it is not enough to have beautiful liberal democratic countries with rights for its citizens, but when a non-citizen knocks on these countries’ doors they say: ‘we are not here’. You have to have the right to make a claim.  Rejecting the right to have rights rejects one of the key lessons of World War Two.


This interview has been abridged and edited for clarity.


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