Former Ambassador Peter Wittig on foreign perceptions of the U.S. — “Intelligence Matters”

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Peter Wittig, Germany’s former ambassador to the United States, United Kingdom, Lebanon, Cyprus and the United Nations, about foreign perceptions of the United States at pivotal historical moments. Wittig and Morell trace the evolution of America’s standing in the eyes of the world from the end of the World Wars to the end of the Cold War, through the period following 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to today. Wittig offers insights on the effect of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy on global alliances and shares his view on the Biden administration’s effort to rally global support for Ukraine before and during Russia’s invasion. Wittig and Morell also discuss how its domestic instability may undermine America’s credibility and ability to lead. 

Highlights:  

  • China’s relationship with Russia: “[I]n my personal view, China has committed a colossal error in promising Putin a ‘friendship with no limits,’ as it was called, when the two leaders met. I assume now many top Chinese officials are already regretting it, and they must have been shocked by Russia’s surprisingly poor military war performance. But my assessment is that Beijing will be very careful not to be dragged into the Russian imbroglio and and be very careful to avoid U.S. and European sanctions. And that means, I guess, China will neither choose to be an unconditional ally with Russia, nor will it abandon Russia as an important junior partner for China.”
  • The way forward in Ukraine: “This will be a protracted battle in a kind of war of attrition. Who will have the upper hand in such a fight if the war disappears from page one of Western media? Putin is a ruthless leader. He will not accept defeat. So clearly NATO countries need to step up their support to help Ukraine in pushing back the aggression. But at some point, the Ukrainians will have to decide what their war goals are. This is a, first and foremost, of course, Ukrainian decision. But also NATO will have to reflect on the conditions of a possible cease fire and beyond. We’re not at this point yet, but there will be difficult choices ahead.” 
  • Domestic instability in the U.S.: “I fear that … U.S. soft power is fading. Allies worry about the next U.S. presidential election. Will the losing candidate and his or her party once again claim that the victory was stolen? Our authoritarian foes in the world are gleefully watching the fragility of a powerful democracy. So extreme domestic polarization and political gridlock in a country weakens the power abroad and weakens the ability to lead internationally. And I think this is the main challenge of the U.S. today.” 

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS – PETER WITTIG

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL: Ambassador Wittig, Peter, welcome to Intelligence Matters. Thank you so much for joining us this morning.

PETER WITTIG: Thank you, Michael, for having me on your program.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Peter, you know that I’ve been wanting for some time to have a discussion on Intelligence Matters about foreign perceptions of the United States. And quite frankly, I can’t think of anyone better placed than you to have that conversation with – your time in Washington, your time in London, your time in New York, all your contacts around the world give you, I think, more insight into this question than really anybody else I can think of. You obviously have your own perceptions, of course, but you also have, I’m sure, gotten a very good sense of the perceptions of many other folks around the world as well.

I also want to just start by saying that that I hope we can talk about foreign government perceptions of the United States, not necessarily public perceptions. But if you want to bring public perceptions into the discussion, please do. Let’s just make clear that we’re making that conscious switch from public to government and back and forth.
Peter, I think the best place to start is to talk about why foreign perceptions of the United States matter. Why should Americans care? Why should my listeners care? I can imagine some people saying, you know, who cares? Some Americans saying, ‘Who cares what others in the world think of us?’

So how would you answer that question in terms of why do foreign perceptions of the U.S. matter?

PETER WITTIG: Michael, I have two thoughts on your question. The first is one of a professional diplomat. Perceptions of other countries matter a lot because perceptions influence, sometimes even determine, foreign policy choices. Whether foreign governments consider the U.S. as an interested or disinterested party, as strong or weak, as united or divided on certain international issues. Those perceptions shape their countries’ decisions.
And the great historian Christopher Clark has argued in his famous book on the First World War, it’s called “The Sleepwalkers,” that the war broke out at least partly because of the stunning misperceptions that the major powers had over each other.

So my second thought is one that I have as a great friend of the United States. It is about alliances. It’s true the U.S. is still the most powerful country in the world, but even the U.S. needs allies to achieve its goals in foreign and security policy. In other words, alliances are part of the U.S. power projection in the world. What distinguishes the U.S. from other great powers like China or Russia is its capacity to create and maintain voluntary alliances on an equal footing based on shared values and and respect for each other, not based on coercion or economic dependency, and to be able to do that. Foreign perceptions of the U.S. matter enormously.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Peter, let’s talk a little bit about how and why perceptions of the U.S. have changed over the last several decades. You, Peter, joined the German diplomatic service during the Cold War, just as I joined CIA during the Cold War. How was America perceived by the world then, and why during the Cold War?

PETER WITTIG: Well, when the Second World War ended and the Cold War started, the U.S. took a seminal, enormously consequential decision. So in stark contrast to the aftermath of the First World War, this time the U.S. did not leave Europe. It remained engaged in Europe – and in Japan, by the way. So beyond military forces on the ground, it engaged economically on a large scale: the Marshall Plan or the economic recovery program transferred over 13 billion U.S. dollars, equivalent to 120 billion today, to Western Europe to rebuild war-torn regions and improve prosperity.

Of course, it was not just a charitable gift. It was an incredibly farsighted investment to secure geopolitical influence over Western Europe and prevent the spread of communism. But it also shaped Europe’s and in particularly Germany’s perception of the U.S. as a force for good. It happened, imagine, 75 years ago and is still part of our collective memory.

The creation of NATO in in 1949 and later the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact were expressions of the Cold War division of Europe. Of course, the perception of the U.S. at that time depended on the camp to which these countries belonged. For Germany and other countries in Western Europe, nature was the military and political reassurance that guaranteed their existence. Germany, for instance, was a frontline state. Later, the Vietnam War divided European societies as much as it divided the public opinion in the U.S.

But on a governmental level, the transatlantic alliance was never jeopardized. And the same goes for the arms build-up in Europe in the seventies. The governments knew full well that without the protection of the U.S. they would be exposed to Soviet coercion. So the perception of the U.S. as a protective power, as it is a European polity, if you will, with skin in the game, was crucial to the peace and prosperity of Europe. And by the way, much of the same positive development happened with the other major World War II foe of the U.S., namely Japan.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Peter, talk a little bit about that period between the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Soviet Union at one end of the timeline, and 9/11 on the other end of the timeline. This is the so-called unipolar moment for the U.S.: How did governments around the world perceive the United States then and why?

PETER WITTIG: Well. Allow me for a moment to dwell on the fall of the wall in Germany in 1989, please. Because that was the moment when the perception of the U.S. as a trusting ally and a force for good was at its peak. The Bush-Baker team at the time recognized early on that the unification of the two Germanies was simply unstoppable. So the U.S. supported it wholeheartedly instead of resisting it. And that was the first instinct, understandably, in a way, of France and Britain. The U.S. administration tried to steer the inevitable in the right direction, embedding the united Germany firmly in the Western fold.

I personally consider this a U.S. masterpiece of skillful and strategically visionary diplomacy. And more than that, it instilled a sense of enormous gratitude to the U.S. in a generation of German political leaders.
To your question on the unipolar moment, indeed. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – another really pivotal historical moment – the clear perception was there’s only one superpower left. The end of history. It was not only the title of an influential book by Francis Fukuyama, but it was also basically the mindset of many leaders in Europe. The U.S. was seen as the uncontested democratic leader of the world, especially by the new democracies.

The assumption being that, sooner or later, most countries of the world would follow the, if I may say so, liberal Democratic script of the West. It didn’t happen. All of us, we underestimated the strength of what we considered archaic forces in the international arena: extremist nationalism, violent religious radicalism, ethnic tribal forces of all kinds. They tested us, all of us, starting in the 1990s and at the beginning of the new century. So it was clearly not the end of history.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, we’re going to talk in detail in a little bit about Ukraine, but I want to ask you here, if you believe that the United States and NATO made a mistake during this unipolar moment by expanding NATO to the east, by expanding it right to the Russian border. I wonder what your thoughts are on that question.
There’s a lot of discussion about that today. Would today be different if we had taken a different course with post-Soviet Russia? Would we be better off or would we be worse off? What are your thoughts on that question?

PETER WITTIG: Michael, you’re right. The debates about who lost Russia have been rekindled with the Russian war against Ukraine on February 24. I want to weigh my judgment very carefully here.

George Kennan, a towering figure of generations of diplomats called the swift NATO expansion the most fateful era of American policy in the post-Cold War era. I think Henry Kissinger argues along similar lines. Even William Burns, the current CIA director and former ambassador to Russia, whom I deeply respected and I had the pleasure to work with him in Washington, even Burns called the NATO expansion in the mid-nineties, ‘premature at best, and needlessly provocative for Russia at worst.’

I would partially disagree here. The new Eastern European states – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, also the Baltic states – they were undergoing a tremendously challenging and difficult transformation process and with post-communist forces very much alive and their democratic success far from assured. These countries wanted to get out of a security gray zone as fast as possible, and with NATO membership, locked in their success as Western style democracies and prevented a kind of a backsliding into a security and political no man’s land.

And besides the NATO-Russia agreement of 1997 that followed the invitation for Eastern European countries to join, it was de facto a recognition of this new reality by Russia. So I really don’t buy Putin’s narrative today that directs Russia’s war against Ukraine back to NATO’s expansion to Eastern Europe, as if this was kind of the original sin. Never has NATO, a defense alliance, threatened Russia, in its territorial integrity or sovereignty.

And Russia, in turn, has signed various international agreements where the right of states to choose their own alliances freely were enshrined, like the Charter of Paris in 1919. So Putin’s justification of his invasion of Ukraine as a defensive act against an aggressive NATO is simply absurd and only serves to cover up his, one good call [it], ‘revisionist project’ to reinstate Russia’s dominance over Eastern Europe.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, talk a little bit about the perceptions of the United States after 9/11. So that’s the next big geopolitical moment here, right. And the perceptions of the U.S. handling of that war against terrorism.
You talk about drone strikes. You can talk about torture. You talked about the Iraq war, the long war in Afghanistan. And then you have the financial crisis. You have a failure to enforce the stated red line in Syria. You have the rise of populism in the United States.

In short, take us from 9/11 to just before the invasion of Ukraine, and how perceptions of the U.S. evolved during that period. And I know that’s a big question.

PETER WITTIG: Yes, Michael. Those are a lot of questions. And these are all groundbreaking events, but of a very different nature.

9/11 was perceived as an attack not just against the U.S., but against the whole Western alliance. Remember, NATO invoked Article Five of its treaty, the case of collective defense, for the first time in its history, only one day after 9/11. And this was an act of unprecedented solidarity.

The war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had hosted and protected Al-Qaeda, was seen as a legitimate defense act. It was quite different in the case of the Iraq war in 2003, as opposed to Bush father’s war against Iraq in 1991 to liberate Kuwait. Bush’s son did not get a mandate from the U.N. Security Council.
Europe was split into two camps: France and Germany opposed Bush’s decision to go to war against Iraq. The U.K. and some Eastern European countries supported the US. But it left scars in the allies. The debate was about the legitimacy of the Iraq war, but also about the effects of military interventions in the Middle East. In hindsight, the Iraq war turned out to be a disaster for the region.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yes, sure.

PETER WITTIG: And Iran was the winner of this geopolitical earthquake. You mentioned, you know, Abu Ghraib and the torture practices. That alienated many countries and tarnished the image of the U.S. as a standard-bearer of human rights.

But the Iraq war also taught us all a lesson about the limits of Western interventions in foreign regions. And that was, I guess, the backdrop of Obama’s decision not to enforce the previously stated red lines in Syria.
After long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with limited success, the American people were war weary, and I think European leaders understood that. I think they were less critical of this U.S. retrenchment from the international scene or from parts of the world than the U.S. political class or the think tanks in Washington.

Michael, you mentioned the rise of populism in the U.S. This is an entirely different matter. President Trump’s “America First” Doctrine and his at times outright disdain for alliances came as a shock to European leaders. Of course, with notable exceptions, like the Hungarian strongman Orban or Boris Johnson, who flirted with Trump.
Politically speaking, Trump’s actions were seen as a real threat to the survival of NATO and the Western allies. Europeans feared President Trump would simply abdicate from the U.S. role as leader of the Western community of nations. Luckily, it did not happen. In a way, the Trump presidency was a healthy wake-up call to Europeans and to Germans in particular to invest more for their own security and stop free riding in defense spending.

But I must also add a qualifying remark here. On a global scale, there have been quite a few governments and leaders that saw in Trump and in his America First approach welcome change or even a model to emulate. From Brazil to the Philippines, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. So Trump was certainly not alone.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Peter, did the US distancing itself from its allies, did it force those allies in any way to hedge a bit with regard to Russia and China, do you think, or not?

PETER WITTIG: The perception of the U.S. shifted according to events. The assumptions of leaders were probably more stable than those of the rather fickle public opinions in the case of Europe. Trust of allies had developed over decades of closed cooperation and was not easily destroyed.

The Iraq war, however, put a strain on this level of trust. But there was never any question of hedging their bets by relying more on China and Russia.

The Trump presidency, however, was, as I said, an event of a different nature. His administration was at times – concerning our continent – was at times outrightly hostile to the European Union. He once called it worse than China, so most European leaders quickly realised Europe must rely more on itself.

And one more important thing. The perceived absence of the U.S. leadership in the West during the time of Trump created a vacuum. Russia and China tried to step in and fill the gap in Europe, but also Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Peter, let’s shift gears here and talk about Ukraine. And let me start here with a very general question: has the U.S. reaction to the initial build-up of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border and then the U.S. reaction to the invasion itself, altered perceptions of the U.S.? And if so, by how much? What’s your sense of that?

PETER WITTIG: The U.S. was the first one to see through the build-up of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border and to predict an outright Russian war of aggression. And the groundbreaking step to share its intelligence not only with governments, but also with the public at large, was a first – had never been done before on this scale.
So this is, if I may say so, this coercive use of intelligence destroyed Putin’s narratives and pretexts for his war. However, few governments in Europe, one has to confess, had believed the U.S. forecasts, including, by the way, the Ukrainian leadership.

But the U.S. intelligence turned out to be exactly right. Up to this exact day of of the invasion. So the administration’s clairvoyance and the handling of the war – resolute but controlled and measured, strengthened its reputation and the trust in US leadership. And it stood in stark contrast to the chaotic way the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan was ended.

But I also must add a caveat here. Europe’s attitude is not representative of the whole world. Only 58 countries, mainly the European and Asian allies, take part in the sanctions regime against Russia. Many important countries even refuse to condemn Russia’s war of aggression. Not only China, but many heavyweights from the global south India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, the Gulf countries. In this sense, the world is far from united in its perception of the U.S. and its allies.

MICHAEL MORELL: So I’m wondering, Peter, what’s behind the reluctance of so many countries in the world to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and to support the West and the Ukrainians?
You mentioned India and Brazil and Mexico. Why have they taken the position they’ve taken?

PETER WITTIG: I think they have different motivations. Some of those countries are heavily dependent on arms deliveries or energy supply from Russia. And others just don’t think that the Ukraine war or the conflict in Ukraine is relevant for them in their eyes; it’s a far away European thing.

And others just don’t want to belong to the Western camp. They want to stay out of that conflict and be neutral. They think it will be to their detriment if they join the Western camp. So their motivations are manifold and different for each of those countries who have not joined us in resisting Russia’s aggression.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, I’m going to ask a broader question to you in a minute about China. But at this point, let me just ask, to what extent has China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine damaged the EU’s relationship with China – which is a critically important relationship for both China and the EU. Do you have a sense of that?

PETER WITTIG: Well, yes. China’s reaction to Russia’s invasion has indeed important repercussions in Europe. Europeans began to shine a much more critical light on China as these two authoritarian regimes have formed an alliance.

Companies doing business with China are facing increasing headwinds from their domestic public opinions in Europe, but also from their governments. Now the European Union will be more outspoken and critical on China-related issues like Taiwan, on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or Hong Kong.
And in my view, in my personal view, China has committed a colossal error in promising Putin a ‘friendship with no limits,’ as it was called, when the two leaders met. I assume now many top Chinese officials are already regretting it, and they must have been shocked by Russia’s surprisingly poor military war performance.
But my assessment is that Beijing will be very careful not to be dragged into the Russian imbroglio and and be very careful to avoid U.S. and European sanctions. And that means, I guess, China will neither choose to be an unconditional ally with Russia, nor will it abandon Russia as an important junior partner for China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, as you look at Ukraine today, what concerns you most about the war there? And given that concern, given how you think about it at the moment, what do you think we, defined as NATO, need to do going forward here?

PETER WITTIG: Michael, my concern is that wih all the admirable, heroic bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces and the weapons flowing in from Western countries, Russia is making gains in the Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine, mainly because of its relentless artillery attacks. So we will be in for a much longer haul, I believe, months, maybe taking us well into the next year.

This will be a protracted battle in a kind of war of attrition. Who will have the upper hand in such a fight if the war disappears from page one of Western media? Putin is a ruthless leader. He will not accept defeat. So clearly NATO countries need to step up their support to help Ukraine in pushing back the aggression.
But at some point, the Ukrainians will have to decide what their war goals are. This is a, first and foremost, of course, Ukrainian decision. But also NATO will have to reflect on the conditions of a possible cease fire and beyond. We’re not at this point yet, but there will be difficult choices ahead.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, as you think about where this might be headed – and I know this is a tough question – but at this point, what do you think the outcome will ultimately be? And I know that might depend on policy decisions made in a lot of places, but what’s your expectation for how this ends?

PETER WITTIG:.Michael, a tough question indeed. It’s difficult to tell. I tend to think that on the battlefield, in the end, neither side will be able to claim outright victory. But how does this change the world around Russia? Putin’s Russia has started a brutal war of aggression against a sovereign nation and has committed war crimes. It is responsible for tens of thousands of dead and wounded, of unbelievable destruction of cities, infrastructure and cultural heritage, not forgetting the many million refugees and an unfathomable suffering of the population – that will be the Russian legacy.

So Russia will leave a wound in Europe’s eastern part that will take generations to heal. Russia has also destroyed the post-Cold War order. It’s already history. We see, I believe, a Cold War 2.0 emerging in Europe. Western and allied countries will engage in some sort of containment strategy, a new enhanced military buildup, long term economic sanctions, political isolation of Russia as long as Putin’s regime remains in power. So Putin really has already lost the war.

NATO has been reinvigorated; even traditionally neutral countries like Finland and Sweden are now joining. Unimaginable a while ago. The EU showed surprising unity and will beef up its defense. And the medium and long term effects of the sanctions regime – by the way, the most robust in history against any major country – will cripple the Russian economy and drive talented young Russians out of the country.
Putin will want to tighten the grip in his immediate neighbourhood through an alliance of authoritarian regimes. This is part of his imperial project to resuscitate Russia’s imagined glory of the past. Michael, I think it will not end well for Russia.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, I want to ask you two final questions here. As you think about the changing perceptions of the United States over the last several decades, are there any broad lessons, broad themes that jump out to you?

PETER WITTIG: Okay. Well, Michael, my final thought revolves around the U.S. domestic situation. It matters enormously for the way the U.S. is perceived in the world. Any friend of the U.S. must be deeply concerned about the level of division and bitter polarization in in America’s political and public life. For many young democracies around the globe, the U.S. as the oldest constitutional democracy in the world, served as a model.

Germany was one of those countries. I fear that this example and this kind of, if I may say so, U.S. soft power, is fading. Allies worry about the next U.S. presidential election. Will the losing candidate and his or her party once again claim that the victory was stolen? Our authoritarian foes in the world are gleefully watching the fragility of a powerful democracy. So extreme domestic polarization and political gridlock in a country weakens the power abroad and weakens the ability to lead internationally. And I think this is the main challenge of the U.S. today.

MICHAEL MORELL: I couldn’t agree more with that, Peter.

Last question, Peter. Obviously, the relationship between the United States and China is important for the whole world, and how that relationship evolves will be important to the world. If you could advise both the United States and China about how to manage that relationship going forward, what would your broad thoughts be?

PETER WITTIG: Michael, I believe China is on the way to become a one-man autocracy. President Xi Jinping will be given a third term at the party conference at the end of the year. It is likely that he plans to stay for life.
China has once again become more ideological. The influence of the Communist Party is on the rise on political and security issues at home and in its neighbourhood. Beijing is ever more assertive, even coercive. Economically, it is flouting the international rules and practices. All of this is not good news, frankly.
But it becomes clear the most strategic future relationship of our time is the one between the U.S. and China. It’s decisive for the whole world. Europe’s interest here is not to enter into an ever more dangerous spiral of conflict between the two powers, between the two superpowers.

With no exit or without any offramp, the way forward, I believe, is for the U.S. and the European Union to team up to face China together from a position of strength, to contain it where needed in security issues, for example, but also to cooperate with Beijing, where we need China’s contribution to tackle climate change or to cope with global health issues.

The U.S. and the European Union have made some headway. They created a joint European, U.S. Trade and Technology Council to coordinate our public policies in relation to China. But we need a more comprehensive approach, a joint approach to calibrate our China relationship wisely between cooperation and conflict. And that is one, if not the most important, challenge for our alliance in the coming decade, I believe.

MICHAEL MORELL: Peter, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been an incredibly thoughtful conversation. It’s been a pleasure to have you on Intelligence Matters. Thank you so much.

PETER WITTIG: Michael, it was my pleasure. Thank you.



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