Say "Yes" to Democracy

25.9.2018 | Interview with AcademiaNet member Prof. Dr. Nicole Deitelhoff
Nicole Deitelhoff
Bild vergrößern
(© Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung)

Nicole Deitelhoff

Not one week goes by without news of cruelty, turmoil in world politics and ripples around the world. Since the last US election this process seems to have sped up. We spoke with Professor Nicole Deitelhoff about the current developments, diplomacy and the effect these developments have on the situation in Europe.

AcademiaNet: Professor Deitelhoff, recently, decades-old diplomatic relationships have been thrown overboard. Particularly by the US. What effect does that have on the multilateral order of peace and safety?

Prof. Deitelhoff: It has come under a lot of pressure recently through the pioneers themselves, the UK and the US. Since his election Donald Trump has turned his back on many institutions and keeps trying to do policy making without and outside of these institutions. An important example for this is the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the agreement with the Iran, which he unilaterally terminated and replaced by a policy of maximum pressure. This agreement was one of the major peace building achievements of the last years.

What brought about the developments of the last few years?

A lot of these things started years ago. Regarding Nato, the relationship between the US and Europe for example changed a long time ago. Already during Barack Obama’s administration the US criticised their European alliance partners for not spending enough on the military, their lack of operational capability during joint maneuvers and missions. Even the strategic orientation of the US to Asia isn’t new. What has changed in the transatlantic partnership is the tone of conversation and the vehemence with which long existing relationships have openly been put under disposition. The Trump administration is willing to risk traditional partnerships and achieved results for their own good. Most partners in Europe didn’t expect that.

The US has threatened to leave several multilateral institutions. They already left the UN Human Rights Council. Other countries consider to follow. Will we see a return to sectionalism in the world?

We have seen a similar movement when it comes to the International Criminal Court. Several African countries are considering withdrawal because they start to get the feeling the whole criminal court was only initiated by major western powers to let’s say “put African countries on the docks”. This is a worrying development but also a result of western politics of the years since the end of the cold war. Western countries advertised democracy and human rights with great self-confidence in these years. But then they pushed some of it through using questionable measures. Just remember the politics of stabilisation under George W. Bush in the Middle East which was basically a military operation under the premises to reorder the Middle East democratically. It has resulted in ruins and societies that cannot find peace. These developments have left many people disbelieve in the values that the US and the “West” want to prescribe to others.

Often Trump seems to be haphazard and constantly changes his mind. Does he do this intentionally or does he just act by how he feels or what he’s being told?

I do believe he has a general attitude which he follows strategically. He believes politics is done best if one remains as flexible as possible regarding promises made. No strong attachment to institutions, norms or partners.
But he often overshoots the mark with his actions. Best example: Trumps behavior at the summit with Putin. Trump likes the “among men” moments, agreeing on deals and demonstrating who is strongest. In such a moment he tends to forget that his congress believes Russia to be one of America’s biggest enemies and for sure won’t agree with Trump befriending Putin. This erratic behavior is also reflected in his enthusiasm over being the greatest dealmaker of all times while forgetting the limitations his actions should have.

Trump repeatedly threatened Europe to withdraw the US army and his promises from the EU. What are the consequences for Europe if he ever goes through with his threats?

Currently and for the next years to come, Europe would not be able to protect itself. It hasn’t gotten any defense or security capacities big enough to function as deterrence to Russia for example. We have neither a believable nuclear power nor conventional military forces. Everyone’s speaking of the French intervention initiative. But this is a long-term project. At the moment it is only about developing a shared strategic culture, not more. Let’s be honest though, there is no reason to believe the US would leave us. It would basically mean they’d dissolve the NATO. US Congress would never allow that. But hypothetically if they did:
In the east we would be facing a nuclear Russia that has been increasingly confrontational in the last couple of years, including towards the EU. Russia has moved boarders using military force – just think about the Ukraine or Georgia – and destabilised regions such as Eastern Ukraine. That would have serious security policy consequences. Europe could join Russia or Russia could prevail over Europe. Suddenly the US would have to deal with a completely new threat scenario and conflict. Markedly unattractive to the US.

Nevertheless Europe needs to find its new role in world politics, outside the shadow of the US. Currently it seems to position itself as a peace power. A role the US used to have. Can the EU follow in the US’ footsteps or is it simply one step too far for Europe?

Europe already is a peace power. The EU is a pure expression of pacification of the European Continent, a continent that was ripped apart by wars for centuries. But if we speak of peace we shouldn’t limit it to security only. In terms of security Europe still has a long way to go until it can replace the US. Especially in terms of military security. We currently don’t have an alternative to the US there. But the EU is very good in stabilisation politics, civil conflict prevention, etc.

Yet, we see an increase in sectionalism and protectionism all across Europe. What will be Europe’s future?

This is one of the central questions and a major challenge we are facing right now. We don’t see that much movement towards a united Europe but an increasing divergence. Just take the recent decisions to rebuke Hungary for breaching the EU Charta of human rights. Breaching the Human Rights Charta of the EU is going against its very core. This is a very worrying trend in Europe. But we have seen differences in Europe before. The security policies of the starting years of the new millennium with the “Coalition of the Willing” where only some European countries were part of for example. The EU also grew very quickly in the last couple of years. Most of the new member states and societies didn’t have time to grow into the Union. With the dooming governmental crises everywhere, the increase of refugees coming to the EU but also with the earlier global economic crisis, the financial crises and the debt crisis we could see that Europe hasn’t grown together as we wanted to believe.

Countries such as Hungary, Poland and now Sweden show an increase in radicalization and shift to the right. What’s the European democratic understanding like at the moment?

The crises in the last years have caused a fundamental feeling of insecurity among people. Who will protect us against the consequences of an uncontrolled globalisation? People have seen banks suddenly crumbling down. Savings were lost. Many Europeans were severely shaken by that and started questioning if globalisation and internationalisation really are good things or if it needs i.e. a national protective shield. Right-wing parties and organisations managed to use and constantly re-evoke this feeling for cheap propaganda and to undermine democracy. Calling for an autocratic system and a strong hand that will even leave international institutions is the result.

What can be done against this development?

Democracy is not a system that one once makes a decision for and then it remains intact for the rest of eternity. We constantly have to renew our agreement to democracy. Every day. Currently we see a failure to renew which gives room to right-wing and extremists’ positions. We need to fight for this renewal together and together state “Yes, we want to live in a democracy. Yes, we want human dignity to be a central part of our societal life together.” This is questioned every time someone can raise his or her arm to do the Hitler salute while a majority of those marching with that person just goes along with it and only a minority stands up. It doesn’t mean the majority agrees but with democracy the silent majority has to be out on the streets to and peacefully demand democratic values.

After what happened in Chemnitz recently some people say they are scared to demonstrate. What options do they have?

As stupid as it sounds people could wear a button stating “I love democracy”. Get politically active with parties that stand (up) for democracy. Go and vote! Make your cross with a party that is for not against democracy. If someone openly polemizes against democracy, get up and leave the room to show you disagree. Absence can make a difference. Or seek the dialogue and correct misinformation, fake news, etc. It is a tough job and probably quite dissatisfying for everyone but it is necessary. Reinforcement of democracy is necessary and worth it for all of us.

  (© Sonja Klein / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet and

More information

Additional articles on this topic


  1. Read what our members say about AcademiaNet.

Follow us

No more excuses!

  1. Please download the brochure "No more excuses" and read more about female experts in Europe, and about AcademiaNet.


  1. Michela Massimi and Niki Vermeulen secure funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh

    The grants are part of the £1.8 million RSE Saltire Research Awards.

  2. Flaminia Catteruccia becomes Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

    The immunologist plans to use the accompanying funding to develop new and better antimalarial drugs.

  3. Uta Frith: ‘The ability to reflect on our thoughts – I call it the human superpower’

    What is it about humans that makes us so good at social interaction and what happens when it goes wrong? We spoke to Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development Uta Frith DBE about her upcoming book What Makes Us Social and what she’s learned from a long career at the forefront of autism and dyslexia research.

  4. Madeline Lancaster awarded 2021 Vallee Scholarship

    The biologist is recognised for her work on cerebral organoids or ‘mini-brains’, grown from human pluripotent stem cells and used to model human brain development.

  5. Jane Hillston and Julie Welburn awarded medals by the Royal Society of Edinburgh

    The AcademiaNet members received their medals for outstanding work in computer science and cell biology, respectively.

Academia Net