It's the State of our Democracy, Stupid! Why Transatlantic Relations are in Trouble
The transatlantic relationship is in trouble mainly because both the US and Germany struggle with domestic political problems. This is evident particularly in light of the current populism – more and more people do not feel represented any longer by political elites. In order to revitalize transatlantic relations, domestic homework needs to be done first. This is a summarized and updated version of a Key Note at the Harvard Council Forum, Soho-Haus Berlin, October 22, 2016.
It is commonplace to say that transatlantic relations are in troubled water. There are good reasons:
First, there is the media mismatch. FOX news and similar media channels barely cover international news, and if so, there is a clear tendency to report on negative news such as crime and terrorism, particularly by immigrants.
Second, there are the changing national interests, as Obama's "pivot to Asia" has signaled. It remains to be seen whether the American shift towards the Pacific will continue under the erratic President Trump.
Third, there are the lost personal ties. Yesterday, we talked about the 22 million Germans and Americans who had connections via American soldiers stationed here. But these personal relationships were an exception in history. It's not easy to repeat the building of trust on this scale.
These days, America is no longer the number one spot for Germany's foreign exchange programs and American students today think of Beijing rather than Berlin, Hamburg or Munich.
While all the arguments that support the thesis of a troubled relationship are compelling, the counter-argument still seems stronger: In stable democracies that share basic common interests and values, the current tensions should not lead to a fundamental erosion of the relationship.
Moreover, many institutionalized ties still exist – from Atlantik Brücke to the German Marshall Fund. Our governments and parliamentarians still work together well. It is not a disaster.
Thus, against all headwinds, there is good reason to rely on our common history and the 60 year-old narrative as a solid basis. After World War II, the US offered us indispensable support on our successful way towards a stable democracy and flourishing economy. No doubt, this narrative has to be renewed.
And yes, the relationship is somewhat exhausted, but the trouble exists mainly on a political and atmospheric level. I would argue that this is the case because our democracies are in trouble. They have probably never been more unstable in decades. Thus, the political systems of the US and the EU have to be revitalized. The EU would benefit, for instance, from a multi-speed approach and increased subsidiarity, as these efforts towards decentralization would strengthen flexibility. The US, in turn, faces the challenge to restore faith in the state and the political process, now that Donald Trump has busted illusions that those institutions could be taken for granted. My point is: Transatlantic trouble has less to do with our relationship but a lot with the condition of our Western democracies.
The single most important threat to transatlantic relations is what has been labeled anti-elite or anti-establishment resentments. They have to be taken more seriously.
For the first time in history, both parties in the US presidential election campaign turned their back on the ideals of free and open markets. Donald Trump openly advocated "America First" and fiercely criticized free trade agreements, although as a business man, he should know better. And even Hillary Clinton only half-heartedly supported TTIP in the infamously failed attempt not to say openly what she really believes. Whenever this is the case in politics, then something is wrong. Strikingly, this turnaround occurred at a time when similar tendencies have become evident in Europe.
In Germany, a very noisy minority – highly professionally organized via internet – was able to dominate the public discourse on TTIP. Due to numerous campaigns, the German industry was forced into the defense.
The bedrock of society, "the middle", finds itself on the sidelines in so many issues - apolitical and speechless.
Obviously, the public mood has narrowed the room for maneuver of the political elites considerably. This is a limitation of our foreign policy in general and should not be underestimated.
Particularly if authoritarian governments as in Russia and Turkey can act almost independently from their public.
Trump in the US and Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, strong right wing populists in Hungary and Poland and the AfD in Germany are symptoms of the anti-establishment development.
Particularly in the US there is a somewhat darker sub-text to Trump's support: Racism, sexism, nationalism, islamophobia, anti-semitism.
It seems we have entered an era of reaction and revanche.
This might have a chance of reasserting itself. Too many people feel left behind.
This holds true particularly for male white workers. 20 to 30 years ago, they were able to feed their families. Today they often have to take on two to three jobs to make ends meet.
Therefore, we need a psychological view on the frustrations of those white workers who have declined on the social ladder – including their articulation in racial prejudice. Trump exploits these hurt feelings and growing resentments – he promises to make America great again by pointing to the "good old days". It comes as no surprise that this is appealing to many.
Whether Trump can deliver on his promises is highly questionable. In the long run, the cure against the widespread resentment can only lie in incorporating those who feel left behind into the industries of the future – and not in a return to coal mining. Thus, in order for society to remain cohesive, we need to make modernization inclusive and counter its perception as an existential threat.
Switching to the other side of the Atlantic, we see that German politics faces similar discontent with the consequences of globalization and open societies. The steep rise of the AfD was essentially a reaction to a growing Muslim population, further fueled by the arrogance of the ruling elites in politics and the media. They did not take this phenomenon seriously for a long time. They pushed it to the side. The new guy on the block wanted to have a piece of the cake and the old guys treated him badly and not fairly – a classical power game.
For a long time since the rise of the AfD, both politicians and journalists did not bother about finding good arguments. They concentrated on discrediting the political opponent in a way that displayed a lack of democratic ethos – something they criticized about the AfD. As a result, "those who are left behind" showed their solidarity with those who were neglected by the elites.
The future of the transatlantic relationship heavily depends on how we as Europeans and Americans are able to cope with our internal challenges and distortions. Will we be capable of acting decisively and convincingly?
If governments in the future increasingly lack internal support and are absorbed by clashes along the fault lines of ideology or class, Western democracies become internally unstable and will simply lack the prerequisite for an active foreign policy.
So what can we do to strengthen transatlantic relations? Here are only some elements for a new narrative that should enhance the one that has basically existed for 60 years:
In the first place, Western democracies must do their domestic homework in a comprehensive way. The signs on the wall have to be taken seriously. We need to politicize civil society, particularly the constructive, hard-working middle ground.
And of course we need a new appreciation for party politics because this is where decisions are eventually taken and significant change comes from.
If we as the West are strong, clear, coherent and stable – we will shine from the inside. We have reason to be self-confident: Why do the refugees want to come to us and not to Russia or their Muslim brother nations?
For the West to remain attractive, we need to take care that society as a whole benefits from globalization and not only a few or a diminishing upper-middle class. It is essential for the broad acceptance of open societies and free trade to render advances in this respect equitable and inclusive. Only then can societal cohesion be guaranteed and faith in institutions be restored.
It also becomes clearer that Germans must work on their strategic thinking and geopolitical maturity. For example: We need to stop dreaming and seeing Russia as a partner that can be trusted like our old ally, the United States. We have to recognize attempts to split the West on various levels. Here we need more people who speak up and make it clear that we are highly critical – together with the US – vis-à-vis Russia.
We also need to see the positive things. Transatlantic cooperation in dealing with Russian aggression in Ukraine has been a surprising success story. The West was coherent and coordinated itself well.
Another positive development: You can see clearly in Germany how the refugee crisis has sharpened our democratic instincts and appreciation for our way of life and the rule of law. We began to value our freedom in a new way. It is obvious for everyone now that we cannot take it for granted.
We should further capitalize on existing and trusted relationships, organizations and exchange programs.
Finally, we need to establish new creative ways and instruments for the transatlantic dialog. For twelve years, The Atlantic Initiative has aimed to make a contribution in this context.
How does this look in practice? In order to strengthen the civil society discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, we bring together informed citizens to talk about various issues in a solution-oriented manner without a predetermined agenda.
We provide forums, ideally for future decision-makers from the US and Europe, to develop ideas and present them to policy elites. Our main format, atlantic-community.org, has over 9000 members. Together, this diverse group has written over 50 memorandums that have been provided to government officials.
We have also developed other mechanisms to bring informed citizens closer to the political system. In our newest project, the Atlantic Expedition, we will have 30 Fellows travel to the United States and 30 come to Germany on two separate trips. Together, the Fellows will publish a policy memo aimed at modernizing transatlantic relations and then meet in the US or Germany to present their work and receive feedback from experts. We need these innovative methods and tools that link up elites and ordinary citizens, influence them and transform them into advocates for a strong US-European partnership.
Today, the largest focus of transatlantic interaction lies on exchange for the youth and for political elites. We need to help the next generation of future decision-makers, so called Young Leaders, from a variety of sectors – science, education, culture, etc. – to become fluent in the transatlantic narrative.
So, what is the desired outcome? If only one or two of the participants enter the political system and eventually become an influential, constructive political leader, we have done our job.
We need a transatlantic learning community on the future of democracy
Angela Merkel's often cited word "alternativlos" is rightly seen skeptically by many when it comes to politics. But it is absolutely compelling that "the normative project of the West", as the historian Heinrich August Winkler puts it, is without alternative if we want to advance peace and freedom internationally. We have to do it wisely, however, and not in a paternalistic way.
It is particularly important to reflect on how we bring spirit, emotion and substance to the relationship. The Atlantic Initiative therefore tries to work with new tools, formats and other ideas.
As distant as Americans and Europeans might feel at times, at the end of the day the transatlantic relationship is the most stable international partnership. No other pair of regions or countries has so successfully cooperated both in quantity and quality in their partnership activities. In an increasingly multi-polar world that faces new threats to global stability, it's critical that the stable alliance between Europe and America, the core democratic regions, stands ready to defend the freedoms and social advances it has fought for.
For this project to succeed it is paramount that we reform and revitalize our national political systems and take care that our societies remain coherent. Western democracies cannot afford to leave considerable societal segments behind. In this process the transatlantic community should learn from each other.
Dr. Johannes Bohnen is a consultant for political communication (BOHNEN Public Affairs) and founder of the non-profit Atlantic Initiative with its online think tank atlantic-community.org.