While many older Americans and Germans retain fond memories of the Marshall Plan, which helped turn the former foes into allies and partners, the value of transatlantic relations is no longer as obvious to younger generations in both countries. In light of shifts on the world stage, namely the Trump Presidency and the proliferation of populist movements, the partnership between Germany and the US needs a new foundation on which to move forward. The time to establish such a new foundation is now, as Germany seems to recognize the need to take on responsibility to uphold the liberal order, while the US is torn between engagement and isolationism.
1. Speaking Up for Democracy: Championing Unity in Diversity
The rise of populist parties threatens to undermine the system of democracies at the same time that outside actors weaponize democratic freedoms in an attempt to delegitimize and discredit the liberal order. The US and Germany should more clearly articulate the function and benefits of democratic states, including their role in guaranteeing the rule of law and the provision of public goods, and the positive impact on citizens’ lives. Political leaders should also listen to citizens who feel their interests have been ignored in the process of globalization, and the concerns and lives of ordinary citizens should (again) feature prominently on the transatlantic agenda.
This re-focusing on citizens should be done in tandem with recognizing the diversity in both societies and the need to make transatlantic programs and institutions more inclusive. Both countries should reaffirm their commitment to exchange programs and ensure that these programs are accessible to people from different backgrounds. Similarly, future free trade deals should not only confer access to multinational businesses (while the interests of consumers and workers are addressed merely in the form of safeguarding reservations), but also include binding commitments and protections that are in the general population’s interest. Moving forward, it is essential for politicians to find unifying themes in highly diverse societies.
Such action must go hand in hand with a reminder of the responsibility of democracy. Civic participation has been declining in both the US and Germany, and both governments should strive to engage more with their citizens, to ensure that government is open and responsive, and to create public spaces for engagement and debate. Governments should also consider the role of online spaces in public debate, particularly the potential for online debate to both bring together diverse groups but also reinforcing existing echo chambers and circulate potentially misleading information. Policymakers in Germany and the US should convene stakeholder groups that include representatives from the media and technology companies to discuss how to address the dual nature of these spaces.
2. Champion Transatlantic Institutions and Common Values
To sustain the liberal order, it is imperative that the partners reaffirm and live by their commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law. With regard to conflicts, appeals to international law and red lines will only be credible as long as the partners lead by example. While this is complicated by the current US administration’s disregard for multilateralism and penchant for “deals”, the German government as well as transatlantic politicians, officials, civil society leaders and businesses with a commitment to the alliance and its underpinning values should double down on their relationships to protect and sustain the integrity of transatlantic institutions. This includes multinational corporations operating in both countries, as many of these countries have an interest in continued free trade, positive political relations, and tolerance and pluralism.
3. Reinvigorate Democratic Debate and Double Down on Education Policy
In a world of social media bubbles and false equivalencies spread by some news agencies, informed and analytical citizens are critical for democratic societies. Policymakers should strive to equip people with the intellectual capacity and practical knowledge to spot and expose false narratives in news and politics, while being aware of and acknowledging different perceptions and perspectives. Transatlantic leaders should work towards building an education system that prepares citizens to navigate the vast media landscape, ideally in multiple languages.
Doing so will require a recommitment and reinvigoration of education policy on both sides to prepare citizens for the changing global political, economic, and technological landscape. In addition to funding exchange programs (through the DAAD, State Department, etc.), the transatlantic partners should aim to establish institutionalized cooperation in education. Both countries are known for quality education and highly skilled workforces, and improving the education systems is in both countries’ interests. In the digital age with labor more fluid than ever, Germany and the US should exchange best practices in the education space to facilitate progress in both countries. Germany is renowned for its vocational education programs, while the US is known for high quality higher education and success in cultivating entrepreneurship and innovation in the digital economy. Both countries could work together to improve their systems and draw on one another’s strengths.
Michael Blank is a PhD in law candidate at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and works for a law firm in Berlin.
Tim Fingerhut is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris and interns with the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, with a focus on Eastern Europe and migration.
Aylin Matlé is working towards her PhD on the role of the US in NATO during the Obama presidency.
John-Markus Maddaloni is an Italian-American, who has lived his entire life in Germany and is studying German law at the Universität des Saarlandes.
Lutz-Peter Hennies is a former Fulbright student in New York City with an academic background in philosophy and economics and work experience in management consulting.
Juan Jose Pedroza is an attorney with interests in energy and environmental policy and former fellow with the German Bundestag.
Ellen Scholl works on the intersection of energy and foreign policy at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and is a former Robert Bosch Fellow.
Nora Schröder is a PhD candidate currently working at the department of peace and conflict studies at the University of Augsburg.