With the revelation of the NSA intelligence collection efforts in Germany, the general trust in transatlantic relations by Germans was severely harmed. Strong emotions among politicians and the broader society were created by this kind of action since it evoked comparisons to the behavior by the Stasi in Eastern Germany. The consequences of the events and revelations surrounding global surveillance practices became increasingly connected with the trustworthiness of the United States in general by many in the German broader public.
Having regarded the United States for a long time as a reliable ally, moral compass or the “City on the hill” during the times of the Cold War and the US unipolar moment, trust has eroded ever since the political differences on the U.S. invasion of Iraq and even more so with the surveillance revelations. Furthermore, recent developments regarding the U.S. political leadership have further increased tension and lowered the level of mutual trust, represented in recent polling data showing a record-low.
However, I would like to argue why this might provide not only leaders, but especially the civil society of both sides of the Atlantic with a possibility of a different and new perspective. The relationship between the U.S. and Germany has changed from unquestioning admiration and reliance by one side to an eye-level discussion between two political and economic powerhouses on either side of the Atlantic. Instead of a little sister, Germany has become an adult in many respects, but especially in topics with transatlantic and global focus: security, trade and economy, climate change or migration. The U.S. has benevolently promoted and accepted this development, and justifiably asks its German partner now to further engage and take over more responsibilities on a regional and global level.
With a changed landscape in terms of the transatlantic relationship, it is time for a re-assessment of the basic concepts of transatlantic relations in the 21st century. Regarding the developments, there is the unique opportunity to establish a relationship based on a so-called “common core” of norms and standards in transatlantic relations in the 21st century.
The strategic answer for the hook of transatlantic relations today is a “principle-based” or “norm-based” partnership, not one calculating simply the economic or security benefits of cooperation, but including a measure of immaterial goods, such as intersubjectively shared beliefs in unalienable rights as a founding norm of our societies, the acceptance and adherence to the rule of law as well as international and human rights, the idea of a liberal democracy with minority rights and the right to free speech as well as overall stability and predictability in the respective political and economic arenas.
Such a partnership, which brings shared beliefs and norms to the foreground is not only an essential approach for the economic and political leadership, but can spread among the civil societies on both sides of the Atlantic. It can thus serve to stabilize the relationship bottom-up and enable the cooperation of many on individual level, too. It is, hence, in a way independent from the specific leadership figures, but can be sustained by the broader society itself.
Furthermore, the promotion of shared values and concepts allows the political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic to debate and maybe even disagree on (hot) topics while not straining the fundament of common ideas and norms.
Another reason for an approach to actively promote common values as a strategy in transatlantic relations is the ability to include a big variety of stakeholders. In a world connected by various flows of information on different levels, exchange between individuals, partner-cities, communal-level politicians, businesses and universities can strengthen the focus on shared beliefs and thus strengthen the durability of transatlantic relations. Cultural initiatives by embassies, clerical or cultural institutions, tourism and education of the history of a strong and reliable alliance can further promote the strategic importance of a stable and positive partnership.
The above mentioned strategic hook therefore requires a more forceful promotion of the historical and common values mentioned before. They should be put in a light as to be perceived as an unquestionable basis, not only among political elites but also among citizens. It must be made clear to many critics that the U.S. and Germany share far more common standards than many other players internationally, such as China or Russia. Especially the rule of law, overall predictability of political developments and safety of mutual foreign direct investments are factors of high importance in this regard. Although benefits via trade may also be realized with countries that do not share the common core of values and norms with Germany and the U.S., the downsides become vivid as soon as diplomacy has to cope with nationals put in political prison, economic sanctions hurting trade and investments or human rights being disregarded.
Therefore, the transatlantic society needs to be enabled to recognize and value (again) shared norms in order not to leave the shape of the transatlantic relationship to the conduct by its political elites and the level of simple economic gain.