On November 8, 2016 Donald Trump was elected the President of the United States. Mr. Trump’s election is a clear warning sign for deteriorating transatlantic relations: Not only has he repeatedly transgressed against fundamental values of freedom and democracy shared on both sides of the Atlantic in his campaign speeches; he has also argued for a new American Isolationism, casting doubt on NATO’s continued functioning and the prospects of closer cooperation in trade.
People voted for Mr. Trump for a variety of reasons, including dissatisfaction with the political elites and isolationism in trade and society. Yet, beyond the specific reasons for his triumph, there is one demographic among which he was a clear winner: a group of white, male rural voters without a college degree above the age of 45 (I’m simplifying, of course). This demographic was arguably lured in voting for him because his fear-mongering, aggressive populist rhetoric was able to convince his voters that America was better off by itself.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK referendum on EU membership preceded this election. What the two votes had in common was strikingly that, again, voters fell into the same demographic categories and voiced their dissent with the political elites. The UK referendum is representative of many other Eurosceptic social currents and political movements in the rest of Europe.
The big question is: When voters desire isolationism and are dissatisfied with the political elites – how could cooperation be possible? Such cooperation requires a certain degree of openness towards other cultures and, so far, has often taken the form of cooperation between elites. In this essay I lay out what I believe to be the tenets of cooperation between the peoples of the United States and Europe.
If the people distrust the elites, the last thing that will work is to impose cooperation. Instead, the question needs to be: What makes people want more cooperation? To answer this question, I introspect to identify what has made me an avid believer in Europe and Americanophile. I found two ways that shaped my view on this issue:
The first thing that increased the allure of America (and later of Europe) were engaging stories about striking but interesting differences, technological or cultural advances and the idea that certain features of life, say the climate, were just better over there. So, for me a positive attitude towards transatlantic relations started in stories, which were told by friends and through movies and books.
The second thing that maintained and increased my interest in the US was a student exchange, numerous visits as well as countless conversations I had with my host family and friends. In other words, constructive engagement and the forging of relationships by being physically present in a community. Today, most communication takes place virtually, precluding nonverbal subtleties arising from physical proximity which would have the potential to increase the likelihood of sympathy and common ground. This is, why visits of actual people are so important and cannot be fully replaced by chatrooms and forums.
Now, I am not the demographic that is likely to express its frustration with “globalism” and supports isolationism. Recall that the most pressing demographic group includes white, male rural voters above the age of 45. The challenge is to mainstream the attractors I outlined above so that they apply to this demographic.
In order to tackle the challenge outlined above, I propose to create a subsidized work exchange program, similar to the EU’s Erasmus student exchange programs, that allow workers to visit Europe and vice versa. Since Trump voters have ostensibly fallen victim to populism, the right reaction must be a sort of realism, to show people what the other side of the big pond is really like.
The program could be funded and carried out in several ways one of which I outline here: One company or government agency – an exchange organization for short – could take care of the logistics and provide pre-departure training. This could probably be done by co-opting student exchange organizations that have years of experience in this field. The employing firm of the potential visitor to Europe could apply to such a program and with the help of the facilitating firm be sent to a European country. Should the company have a branch in Europe, the visitor could inspect it and thus learn about local working conditions and cultural customs. With support from the exchange organization, the overseas visitor could work in a group together with the local employees. Depending on the language skills, they might be able to start a conversation or, if they work in similar fields, they might solve a problem using the combined sets of skills from both countries.
Such a scheme sounds of course familiar to academics and executive white collar workers. But in factory working jobs or other jobs requiring few technical skills, it is virtually unheard-of. One objection might be: How should it be possible to enroll such vast numbers of people in this program. This is not what I have in mind, however. Network theory posits that the central node in a system can have significant effects on a large number of actors in the network. Assuming that “exchange employees” are such central nodes because they are the most daring to apply for such a program, they could have a far-reaching effect on many actors in their network.
I hope to have shown, how a retreat to isolationism is a current social trend particularly common in a certain demographic group, which is detrimental to US-European relations. I moved on to argue how my previous experiences as an exchange student and my language training make me uphold such relations today. Based on this, I formulated the proposal to introduce an exchange scheme for people on both sides of the Atlantic who have never travelled across it and for whom there does not seem to be a reason to do so. This scheme, which foresees the exchange of workers without a college degree, will sway attitudes by making people associate something positive with the other continent. Ideally, similar schemes would address each demographic group and especially seniors who have turned out to be in favor of both Trump and Brexit.