Ladies and gentlemen,
“I need not tell you [.] that the world situation is very serious. […] I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation.”
I wish I could start my remarks on a more optimistic note. A lot has happened in the 70 years since George C. Marshall gave his famous speech at Harvard University that came to be known as the Marshall Plan. Today, his words are as true as ever. As our Atlantic Action Plan outlined, today’s complexities are not limited to one policy area, one location or one set of actors. Instead, challenges in trade, education, energy, environment, security, migration and technology are closely linked and interdependent. They affect us on both sides of the Atlantic. They affect us globally. It is obvious that “America first”, “priorité nationale” or however you want to call the recent nationalist surge is not going to solve our problems.
What worries me deeply is the level to which emotion and messaging are determining how policy debates play out in public and in the (social) media. The level of distrust in institutions and fellow citizens, the degree to which fear, uncertainty and plain anger have affected our politics and even national elections is unsettling to me. It adds another layer of complexity to an already complex situation. The question is: What holds our societies together? How can we counter narratives of isolation?
I have worked in the German non-profit sector for almost three years, focusing on international relations. What I have come to realize is that at each conference I attend and at each event I take part in I am surrounded by dedicated ‘transatlanticists’. That is comforting and inspiring, but does preaching to the choir really give us that extra boost of energy that we need in order to reinvigorate transatlantic relations?
Don’t get me wrong. We need you, we need decision makers and leaders who believe in the importance of transatlantic relations and who are willing to engage others. Fortunately, ties between the German and U.S. government are still close – despite recent disagreements. What is unprecedented though is the level of unpredictability when it comes to American priorities and interests – a third layer of complexity. That is why I am convinced that a new transatlantic narrative cannot be based on policy matters and decision makers alone. We need to engage more stakeholders.
A recent Deutschlandtrend survey showed that only 21 percent of Germans think that the U.S. is a trustworthy partner. Certainly, a lot of that can be attested to President Trump’s unpopularity with most Germans. I am sure though that, looking ahead, it will be essential to find ways to engage people who are not usually part of transatlantic debates. We need to broaden the foundation of transatlantic cooperation and we need to lay the groundwork for open societies. That is why I am proposing five steps to win new allies and to increase public support for a transatlantic agenda.
First, get out of your comfort zone. Look beyond Berlin and Washington, DC, beyond politics and academia, beyond roundtable discussions, keynotes and conferences. Go to towns and cities in the U.S. and Germany where people don’t usually have access to transatlantic debates. Be willing to take risks and to try out new formats like town halls or culture festivals. Reach out to diverse audiences and be willing to accept different opinions.
Second, listen. Finding new stakeholders means listening to people. We cannot include new voices in a conversation, if we don’t understand their beliefs and concerns. This can be the mayor of a small midwestern town or a high school student in Sachsen. Don’t enter conversations with an agenda, but try an open mind and a blank page of paper instead.
Third, be more specific. Talking about abstract benefits of transatlantic exchange and our shared values is not enough anymore. Cater events and topics to people’s interests to get their attention. Young people in Germany have a huge interest in American popular culture, young Americans are fascinated by Berlin. Use that interest. Have professionals share best practices from their fields – be it the latest tech start-up, urban planning innovations or vocational training programs. You cannot create a more political transatlantic civil society without creating that initial spark, that initial momentum for bilateral cooperation, first.
Fourth, find strong partners. In order to create broad public support for and interest in transatlantic relations, you need cooperation across the public, private, and non-profit sectors. In times when trust in “elites” is low, non-profits can be important honest brokers. It is equally important to find partners “on the ground”, small foundations, NGOs and other multipliers that can facilitate conversations with stakeholders.
Fifth, bring people together. In the end, it all comes down to personal interactions – be it through exchange programs, study tours or virtually through online platforms. This is the best way to counter stereotypes and prejudices on both sides.
The wonderful thing about an action plan is that it makes things sound incredibly easy. I don’t want to curb your or my enthusiasm, but it is not that simple and it is going to take time and work. But let me finish by saying that…
… I want to invest that time.
… I want to step outside my bubble and listen.
… I want to strengthen a network of people with the same passion for transatlantic dialogue.
… I want to bring more people into the conversation.
In complex societies like ours there is not just one narrative of transatlantic cooperation. There are multiple narratives and multiple stories to tell. My narrative is that of inclusion and diversity. What is yours?