Writing this article is an anxious exercise, as the relationship between the United States and Europe appears precariously situated today, and each day seems to strain that relationship further. The world that called this partnership into existence after WWII is not the same that we find ourselves in today. Many in the West, from the United States and United Kingdom to France and Germany see the partnership and European experiment as a costly and unnecessary burden.
The reasons for this are difficult to determine, some see it as a decline in democratic and liberal values, others see it as a strain in the economic fortunes of states. The economic challenges facing the United States present a reasonable argument for a retreat from the global stage, and it is a shortsighted response to a global challenge. However, there is a significant identity feature that is largely ignored in these debates, however it is tied to the economic arguments.
Globalism and multiculturalism have created new winners and losers in society. And recently, especially from an American perspective, wages are not growing, and the global order does not appear to be improving our daily lives. After WWII, the United States became an indispensable nation. A country of makers, creators, builders, innovators, and exporters. The American role in rebuilding Europe after WWII in the Marshall Plan and later trade agreements benefited the United States immensely, and the peace characterized by a stable Europe has been one of the greatest strategic interests of the United States. The American identity entangled with indispensability.
However, the world is facing new challenges that are not easily resolved. The security issues have changed from confronting other states to insurgencies in failed states. The economic boom after the war has given way to stagnant wages and a fear that our children will not be better off than we are, the optimism of a peaceful future has soured. The United States, Germany, and other states are also experiencing significant demographic shifts. Older European descendants in the United States are a shrinking percentage of the population as the country becomes more diverse. The same is happening in Germany, calling into question what it means to be a German or an American. Is it the blood of our birth as an ethnic nationalism, or is it the shared sense of culture? This will be a long challenge that no country has resolved, yet it is significant in how we view ourselves and our role on the world stage.
When the tide is high, it is easy to see the benefits of global cooperation, yet when the economy suffers, when work does not create better wages, when immigrants enter workplaces while workers are laid off, cooperation loses its appeal. The identities of people are challenged.
Realizing the value of the economic partnerships, the security sharing, and the cultural dialogues with other states is hard to accomplish when people are struggling at home. Wage growth at home is important, but so will be cultural exchanges and understanding. This is easier said than done, as the United States has always had serious historical challenges with immigration and integration, and Germany is experiencing unique challenges in the refugee crisis.
Modernizing the relationship is not going to be easy, as the world that created the order has changed and become more ambiguous and interconnected. Retreating from this new world will not solve the problems. Creating a system that makes more winners will likely strengthen the relationship, but making that world a reality will be difficult to achieve.