Existing movements for the promotion of transatlatism perpetuate existing contacts and conceptions of elite groups while abandoning increasingly relevant strata of the society. The political answer to the worsening relation between Europeans and Americans should be more inclusive and address those who lack transatlantic contacts and personal relations. A bottom-up approach is expected to create a new momentum for partnership in the medium term.
With the vote in favor of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, established approaches in Political Sciences failed, and journalists as well as scholars were shocked by the number of people that put into action the threats they had been pronouncing for years. As of now, populist and isolationist parties, count France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, are largely benefitting from these recent events. Across the Atlantic, more and more people, originating from socio-economically diverse backgrounds, cast their ballots for nation-statism and against the so-called established political classes.
In this essay, I will argue that the rise of populism and anti-liberalism will not leave transatlantic relations unaffected and will require a modification of the way transatlantic contacts are promoted.
It has been pointed out by various observers that Anti-Americanism is on the rise in Europe: An increasing portion of Germans, for example, holds strong prejudices against Americans, as recent studies suggest. Social scientist Felix Knappertsbusch finds a strong link between rising nationalism, the desire to promote one’s own self-picture and this “performative Anti-Americanism”. It is, thus, justified to fear that transatlantic community building is failing: Europeans increasingly identify themselves with their respective national states as well as with a common European culture, whereas US-Americans, despite having a positive attitude towards Europe, strongly adhere to their national identity (see here).
The current weakness in transatlantic relations is profoundly connected to the perception of the Atlantic community as an elitist project. Quite a concerning example for this perception is an analysis by Tobias Bunde who, when debating the existence of a transatlantic collective identity, refers only to the Munich Security Conference as a “meeting of the transatlantic family”, neglecting largely inter-society relations. Even more alarming is the fact that many efforts to promote transatlantic relations via organizations and programs like the Atlantik-Brücke are themselves seen in a larger context of conspiracy theories and American domination plots. The crux of the issue is that these attitudes are no more hallmarks of radical groups, but shifting towards the center of the European societies. One tragic climax of this development is the emission of the German comedy show Die Anstalt, pointing out relations between leading opinion shapers and journalists and transatlantic networks.
One prejudice leads to the other, and the lack of communication and inter-society contacts, knowledge and information result in mischief and further weakening of transnational relations.
Having laid out the nature and seriousness of the problem, we are in need to develop strategies to address the issues faced. As the President of the United States, Barack Obama, and the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, put it in a common editorial for WirtschaftsWoche, “the basis (…) is often the personal contact between our citizens”.
It can be argued that, despite continued efforts of political leaders to forge stronger transatlantic relations, it is the people that determine the nature of transatlantic relations in the long term. Only a continued societal effort can sustain and improve political relations, be it between partners or enemies.
Starting from this premise, all approaches should focus on addressing more strata of the society and being more inclusive than existing programs. A reevaluation of these programs, analyzing the socio-economic backgrounds of those benefitting from the initiatives, is, thus, recommended to develop more inclusive approaches.
Unfortunately, huge parts of US-European foundations explicitly and implicitly target privileged members and groups of the society. Such, the Young Leaders seminars require high personal commitment, the Fulbright scholarships outstanding academic performances. These criteria are highly correlated with superior socio-economic backgrounds.
In order to address the society as a whole with all its underprivileged groups, the example of the European Union can serve as model for creating a sense of belonging together.
For example, despite the tourism flows across the Atlantic, obtaining a Visa remains a complicated bureaucratic formality, and its abolition can further augment travelling to the USA and to the European Union.
Another way to bring our societies close together is to increase the mobility of the working class through the recognition of graduation and apprenticeship certificates. Facilitating the movement of people who are flexible to find new professional opportunities across the ocean will not only create inter-society relations, but also polish the image of the partner as a possible working place.
Finally, it is the American and European youth that is the most crucial actor for the creation of a transatlantic spirit. Fulbright and Atlantikbrücke can surely be very proud of the relations they already created. But we must sustain efforts to extend these programs in a way that they reach a larger portion of young people. I suggest two concrete measures in this aim: Firstly, the instauration of a US-European ERASMUS, making studying in the partner country much easier for every student. Secondly, since students themselves already belong to privileged classes, an equivalent should be created for apprenticeships, who should benefit from equal chances concerning transatlantic opportunities.
Populism poses serious threats to transatlantic relations, as isolationism and nationalism are promoted and stereotypes reproduced. Nevertheless, today’s populist movements give us the chance to positively the transatlantic relations by making them more understandable, inclusive and transparent. In the end, inter-society relations should transform into political will and action.