If the narrative of the transatlantic community were a play, this would surely be the moment of final suspense. We just don’t quite know yet whether it is going to be a tragedy or a comedy.
Both the domestic and foreign politics of the United States have received an unusual amount of attention in the German media during the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. While the reason is hardly mysterious, it is difficult to point to the exact mechanism of such a cluster of coverage. The tone, however, has been quite clear to anyone listening. A recent Harvard study claims for example, that the coverage by the German TV station ARD has featured negative judgments of Donald Trump in 98 percent of their opinion pieces. While this study has been heavily criticized for its methodology, this message is apparent elsewhere, too. According to the research facility Foschungsgruppe Wahlen in June 2017, an overwhelming 69 percent of Germans interpret the relations between Germany and the US in a primarily negative way, in contrast to 14 percent in October 2016. Many of the thriving institutions of transatlantic coverage have been questioned not only by the German public. The suspension of the Paris Climate Accord and the critique towards other NATO members uttered by the US have clearly led to a change in tone on international parquet.
So how do we start a narrative from a point of newly found distrust and disrupted continuity of the historical transatlantic relationship? The answer could be found in the function of a narrative itself – to structure new experiences and to predict future moves. If governments don’t provide that structure of trust, other institutions might be able to do so. However much this sounds like a cry for more Global Governance, turning a blind eye on the current rise of national-centrism might be ignoring the problem altogether. The defunding of United Nations institutions like the UN Women’s Health Services and UN Population Fund alone is a setback for the enterprise of Global Governance as a political directory. In terms of narrative structure, this is also not to be underestimated. The steady rise of structures of Global Governance was not only an academic hypothesis, it was also a promise – one that has left many disappointed, now that cooperation has seemingly taken a hit.
However, the concept of Global Government leaves us with something else: academic scholarship on legitimacy. The reaction of German citizens and the German media might indicate a delegitimization of the transatlantic partnership and its narrative in stock at the moment. If legitimacy from governmental cooperation is drowned, new forms have to replace them to sustain the Atlantic partnership. The basis is already in place: German solidarity protests for the Women’s March have shown the close connection German political movements share with their US American counterparts, equally so the protests under the banner of the March for Science. The US cities that pledged to stand by the Paris Climate Agreement are another example, international yet another. If we think of output legitimacy in this setting, we would think of accomplishments achieved by non-governmental Atlantic partnerships in areas of common values, as embodied by the protests in the Woman’s March. If we consider of participatory legitimacy, the participation in values relevant to the partnership are of interest.
To change the focus of discourse from negotiations between governments to values held by citizens would be part of constructing this new narrative. Establishing this power of legitimacy as a part of the liberal democracy, where citizens directly and in contact with each other determine the values of partnership, either along or even in spite of allegiances between countries. To view the Atlantic enterprise as a project in the hands of citizens would also dispose the sense of elitism and embrace the reality of Atlantic cooperation not as a set of fixed norms, but as the reality of interchanging projects. It would be the story of shared values and of shared initiatives, its legitimacy established in bottom-up fashion. It would embrace a stable partnership less tightly connected to governments, better equipped to long-term resolutions. Picking up the new form of legitimacy implies continuing with the promises of Global Governance. It is not a new concept, but an indispensable one in times like these. The moment of final suspense holds new conflict, and sometimes, new orientation. Only time will tell if the last act will be watched in tears or laughter.