Our open societies are under attack. And unfortunately, both from the outside and from within. After the end of history, as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ending Cold War were enthusiastically branded, history did not stop. A short period of peace and stability – at least in the Western Hemisphere – ended faster than many imagined. International terrorism, civil wars and migration are putting pressure on our societies from the outside, while the rising degree of economic and social interconnection increases our vulnerability. This all comes at a time when the enormous positive cultural changes of the last decades nevertheless threaten to overwhelm and alienate some parts of our population. Our open societies are already endangered by this development – it could destroy them from within. And on top, digital technologies are increasing the speed of economic and cultural changes as well as our connectivity and vulnerability.
There is no denying it: Our free and prosperous lifestyle faces enormous challenges – on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet instead of facing and overcoming the obstacles together, it seems that the transatlantic spirit and cooperation are dwindling by the hour. Anti-Americanism is getting stronger in Europe, the TTIP negotiations failed and the new US President seems to be more comfortable with dealing with despots and closed societies, than with Europe. If we are to overcome this alienation, we do need to think about how to update the Transatlantic relationship. We need a new story of who we are and why we should cooperate.
Who are we – the “free” West?
Well, after hundreds of years of struggle against kings, despotic governments and of course cultural constraints, it should be clear: We are open societies, meaning democratically ruled countries with guaranteed personal rights and economic freedoms. People can freely choose their jobs, their religion, their life-partners and how they want to express themselves. They can vote their governments out of office and are protected by laws from random or malicious acting state agents. In many ways, the rule of law is a key element of our open societies. It protects individuals from each other and against an overreaching state. It treats everybody the same and demands to be respected and followed by every person.
Open societies under attack
The existence of external threats may be inevitable. As the world gets more connected and closer, terrorists start to act globally. Supply routes can be challenged, as happened by Somalian pirates. And migration may get out of hand, as the level of wealth, freedom and security in some countries becomes apparent to people living in worse circumstances. All of this is not surprising, yet dealing with these external menaces calls for a closer cooperation between the US and Europe by itself.
This need gets even stronger when looking at the internal threats. There are of course also home-grown terrorists, but the real internal dangers for our open societies run deeper. A growing portion of our populations – both in the US and in Europe – are alienated by the degree of our economic and cultural openness. As jobs shift between sectors and countries or simply change, the feeling of insecurity grows in some social groups. This is apparently strengthened by the profound cultural changes – from migration to the legalization of gay marriage – in the last decades. And, last but not least, the mentioned external threats deepen the feeling of alienation from our governments and societies. A longing for authoritarian strong leaders in the style of Putin follows, as well as a longing for radical solutions. The effects of this development lead to the election of Trump and to the good election results of Marine Le Pen in the first round of the presidential elections in France. Great Britain’s Brexit vote or the election results of the German AfD are further examples.
It´s the rule of law, stupid!
So, to resume: We face the same problem on both sides of the Atlantic. We are under attack from the outside, while facing a growing contempt for our societies from within. Overcoming these obstacles together is an obvious answer, at least to the first part of the problem. Controlling terrorism, dealing with civil wars and fostering worldwide stability are tasks for Europe and the US. Neither has the hard and soft power to achieve them alone. So focusing our Transatlantic partnership yet again on security issues makes practical sense.
It may also be the answer to reviving the transatlantic spirit and to battle the growing alienation from openness and freedom. We will not be able to stop digitization. We should not halt or reverse the cultural progress – this would compromise the very core of our openness. So, we should at least focus on eliminating the third source of the progressing alienation: concerns with the security situation. Focusing on security is not only compatible with our open lifestyle. It is in a way a definitive part of open societies, if security policy is understood as upholding and defending the rule of law – the very core of our open and free societies.
A fairly optimistic conclusion
Even though transatlantic relations are not in a good shape, the future may be brighter. Europe at least understands the need to develop its own capacities in dealing with security threats. It is also working on better cooperation on security issues – a potential base for the future deepening of US and European cooperation on security issues. The US may realize after trying an isolated approach for the next one or two years, that it needs partners now more then ever. So even though transatlantic cooperation faces some difficult years, a successful revival may lie ahead. Concentrating on security issues and the enforcement of the rule of law may be an important element in achieving this revival.