The transatlantic partnership, despite recent setbacks remains the most vital relationship for the Western countries on both sides of the Atlantic and the central column of the West’s stability and significance in the modern globalized world. This essay aims at presenting some recommendations on how to reshape the narrative of this cooperation and how to meet modern challenges by telling the story in an effective way.
The special partnership between the countries of the EU and the US has been under pressure in recent months and years. Political actors and groups on both sides of the isle have increasingly used Othering of their partners to sell their respective agenda. This became very visual in the complicated and ultimately disastrous TTIP discussion, which saw a significant rise in anti-americanism in the EU. The presidency of Donald J. Trump can certainly be seen as another caesura in this development. Flanked by the ongoing and at times bizarre coverage of the refugee crisis in Europe by several American news outlets, this development was often exploited to promote a stronger anti-immigration stand back home in the US. In the process Europe was presented almost like a destabilized world region, its liberalism as madness. On the other hand, the American position was also used by some EU leaders as an Other to promote the “Willkommenskultur”. These developments are worrisome, since they undermine empathy. It has to be a vital interest for anyone engaged in strengthening the transatlantic partnership to keep aspects of this Othering from becoming a constituting factor in the self-image of the people. Here are some suggestions on how to go about it.
It has to be acknowledged by the political actors that the well-advanced integration of the European Union both in cultural and political terms has rendered the post-WW2 narrative obsolete. Europe is no longer at risk to tear itself apart once more but is on the contrary moving more and more towards becoming a significant global player in its own rights, building military capacities and engaging in international diplomacy in this way. Rather than taking this to be a challenge to the US, and its foreign policy, however, a new narrative must foremost focus on, first, presenting the two sides as equals, competing with each other in a healthy way to bring forth the best in both.
Second, this frame has to be supported and filled with elements reminding the peoples of the West of what connects them. Our shared and highly entwined history has lead to a cultural legacy that provides us with very comparable ideals, cultural values, ideas of proper government and socialization. Countless individual fates, exchanges and stories have shaped our continents; have brought forth innovation, progress and prosperity. It is this rich history that any future campaign should draw from in order to inspire people. Many of Americas’s most cherished authors like Thoreau, Emmerson and Whitman were directly inspired by European ones; the French revolution was in turn inspired by the American Declaration of Independence. The fast rebuilding of Germany would have been as unthinkable without the Marshall Plan as modern culture in Europe without American music and television, which themselves developed from mostly European roots. To make these ties and interconnections more visible is essential.
The question remains, why current actions do not achieve the aim to keep the two sides from drifting apart, although they have so much in common. First of all, it has to be acknowledged that there are numerous initiatives both on a bilateral and US-EU level which already work very hard in this field. They present the shared heritage in museum exhibitions, exchanges, intercultural meetings and journals. However, their supporters, as well as, the political actors need to understand that the world has changed due to an ever increasing digitalization, which bears vast potential and presents new challenges. The internet and social media have massively gained importance in how individuals socialize and how they make up their mind both about the world and themselves. Amidst an abundance of information, channels and ways of communication unbound by time and geographical limitations, however, sociologists note an almost paradoxical development: The tendency of the individual to retreat into coherent narrative frames and media providing them with just that. Divergent information is, therefore, often disregarded. Social media contrary to widespread beliefs does not automatically solve this issue through better connecting people on both sides, but rather worsens an already messy situation through its operating modes of tailored information. This not only increases the threat of possibly harmful stereotypes but, also, hinders a true understanding of the other. Moreover, it potentially renders this strategic ground to actors and organizations, which, with the right funds and a decent understanding of the mechanisms of modern communication could truly wreak havoc inside these vital ties and slowly, perhaps through fake news erode the roots of a connecting sense of self in the West.
To counter this, political actors need to come together and implement initiatives to support organizations working on maintaining these good relationships. They need to sensitize and provide them with sufficient technical support and expertise on how to deal with these new circumstances, in order for them to achieve their goals. Second, the political actors have to work out initiatives to emotionalize the public image of the transatlantic partnership with positive connotations. Third, both new media and positive connotations must be used by and incorporated into the education programs. One example where this should be easily achieved is Germany. Such a move would address several attributes which already are at the core curriculum for many schools. Among these are the ability to change perspective, internet expertise and intercultural competence. Platforms and virtual options for meeting and debating both in- and outside of social media would be a fitting training ground for all these skills and a very necessary step towards regaining control of this vital strategic position.