by Thomas Hanley, Johanna Rudorf, Amy Jo Weaver, and Dr. Anna K. Stahl
The following text depicts that transatlantic relations rely on a post-World War II narrative written by and serving only a limited number of elites, thereby excluding major parts of the population on both sides of the Atlantic from the debate. The authors hence argue that a new transatlantic narrative based on the four elements of Depth, Diversity, Durability and Discourse Deliverables needs to be formulated in order to create an open and inclusive debate that will generate sustainable support for and understanding of the importance of transatlantic cooperation.
Narrative is one of the most effective instruments at a country’s disposal to forge a community and unique culture among social groups and individuals. If well-defined, compelling, and authentically true, a narrative can even resonate with audiences across generations and national borders, engender understanding by transmitting shared values, and ultimately generate an exchange of ideas that transcends both physical barriers and deep political cleavages. Given a narrative’s powerful alliance-making potential, it is not surprising that the transatlantic relationship has relied on this storytelling technique to strengthen cooperation since the end of the Second World War.
However, the narrative that was forged post-World War II was written mainly by a limited number of elites, and therefore became a declamation, more than a discussion among lesser known communities and groups. Not surprisingly, this top-down approach excluded many individuals from the debate with just as much stake in the outcome as the political establishment.
Furthermore, on account of today’s turbulent political environment on both sides of the Atlantic, the transatlantic relationship faces great uncertainty, and the current narrative is inadequate to properly mitigate the external threats to cohesion. Just last week, in his address to world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly – the ultimate symbol of international cooperation – US President Donald Trump asserted,
“The Marshall Plan was built on the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free…Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.”
President Trump’s comments reflect a greater growing trend within Europe to emphasize and promote national priorities over international commitments. With the ascent of far-right populist fringe parties that are predicated on the notion of international politics being a zero-sum game and diagnose international alliances impotent, the value and utility of the transatlantic partnership has never been more heavily debated.
Joining this debate, we argue that collective action on shared US-EU problems is our best weapon against further future division within the transatlantic realm. In order to ensure that the transatlantic alliance not only remains an important pillar of US and European foreign policy, but also grows more fruitful and vibrant in the coming years, a new transatlantic narrative needs to be formulated. To be effective, this narrative needs to be underlined by four key elements: 1) Depth, 2) Diversity, 3) Durability, and 4) Discourse Deliverables.
The new narrative should be steered towards an in-depth dialogue. Dialogues are best initiated through common connections, so there should be an emphasis on existing cooperation and shared values across the US and Europe. The transatlantic community has a joint past and a common destiny. Their shared values include democracy, rule of law, international cooperation, and free market economics. The EU and the US are each other’s biggest trading partners, together comprising over 50% of global GDP, and work together in almost every area of security policy to combat internal threats of terrorism, organized crime, and trafficking and strengthen external stability, development, and defense.
In order to add more depth to the existing transatlantic dialogue, concrete questions and topics of substance should be addressed. Since the establishment of transatlantic relations, the international environment has changed significantly. Over the past years, both sides of the Atlantic have faced a series of new issues and challenges that should be included in the new narrative. Future transatlantic cooperation should focus on more tangible topics, including cyber-security, terrorism, data protection, renewable energy and the rise of emerging economies such as China. These issues should be addressed at a technical level, allowing specific experts and authorities from both sides of the Atlantic to share experiences through regular encounters.
The historical narrative was not a diverse one: it was created by bureaucratic elites in Europe’s capitals and Washington, and it was shaped in their image. Today, its stakeholders have diversified, while its narrative has remained stagnant in its post-World War II foundation. A new narrative needs to be representative of all those it seeks to serve. Those advancing the relationship need to move outside their comfort zone, and recognize that the people it seeks to engage are no longer limited to a select few in the great capitals on either side of the Atlantic. The counter-narrative’s most consistent argument has been that the transatlantic relationship works for an elite few. Diversifying the narrative is about challenging this perception. The focus is not on exclusively shifting the narrative, but rather expanding it. In keeping new stakeholders in mind (local leaders, minority groups, rural communities, and migrants), leaders will begin building a narrative that correlates to the composition of those it claims to represent. In choosing an array of language and communication methods that strive to connect with these historically marginalized groups, transatlantic leaders will go a long way in re-establishing the trust that has been lost.
Narratives can help us make sense of a world in which we have to grapple with uneasy historical pasts, live the complex realities of today, and somehow plan for a mercurial future. The evolution of the transatlantic partnership was, and is still, just as unpredictable, and we have to acknowledge its current vulnerabilities to political shocks and external threats. Therefore, the new transatlantic narrative, in its commitment to fully supporting the alliance, needs to be durable enough to withstand the false equivalencies spread today by certain actors throughout a vast and noisy media landscape. One way the US and the EU can achieve such a degree of durability in their new narrative is through a renewed and robust underpinning of shared values and interests and a commitment to working collectively on common problems in specific areas, like security and defense, migration, big data, and trade. This would necessitate a move away from the current nationalistic and inward-facing rhetoric heard on both sides of the Atlantic. If the US and the EU can openly and jointly reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism and the rule of law, for example through a New Transatlantic Declaration (NTD), it will be much harder for cynics to undermine the transatlantic partnership.
The new narrative should be conscientious in the development of discourse deliverables, the formats through which the narrative will be transmitted and enter the public sphere. In order for a narrative to resonate, it needs to be easily accessible. Historically, the narrative of transatlantic relations has been constrained to elite spheres, circulating scholarly verbiage in an echo chamber. The new narrative on transatlantic relations should be a dialogue, not a declamation. Thus, it should avoid political jargon and refrain from determining how transatlantic engagement ‘ought’ to be. While the narrative of transatlantic relations comes from speeches made by world leaders, memos written by institutions, and scholarly journals, it should not be limited to these forms. Narratives can originate from films, podcasts, songs, poetry, memes, or even snapchat stories. Social media platforms have increasingly become the genesis for sharing and debating ideas. The new narrative should capitalize on audiovisual and “shareable” content, while maintaining a consistent presence on traditional sources. By broadening the scope of engagement, previously ignored voices in the debate can be incorporated, especially youth and citizens with a less formalized education. There should also be a strong multi-lingual component of the new narrative, since people will feel more connected to a narrative that speaks to them in a familiar manner. Above all, it should be a conversation between equal partners.
The Storytelling Memo was presented in coordination with a panel discussion at Rice University on “Modernizing the Transatlantic Relationship” that was streamed live via Facebook: