When President Trump tweeted “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change” on May 30th, transatlantic communications hit an all time low, both diplomatically and grammatically. Instead of trying to understand the other or at least finding a balanced communication method to voice concern, short, uninformed statements were fired. However, these popular and new forms of communication can also be exploited in a positive manner.
Common values in the transatlantic narrative
The transatlantic narrative is currently suffering from simplistic and populist views resulting from a crude style of communication during the last U.S. election and the rise of populist parties all over Europe within the last few years. This is a clear indication that there is a big social and informational gap between lawmakers and politicians on one hand and “the people” on the other. The citizens on both sides of the Atlantic should be aware that beyond TTIP they share common values of personal freedom and self-determination carved into functioning democracies. After all, this urge motivated lots of people to leave the old continent with the aim of not being oppressed by the state anymore. International trade is nothing but a tool to cooperate in order to sustain prosperity and with it international peace. The fact that Europeans and Americans share the same values is the key message that needs to be highlighted when trying to modernize the transatlantic narrative.
The well-established belief that agenda setting can be done exclusively by elected leaders cannot be sustained. People on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly craving to actively participate in the agenda setting debates as well as in the policy-making process – the picture of a lethargic and largely ignorant generation of “millennials” is inaccurate. At the same time, populist responses – such as building walls to keep away the competition or introducing customs duties to protect the average employees – are effectively employed to guide the political discourse. These two aspects should not be overlooked when trying to find a strategic hook for change. The current generation of the electorate are generally susceptible to political discourse and open for change: educating them about transatlantic relations using the methods populist groups are currently employing for their own goals could lead to a new and balanced view.
Trumponomics of communication
The “drain the swamp” message of Donald Trump’s campaign was a key element of mobilization of people who felt like they have been outsiders to the process of political agenda setting. The effectiveness of this tactic was proof that the gap between policy makers and the electorate needs to be bridged. So how could this exchange of information between policymakers and the electorate be altered into a more digestible way for the so-called “common people”? The key element to information exchange is an accessible medium. The print media may have been the adequate form of communication in the past millennium but still required a costly subscription as well as the intellectual capacity to understand the author’s mostly academic analysis laid down in a partisan way. With the rise of the Internet and new forms of communication such as social networks (facebook, twitter etc.) and information platforms (youtube, reddit, ted talks etc.) a revolution of easy and instant communication has been developed that could be – and have been – used to propagate partisan views, both of positive and negative nature. The campaign of last year’s U.S. election has shown how easy it is to target specific groups of audiences and canalize the information in order to shape opinions. On the one hand, those newly available tools inherit the advantage of being quasi-natural monopolies and are hence used by the majority of the target group. On the other hand, these new forms of media are per definition cross-border. Using them effectively makes it even easier to actually target the desired group of people regardless of nationality or geography.
The target group
The main question now is who should ideally be targeted when trying to communicate a new narrative for transatlantic relations with a realistic chance of a positive impact? As a first step, it makes sense to focus the message on younger social-media-loving generations in Europe and the U.S.. After all, this will be the next generation of the electorate and among them there are future leaders. This does not mean that the older generations should be left behind, but where they are concerned, traditional media outlets are still effective in their rhetoric and more in-depth analyses.
Fighting alternative facts
More importantly, though, anyone initiating and participating in discussions on transatlantic relations should be aware that “alternative facts” are on the rise and that their spreading can be beneficial for certain stakeholders. The right response to populism is to provide information to the public by using properly researched facts. Instead of using simplistic statements causing emotional patriotism and with it creating the impression of opposing points of view. One should counteract by publishing facts as a reaction to populism that help to distinguish between true and false as well as highlighting common democratic values. Very good for US and EUROPE!