The partnership between Germany and the U.S. is based on common security and economic interests but also relies on the mutual agreement on democratic and liberal values. After WWII, it was the U.S. that encouraged Germany to become one of the more progressive powers in Europe. In recent years, the relation between the two countries – while maintaining a professional tone and continuing on a working level – has noticeably cooled off. We need to recognize that the issue is mainly to be located at the political level rather than the working level. In order to push political decision makers towards better cooperation, it is useful to focus to create bottom-up pressure through civil society. Additionally, it is recommendable to select issues that currently do not create contention on governmental level and where both countries can learn from each other.
This is why I want to make the case for diversity as a vehicle to re-develop U.S. – German relations.
The U.S. as a country of mass-immigration has historically found itself with a more diverse population and therefore also a long history of civil rights activism. This is not confined to racial relations but also includes people with disabilities, religious communities and gay people. While there are still open questions about equality and discrimination, the U.S. has achieved a high level of integration for disabled people and recognizes shortcomings in terms of racial equality, e.g. by means of affirmative action. The “Black Lives Matter” movement
In the past decade, especially the gay community has achieved many political and legal victories in the U.S.. Beginning with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010” to the “Obergefell v. Hodges” Supreme Court ruling from 2015 that guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage, the gay community can look back at a decade of successful activism. And while it might be true that societal values have changed quickly in an age of internet and instant communication, these victories have to be mainly attributed to the activists who fought those battles.
Hence, there is certainly a lot to be learned from civil rights campaigns in the U.S. and this one part of my suggestion.
Germany used to be more progressive than the U.S. until recently when it came to topics such as abortion and gay life. For example, the German army already in the 1980s decided to accept gay people to serve in the force. While there is still a lack of recognition of same-sex marriage – to stick to this example – the German way is less activist-driven, but more top-down and legalistic. Especially with the recent intake of several hundred thousand refugees, and the rise of a new conservative movement, Germany has civil rights issues that need to be addressed.
And this is where both countries can learn from each other. Germany can learn about civil rights activism from the U.S. and in return, the U.S. can learn how to establish a legal framework that not only reacts to societal changes but also anticipates them and creates a liberal order that enables diversity.
I therefore suggest a low-cost program that brings together civil rights activists from both countries to exchange knowledge and elaborate common strategies to push their respective governments towards more openness and civil liberties. This process would ideally be supported or even chaired by policymakers who come from the activist community. In a first step, NGOs and activists from both countries would be invited to jointly coordinate and run webinars and exchange online. Modelled after the Atlantic Expedition (but with a narrower focus), these webinars will serve the theoretical knowledge exchange in terms of common issues and campaigning strategies. This theoretical phase can be followed by exchange visits and practical workshops that help participants understand each others’ respective situations first hand and establish a strong network of activists on both sides of the Atlantic. In a third step, the transatlantic diversity activists can coordinate their campaigns and thereby nudge their governments to work on civil liberties and diversity issues at the same point in time which increases the chances of success in both countries.
International relations are ultimately created by people and diversity is one aspect that the U.S. and Germany can learn from each other and improve upon. With new and diverse networks of activists, we can re-imagine transatlantic cooperation and maintain our leadership in a global liberal world.