For supporters of a close transatlantic bond there was good news at the Aspen Institute's conference on the issue in Berlin. Participants asserted that US-European ties remain essential. But there was also bad news.
Not surprisingly attendees of the Transatlantic Conference in Berlin celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Aspen Institute in Germany, the oldest international Aspen affiliate, on Thursday quickly resolved the rhetorical question chosen as the headline of the gathering, "The transatlantic relationship partnership at stake: Do we still need each other?"
Their answer, a resounding "yes," came without any hesitation. Led by the US assistant secretary for European affairs, Victoria Nuland, known to a wider audience primarily for her blunt assessment of the EU on an illegally taped phone call, there was general agreement that transatlantic relations remain indispensable in the 21st century. In her speech, Nuland heaped praise on Germany.
On Ukraine, she said, "No country in Europe has led more strongly than Germany." On global warming, she said, "Nobody leads better on climate change than Germany." And on the fight against the "Islamic State" Nuland lauded Berlin for its decision to provide the Kurds in Iraq with lethal military equipment.
If Germany and the United States work together, was Nuland's key message, much is possible whether for NATO or the controversial transatlantic trade deal TTIP. "If we do this right, TTIP could be for economic prosperity what NATO is for security," she added.
The sentiment that a robust transatlantic relationship is still essential for Germany, Europe and the United States and beneficial for all three partners was broadly shared among participants.
Missing compass to move forward
But it wasn't all good news at the transatlantic conference and politicians and businesspeople from both side of the ocean struggled to find ways to revitalize the partnership.
While the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, Bernhard Mattes, could state with conviction that transatlantic business ties are in great shape despite the NSA surveillance scandal. But politicians, while calling strong transatlantic ties important, were more skeptical about the current state of affairs.
Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, and Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee gave voice to the sense that something had changed in this partnership. Röttgen mentioned an altered or diminished consciousness for the relationship, and Brok spoke about the loss of the public's trust due to the NSA's spying on European citizens' communications.
Sensitive and informed
Put differently, the natural ease and emotional pull of transatlantic ties of an earlier era seems to have evaporated. How to get it back, was not a question that was to be solved during the Aspen Institute's birthday session.
There were two hints, though, proffered by Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO. Speaking primarily about the US, but also about Europe, he said that governments needed to be more sensitive to and better informed about how citizens at home and abroad feel about important issues. Once you are out of touch about how others feel about key issues, noted Volker, it is so much harder to win that trust back.