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Transatlantic advice: Talk more

Michael Knigge
May 29, 2015

US and German policymakers better step up their communication game if they want to reinvigorate the struggling transatlantic partnership. That’s the advice of a bilateral task force convened by the German Marshall Fund.

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

With transatlantic trust, particularly in Germany, eroded by issues like the NSA scandal and the planned trade deal TTIP, policymakers and opinion-shapers in both countries must address the challenges and benefits of the relationship more vigorously and effectively. That is the key takeaway from a #link:http://www.gmfus.org/file/5789/download:new report# released today by the Task Force on the Future of German-American Relations.

Only if the growing public disenchantment with the United States can be overcome can the transatlantic relationship fulfill its potential to play an important role in tackling key global issues, the authors argue.

In its report, the 15-member group, led by GMF president and former Obama adviser Karen Donfried and Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, sketches the changed bilateral relationship from the end of World War II to today and details the transatlantic divisions.

German uneasiness

The continuing fallout from the NSA spying scandal in Germany and the broad opposition in the country to the transatlantic trade pact are certainly the most concrete and prominent examples of German-American fissures. But, the authors contend, they are only the tip of an iceberg of deep misgivings, again stemming mostly from the German side, about the nature of the bilateral relationship. German uneasiness about transatlantic ties is broad, stretching from security matters to the economy and the digital arena.

NSA Symbolbild
The NSA scandal continues to reverberate in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

- On security, the US continues to be the de-facto guarantor of Europe's security. "The German public, however, harbors suspicions about US motives and goals", argue the authors.

- On the economy, the study detects a similar disconnect. "The US economic model, rather than fueling German growth, is commonly depicted as a threat to prosperity and stability."

- Digital matters provide a "powerful case study of German suspicions of the US role in their lives." "There is a German perception of the United States as a massive digital-government-business-monolith, which carries profound and worrying implications for German sovereignty and prosperity."

Expectations gap

According to the experts the problem is not mainly differences in certain values, but the trade-offs being made between competing values, like security and privacy. The diverging positions on these trade-offs are then compounded by what the report calls an "expectations gap".

Germans, since the end of World War II, have "bestowed upon the United States a certain moral authority". This continues to shape the image and perception of the country, even though this status has repeatedly been questioned since.

As a consequence of putting the US on a pedestal, Germans are bound to get disappointed when Washington falls short of those great expectations – the Obama candidacy and presidency being a prime example of this phenomenon.

TTIP Protest Augsburg
Germans are skeptical about a trade deal with the USImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Stefan Puchner

Talk, talk

While the key themes, perceptions and disagreements are framed clearly and convincingly, the recommendations for all the various aspects of the relationship are less concrete and can be summed up in two words: talk more.

- On digital matters: "We need more discussion of when and how surveillance and transatlantic intelligence cooperation are appropriate and necessary, and how to achieve proper oversight."

- On economic matters: "The need and benefits of transatlantic cooperation have to be shown and explained to the public if transatlantic relations are to rebuild a strong standing with the public moving ahead."

- On strengthening youth exchanges: "We should create digital platforms where young people on both sides of the Atlantic, and beyond, can exchange their ideas on issues that matter to them."

- On improving political cooperation: "Practitioners need to have deeper and more regular exchanges with others on policies, and be bolder in their efforts to address global challenges together."

- On engaging in each others domestic debates: "It may be valuable to hold roundtables across Germany to examine the rationale and the direction of a globally oriented transatlantic relationship going forward."

The report does not detail however how these recommendations could be put into practice. It also does not address whether any other ideas beyond the realm of communications might be helpful to improve the transatlantic relationship.