Trans-Atlantic Ties: It’s Time To Rebuild Trust

German critics of the TTIP trans-Atlantic trade agreement protest ahead of the G7 summit in Munich on Monday. Zoom


German critics of the TTIP trans-Atlantic trade agreement protest ahead of the G7 summit in Munich on Monday.

A Commentary By Karen Donfried and Wolfgang Ischinger

Germany and the United States have close relations politically, but ties between our people are drifting as a result of NSA spying, the report on CIA torture and the planned TTIP trade agreement. A broader dialogue is necessary to deepen the partnership.

The trans-Atlantic relationship — with the US-German partnership at its core — is more important than ever in a world which is rapidly changing and braving urgent economic and security challenges. That basic premise explains why Chancellor Merkel refers to the United States as Germany’s indispensable ally and President Obama speaks of “Angela” as one of his closest partners.

The strategic perspectives in Berlin and Washington are strikingly similar, marked by concerns about the Ukraine crisis and turmoil in the Middle East, as well as global challenges such as climate change, cyber threats, and integration of rising powers like China into the liberal, rules-based global order.

Washington has long desired greater German leadership and Germany is delivering. The most striking example is Chancellor Merkel’s leadership in the Ukraine crisis. Even in the historically sensitive area of military engagement, Germans are contributing to the training mission in Afghanistan, to the equipping of Kurdish forces in Iraq, to KFOR in Kosovo and to NATO reassurance efforts agreed upon at the Wales Summit. Notable is the absence of discord on important issues of foreign policy, which have been the most frequent source of German-American irritation in the past.

The closeness of official ties between Berlin and Washington, however, is not mirrored in German public attitudes. This critical bilateral relationship is being tested — by generational change, a worrisome erosion of trust and ongoing fallout from the Snowden disclosures. The ability of the United States to provide not only political and military, but also moral, leadership is being challenged seriously. This German discontent, especially striking among youth, makes clear that we cannot take this relationship for granted or rest on nostalgia for the past. We need to reassess bilateral ties, rebuild trust and structure a relationship for the future.

The Task Force on the Future of German-American Relations that we co-chaired and the resulting report seek to serve as a launching point to deepen the dialogue between our two countries. We hope to spark a comprehensive conversation — not just among foreign policy experts in Washington and Berlin, but among our publics, including the next generation — that reflects the breadth of the relationship, like the task force itself. The Task Force identified several suggestions for issue areas we need to explore further and ways to strengthen ties.

  • First, the digital revolution, including the dominance of US technology companies, is rocking trans-Atlantic relations. On the specific issue of intelligence surveillance, Americans and Germans do not have fundamentally different views of the need to protect privacy and civil liberties, while at the same time enhancing security. Rather, the rub comes when we need to make trade-offs between competing values. Because of the attacks of Sept. 11, Americans perceive a higher threat level and, to date, have been willing to accept some infringements on their privacy in exchange for greater security. We need to understand these differences across the Atlantic and pay particular attention to what rights to accord non-citizens.
  • Second, we need to reframe the discussion about the mutual economic benefits of our relationship. Skepticism about economic integration and trade are not new. But we need to do a better job of addressing that suspicion, as well as legitimate anxieties people on both sides of the Atlantic feel. This has to be more than a discussion about aggregate numbers on trade and investment. Concrete, local examples of the benefits economic cooperation bring are more compelling. The Task Force report contains a powerful testimonial from a civic leader in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Volkswagen located its US manufacturing headquarters, investing $1 billion and creating 2,000 American jobs. There are many similar examples and we should talk about them.
  • Third, we need to broaden our perspective and complement our bilateral dialogue with trans-Atlantic debates that are globally oriented. To that end, we also need to include other global actors in the composition of these debates. Together, Germans and Americans should engage and build networks with counterparts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. The German Marshall Fund and the Munich Security Conference do this, as do other institutions. That said, we can do better and we can do more.
  • Finally, to reinforce the fundamental theme throughout the above recommendations, we need to move the conversation beyond official channels. Relations among officials remain strong. They engage regularly and robustly in bilateral and multilateral formats. What is less developed is how we engage a greater diversity of stakeholders in this conversation, reaching deeper into our societies and moving the discussion beyond the headlines and crises of the moment. We need to spur a “Trans-Atlantic Review 2015,” using town halls and online debates. We can harness technology to create digital platforms for young Germans and Americans to “meet” and work on issues we both care about, and move beyond dialogue to develop practical projects to effect change. GMF, for example, is committed to this effort, and, working with German partners, will hold roundtables across Germany, with a focus on the next generation, to discuss the direction of our relationship and how we can work together more effectively.

Today’s German-American relationship needs to be nourished by regular and vigorous policy debates at all levels, including among our publics. Strong cooperation that leads to effective action in pursuit of common goals is not a given — it has to be built and tended.

Karen Donfried is president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Wolfgang Ischinger is chairman of the Munich Security Conference.


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