The transatlantic partnership is currently in a state of uncertainty. Not only the transition from President Obama to President Trump, but also the populist eruption in many European countries reflects a conservative wave moving across U.S. and European politics. The societal divide phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic challenges the transatlantic relationship more than ever since the inception of the West itself, with its values questioned from within as well as from without. Recent polls confirm that German public trust in the U.S. is at its lowest level ever. Even if the policy alignments might be promising in some parts, and the elites are less affected by this crisis of transatlantic partnership, it is the lack of trust and understanding within the publics on both sides that needs to be addressed and overcome.
In order to integrate the different policy areas within a broader transatlantic partnership, a universal narrative must be created—a narrative supported and self-reinforced on both sides of the transatlantic dialogue.
That narrative would focus on a transatlantic partnership as a democratic community of values which faces and resolves challenges together, i.e., cooperating as an engaged neighborhood. Given that assumption, this brief essay focuses on the communication and agenda-setting that would most likely make this process both possible and effective. Critical to that success is ensuring the narrative is created and developed through public discussion, debate, and broad societal engagement.
The narrative must be constantly revised, enhanced, and underpinned with ongoing relevant examples in order to reflect broad public opinion in both the U.S. and Germany. Only then will the narrative likely be embraced by more than just the elites and not be a temporary fix, but a narrative sustained for the long haul.
It is essential that the narrative and its implementation are not managed and directed by the elites. Aiming for broad engagement, reaching out to as many people as possible, the process of creating, forming, and spreading the new narrative should be the result of an authentic grassroots movement, e.g., not an artificial Astroturf creation of the elites.
A grassroots movement is generally characterized by a bottom-up process. The movement is typically self-organized and often triggered by a controversial event or pattern of events. It encourages people to contribute to its goals by taking responsibility for one or more concrete actions toward one or more specified outcomes. One such example of the impact and purpose of such a movement is the current pro-Europe movement “Pulse of Europe.” Started in the living room of a couple in Frankfurt, this movement successfully brings people of all ages and backgrounds together on a regular basis to demonstrate their support for Europe, make their voices heard, and express their feelings in a way that touches upon different segments of society. If the originators manage to inspire and gather others to organize around a certain idea or value, then it is more likely that such new political power, ideas, and dynamics will develop within the group toward achievement of its grassroots potential.
Before citing a few key elements concerning the communication strategy needed, one should be aware of an advantage that modern technology and advanced education now provide. Both traditional and newly developed media are amply consumed within the U.S. as well as in Germany. Also, English language proficiency in Germany has been rising in recent decades, now at its highest level. This allows a greater number to convey and share common values in the same language. The following are steps those seeking to create and sustain an effective grassroots movement should consider:
- Create a joint interactive media platform, especially for young people. It should feature everyday life stories from both the U.S. and Germany. Young people could share their point of view on issues and specific relevant stories about politics, culture, civil society, and so on. This would provide an opportunity to develop a better understanding of each other’s differences. At the same time, it would highlight shared values, perspectives, and grievances. The platform should feature all modern broadcast formats.
- Organize through different organizations. Tailor messages and approaches from different platforms to effectively address different audiences. Networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Snapchat are routinely used by large numbers of young people willing to share their stories and provide new ways of thinking. To attract them requires adapting their methods and styles of communication.
- Use language that everyone understands. This might vary depending on the communication platform from which people are addressed, but it is a proven fact that the style of language makes a demonstrable difference. Think tanks should test language by using focus groups and then utilize the most effective rhetoric, one that seeks not only to attract the elites, but ordinary citizens—especially young citizens.
- Testimonials for the transatlantic partnership. This is an old but still successful method in PR and marketing worlds. So why shouldn’t we have widely recognizable faces standing up for U.S.-German relations, serving as a type of ambassador for the transatlantic partnership, e.g., perhaps cultural icons from the worlds of sports, entertainment, the arts, etc.? Testimonials could be a key in attracting certain audiences including some typically more challenging to reach through traditional channels.
- Encourage friendships and circumstances that allow people from both worlds to meet. Target groups of current exchange programs are often not the populations within which there is a significant lack of understanding as to the importance of a transatlantic partnership. It is indispensable to reach out more broadly to other economic segments of society such as those with rural or blue collar backgrounds. That requires both an aggressive new recruitment mentality, process, and funding to ease the often financial burden not typically experienced by the elites.
- It is important to leave it to the Americans and Germans themselves to create and develop their narrative of transatlantic partnership in the twenty-first century.
What can and has to be done is providing practices and conditions which simplify this process and make it possible to happen.
Simon Schütz is a grad student of political communication at the Freie Universität Berlin and George Washington University in Washington, DC. He lived in the U.S. for almost two years and reports about U.S. politics as an independent journalist. This article was originally published by Atlantic Expedition on June 29, 2017.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.