Civil society organizations need to be more diverse in order to assume their pivotal role in transatlantic relations, especially in the current period of mutual alienation. In the past, dynamic civil society relations between two countries have already proven themselves to be crucial, not only for society as a whole, but more specifically on a political level. The most prominent example is French-German relations; the special relationship between both countries was made possible by reconciliation driven forward both by the political elite and a diverse range of civil society actors. A very specific interconnection between state level and local level made sure that reconciliation could put down roots throughout society. The powerful narrative of friendship, trust, and partnership serves as a glue even during periods of momentary stagnation in the political relationship. This can be seen just recently under former French president François Hollande and German chancellor Angela Merkel, when observers bemoaned the “stuttering” of the so-called French-German motor. Despite the lack of consensus on common political initiatives in core issues, such as the Eurozone or the refugee crisis, the affirmation of mutual cooperation continued constantly on a rhetorical and symbolic level. This is partly due to a dynamic and institutionalized civil society, which cushions political tensions and maintains open channels of communication.
Transatlantic relations repose on similar networks in civil society. However, their consensus on the necessity of this tight partnership applies less to society as a whole than is the case in Franco-German relations. Transatlantic civil society tends to represent only a rather homogenous fragment of German and American society. This is particularly the case when it comes to political issues, where the “bubbles” in Washington and Berlin are more alike than the capitals and their peripheries. Hence, Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential race came as a surprise not only for large parts of the German political leadership, but also for most of the transatlantic community in German and American civil society. Too many turned a blind eye toward the possibility of Trump being elected. One year after the election, they are still struggling with their role as intermediaries between politics and society. How are we to bridge the gap between one side of the Atlantic Ocean and the other, while the gap inside the United States seems irreconcilable? When parts of society lose access to each other to such an extent that we are talking about “two Americas,” it is a strong warning sign that civil society is not fulfilling its uniting role anymore.
The wake-up call seems to have taken effect. More and more civil society organizations—inside both the U.S. and Germany, but also in the German-American relationship—started to push forward more diverse projects that better represent different stances on controversial topics. Those efforts need to be lasting and genuine. In doing so, civil society can once again play its essential role in fostering mutual understanding—a role that is even more important in this period of staggering democracies, rising populism, and growing nationalism.
Julie Hamann is research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). She is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
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.