The virtual meeting on September 26, 2017, brought together members of the Society, Culture & Politics group to discuss Civil Society, Conflict Resolution, and Reconciliation. The meeting is part of a larger project entitled “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” which engages young Americans and Germans in discussions of global issues of concern for the transatlantic relationship. For this meeting, the participants were asked to assess the current status of bilateral US-German relations in a time of uncertainty. In connection to that they were asked to consider the German-US tandem in the international setting, focusing on possible areas of cooperation and competition. In addition, the group was asked to analyze Germany’s role in the international arena on conflict resolution and reconciliation.
What is the current status of US-German relations with a focus on both official relations and civil society? Do civil society actors have a positive or negative effect on German-American relations?
- While cooperation on many fronts continues to be strong, with much overlap and consensus between countries, trends in the changing conservative agenda are worrying.
- Based on cultural commonalities, it is often taken for granted in Germany that there are good relations with US civil society organizations. The US is seen as a natural ally for Germany, whereas Asia is perceived as being more difficult to develop relations with. This image of the US may no longer be accurate.
- Transatlantic cooperation between civil society groups remains robust, but questions about who has a direct line to President Trump, and where the important decisions are being made, are still unresolved.
- Essentially, the German-American relationship is a partnership. However, it is changing due a growing self-interest on both sides that presents a real challenge.
- Due to an enduring set of actors, civil society serves as an anchor of stability in transitioning political climates on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Given the recent rise of right-wing populist movements, we must be careful in conceptualizing ‘civil society.’ Still, the term should encapsulate a diverse range of groups, with various value systems, some of which can have a negative impact.
- Social media should be incorporated into civil society as an important vehicle for advancing historical reconciliation and promoting change and to reach a more digitally-inclined generation. Other forms of media, like films, can also be platforms for education, although Hollywood for example does not necessarily always promote cross-cultural understanding.
- Civil society can be a positive and negative force, depending on the agenda of the respective civil society. The right-wing populist wave and the current Polish-German example demonstrate that it can be as divisive as it is unifying for bilateral relations.
- The pivot to Asia: US interests seem to have shifted away from Europe towards Asia. There is perhaps a greater focus on the development of research and technology goals, as opposed to rebuilding Europe in the context of the Cold War.
What are the concrete mechanisms civil society uses to further its interests in conflict resolution and reconciliation? How much can Germany’s experience with international reconciliation be applied to other cases or what make for the premises of good reconciliation work?
- While it is well known that Germany has a specific historical legacy to fulfil, it is also clear that one universal reconciliation policy does not exist. Rather, many policies and strategies depend on individual personalities and the specific case..
- The promotion of peace and reconciliation seem to be substantial elements of German foreign policy.
- One way to further interests in conflict resolution and resolution would be to increase the bilateral/multilateral economic exchanges. The Japanese – South-Korean case, however, shows that even though interaction increased and economic exchanges skyrocketed, relations still worsened over time.
- School education was conceived as a major mechanism. In the German case, a demand for more politische Bildung in schools was put forward. The same applies to the U.S. where the rising need for a renewed Civic Education program was noted.
- For Germany, an innovative idea that embraces civil society could be the reintroduction of community service (Zivildienst).
- The media is a powerful, albeit double-edged, tool to further anyone’s interests. With information accessible to everyone the risk of manipulation and misinterpretation grows.
- The respective geopolitical context is of utmost importance for each case. When looking at the aftermath of WWII, one can attest to a clear will and need on the German side to rebuild and reconcile.
- Reconciliation must come with a sustained effort and it must be conceived as an authentic act. Further, reconciliation must be generous and genuine.
- What constitutes an easily transferable “German tool” within the domain of international reconciliation are political and apologetic gestures. Symbolic gestures are important.
- Reconciliation is always a two-way relationship and one always has to keep in mind how the other side responds and acts.
- Reconciliation is still very much approached in historical terms, which proves problematic when one seeks to approach younger generations. A motto that encapsulates the issue could be something along the lines of “Make reconciliation cool again!”
Will American isolationist tendencies lead to a more active German role as mediator of international conflicts? In which global regions does one see evidence of German-American cooperation or competition?
- Germany has for a long time already been pressured to take on a bigger role as a mediator of international conflicts. But Germany, under Chancellor Merkel, is not easily pressured.
- The budget reserved for foreign policy in Germany makes it almost impossible for Germany to take on a more active role in the international arena.
- Currently, Germany will be inclined to focus primarily on domestic and European issues. Also, Germany has learned from other global players that intervention in foreign matters is both a tricky business and a long-term game.
- Nevertheless, US-German cooperation seems to have a future, in particular due to Brexit and Germany’s strengthened role as the European powerhouse and figurehead of the EU. Also, the US will want to foster good relations with Germany in terms of dealing with Russia.
- The current unpredictability of the White House and US politics was emphasized as possibly affecting the German-American relations in a negative way.
- The U.S. and Germany have different approaches to conducting foreign policy, as exemplified by the “Russian case”: Whereas the U.S., despite President Trump’s public admiration of President Putin, has adapted a more antagonistic and aggressive approach to Russia, Germany is pushing for more dialogue.
- The notion of anti-competition was put forward. According to the U.S., Germany needs to step up and take on a more prominent role in NATO and the EU militarily. Germany, however, remains reluctant.
- The disconnect in relations was viewed to already have begun during the Obama administration, even though Merkel and Obama had a strong personal bond.
- The prospect of China being a potential area of competition was discussed briefly. Americans view China as a threat, whereas Germans do not. Germany even has a strategic relationship with China that also is valued by China. A strong indication of the German-Chinese bond are Chancellor Merkel’s many visits to China.
- It was concluded that the relationship with China among other things could create conflict potential on the economic level between the US and Germany.