A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation

September 26, 2018

Society, Culture & Politics Virtual Meeting

The participants of the Society, Culture & Politics group of the AGI Project: A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation came together to focus on reconciliation and civil society as it relates to both German-American bilateral relations and German-American cooperation/conflict in global hotspots. The participants come from a variety of backgrounds, including think tanks, academia, and civil society organizations. During this first virtual meeting on Wednesday, September 26, 2018, the participants identified and discussed relevant issues of German-U.S. bilateral relations and German-U.S. cooperation in the international arena. After answering a number of discussion questions, the participants each gave recommendations on how civil society can contribute to the transatlantic relationship. Below are some of the main points discussed.

German-U.S. Bilateral Relations

German-U.S. Relationship Today

What is the state of the German-American relationship today? How would you describe the nature of relations in terms of both concepts and practice? Are differences temporary or embedded?

  • Currently, there are strong levels of distrust coming from both sides of the Atlantic, which is where civil society should bridge the gap between the people and the government, and maintain the dialogue between societal actors.
  • At the highest political level, the relationship is strained, but at the lower levels, for example, academic institutions, the relationships are stronger today than in the past.
    • Continually strengthening over the past 10-20 years.
    • Other actors include: cities and the general population
  • Despite good relations at the lower levels, it has become increasingly difficult to convince people to invest in the U.S.-German relationship in the United States.
  • Although the two administrations have stark differences, it does not suggest that the history and cultural diplomacy that has been fostered over long periods of time will allow the relationship to erode.

Is this crisis like others in the past? Is it new? Is it harder to recover from this one in comparison to previous crises?

  • One aspect of the crisis is that U.S. leadership is highlighting the differences and making it seem like there are large cultural differences.
    • This creates a public perception that the U.S. and Germany do not share cultural values.
  • Nonetheless, this is most likely a temporary issue and the fundamentals that connect the two countries are still strong.
  • This is not the first time the U.S.-German relationship has been strained.
    • Example: Iraq War
  • Additionally, Germany is not an exception for not aligning with Trump. This is a global phenomenon.
  • Despite hope for a renewal of the relationship, some damage has already been done. Therefore, the two will have to once again navigate and tackle the challenges to the liberal order.
  • The U.S. government also prioritizes people-to-people exchanges less than other countries, but it is important to rally around common perceived challenges that allow countries to unite despite their differences.

Common Values

What are the “common values?” What have they been in the past? Where have the two countries been connected?

  • Core Values: democratic values, multilateralism
    • There is a lack of domestic debates surrounding these values
  • Both countries have constitutions that protect fundamental rights: freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom of speech, democratic systems, justice, etc.
    • The hope is that the democratic system will be able to handle those groups that are attacking its fundamentals.
  • Common values exist in the liberal section of politics, as well as civil society, but there will be another set of common values in the years to come. This might heavily impact civil society and politics.
  • There are similar developments of extreme polarization in both the United States and Germany.
    • How can the transatlantic partnership help solve urgent problems like polarization in countries?
    • So far, the U.S. and Germany have dealt with populism domestically/internally, putting the transatlantic relationship on the back burner rather than working together on these issues.
    • On the Franco-German side, there was an expectation that Macron and Merkel would work together to counter illiberal voices and populism. That has so far not been the case.
    • Regarding the Franco-German tandem, there was hope that Merkel and Macron would pursue the transatlantic relationship and EU project jointly. So far they have not been able to do so successfully.

Civil Society

Will civil society play an increased role? What role do you think it will be playing? Which civil society actors will be important in developing that connection to Germany?

  • There are already institutions (GMF, Atlantic Council, AGI, etc.) in place that were built for troubling times like today, which bring these issues to the forefront in order to make sure these discussions are spread to other organizations and individuals.
  • They continue to play a big role, but the motivation has changed and has intensified.
  • Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange is one of the programs that was built for the long-term basis of this relationship.
    • Personal Experience: exchanges at a young age can influence your professional track.
  • High schools and universities should be acknowledged as important civil society actors.
    • It is crucial to also tap into the non-elite networks of high schools and universities. The elite already has access to exchange programs, but those with limited resources should also be encouraged and supported to participate.
    • Rejection of globalism in this country often comes from those who have never been exposed to opportunities beyond the borders of the United States
    • Inclusion of minority populations is very important.
  • The long-term impact and outcome of these programs are difficult to measure, but an impact definitely exists.
  • Exchanges are successful avenues to break down barriers to cultural understanding.

Are cultural organizations still relevant?

  • They are still relevant, but most are in the big cities (i.e., Washington, DC and New York City). Like universities and high schools, they often only reach the upper classes of society.
    • Cultural programming is not reaching the people who would benefit from it the most.
  • One initiative that is extending past the coastal cities of the United States is the government-sponsored Deutschlandjahr USA, which is a year-long initiative to promote Germany and cultural values in the United States. This is in cooperation with the Goethe Institut. There are over 3,000 programs that have been scheduled in the entire country, with many located in the heartland where cultural programming does not usually reach.
    • Germany should also deepen European institutions and connections and not only focus on the German-American exchanges and partnerships. Some trilateral or multilateral exchange programs should also be supported to encourage the social infusion of exchange.

Are businesses part of civil society? Is business important in the relationship?

  • Based on the definition of civil society, business is not part of the relationship. However, businesses are also relying on civil society to remain informed.
    • Moreover, businesses can play a complementary role in the relationship. For example, people-to-people exchanges can take place through businesses.
    • In regard to climate change, international businesses also need to work together to reduce emissions
  • Business also heavily influences politics in the United States, which is why their interests also need to be kept in mind.
  • A major difference between traditional civil society actors and businesses is that corporations do not require moderated and programmed exchange conversations.
  • Practitioners often switch between the private sector and public sector.


What is the role of the German and American media in a “post-factual” and “fake news” world? Can they work together to temper the effect of “fake news”?

  • The role of the media is to discover and report the truth, but misinformation is being transmitted, which the media needs to take responsibility for.
  • There have been major shifts in the media over the last two to five years, meaning that new actors which are providing media are not being regulated.
  • Social media has the potential to be an area for collaboration within the transatlantic relationship. The European Union is at the forefront of privacy issues relating to social media which has an influential impact on the United States.
  • On the consumer end of the media sector, people should be more analytical and skeptical of what they are reading.
  • Limiting those who express extremist views in the media is a tough problem, but the media itself can play a strong role in deciding what should and should not be regulated.

German-U.S. Relations in the International Arena

Goals and Approaches

What are the fundamental goals of Germany and of the U.S. in the global arena? Do they have distinctive approaches?

  • The rhetoric around U.S. priorities in international relations has been harmful, but there is little evidence that points to strong changes in funding.
  • Both Germany and the U.S. have large aid budgets compared to other Western countries, but in the U.S. there is a xenophobic component and in Germany, there is pressure to demonstrate evidence of results.
  • There may be complementarities, but the fundamental goals are not the same:
    • President Trump: the most important goal is to attain security in terms of fighting terrorism.
    • What is the main goal for Germany?
      • World peace, trade, and spreading values?
      • Handling immigration issues?
    • The approaches of the two countries also differ in that Germany as part of the EU is always acting in collaboration, whereas the United States is not.
    • Multilateralist approach versus an isolationist approach
    • An issue that Germany is facing in the international arena is what its role in world politics should be currently.
    • The two countries also have similar goals on the international stage, which include human rights, development, democracy. These goals are often trumped by instrumental goals like preventing immigration, terrorism, economic growth, etc. for each respective country.
    • NATO can be a strong element in finding similar approaches between Germany and the U.S. in working to achieve multilateral security.

Civil Society in the International Arena

Can civil society actors on both sides of the Atlantic play a role in trying to fill the gap internationally?

  • Some may have the impression that civil society can only have a limited role in getting the German-American relationship to improve. This specifically applies to having an immediate impact on the American side because it is difficult to impact the executive branch in the U.S. with civil society actors.

Is there cooperation or competition in the international arena between Germany and the United States?

  • From the Trump administration perspective, competition seems to be the driving force. This is especially the case when emphasizing “winners” and “losers.”
  • Germany emphasizes a win-win approach and collaboration.
  • On trade issues especially, President Trump focuses on more competitive than cooperative trade terms.
  • The competition permeates through different aspects of the relationship, including security.

How have policies toward Russia affected the German-American relationship?

  • The reversal to Cold War-like rhetoric is not productive in furthering the German-American relationship.
  • Germany is more directly affected by Russian actions than the U.S. is, which raises the question of EU involvement in organizing European defense.
  • Angela Merkel can be seen as having a unique role as a mediator between the two, but it puts her and Germany in a difficult situation.

Religion and Involvement in the Middle East

What are the consequences for peace and conflict of organized religions’ (particularly Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians) more active role in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East (Israeli settlement policy)?

  • Evangelical Christians are very active in the U.S. but there is no counterpart in Germany.
  • In the past, religious groups were active in reconciliation efforts in Germany.
  • Organizations can play an important role in providing help to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
  • Religious civil society actors are fascinating, as they play a big role coming from many different angles.
  • There has been a push to move towards organizing around gender issues. The Evangelical Church has lobbied against LGBT issues and in favor of traditional family structures and the traditional role of women.

How does the reversal in the U.S. Middle East policy (move embassy to Jerusalem; endorse Israeli settlement project; rollback of U.S.-Iran agreement) affect German-American relations?

  • Now is the time for the civil society network to build up; however, there is a fear that if the civil society actors increase their influence, President Trump might want to limit them.
  • German organizations can play a bigger role now due to the Trump administration’s stance. The administration is showing isolationist tendencies.
  • It seems unlikely that an increased German role will improve the German-American relationship abroad.
  • There already exists precedent that civil society will step in when governments and foreign governments fail to deliver services, but these governments should not always rely on civil society to intervene.