Deep Polarization, But Hope Persists

Karen Donfried
Kevin Cottrell
6 min read
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
Deep polarization is a trend in transtlantic relations, as it is in the vast majority of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Deep polarization is a trend in transtlantic relations, as it is in the vast majority of democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. The central tension of this polarization is the issue of whether our future should be the one of an open or a closed society. In her annual State of Transatlantic Relationship call, the President of The German Marshall Fund of the United States Karen Donfried shares her views on the current state of transatlantic relations, what we may expect from developing trends, and what leaders across sectors can do to shore up and expand international cooperation at this point in time.

Read below for a few of the call’s key takeaways:           

  • Last year, there were two big unknowns for the transatlantic relations – Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Elections across Europe provided reassurance as, in one country after another, forces opposed to open society suffered defeat. But their growing strength and the weakening or outright dissapearance of several major parties provided ample of evidence that populist forces will be with us for much longer than previously expected.

  • Europeans are struggling to understand what the future role of the United States will be. Some see President Trump as an aberration, but others argue that he represents a continuation of President Barack Obama’s policy of retrenchment and that it is time for Europe to start pursuing strategic autonomy. This latter group looks toward Franco-German cooperation as the foundation for that new autonomy, including around issues of security and defense.

  • Britain leaving the European Union, Poland challenging the values of the EU, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weakening position have led many Europeans to look to France and the newly elected President Emmanel Macron (MMF’06) for leadership.

  • GMF wants to work with alumni to develop a playbook of issues on which cooperation is possible, especially on the subnational level.

  • At a time when Americans and Europeans are preoccupied with domestic political debates, we need to keep in mind critical transatlantic issues. These include defense spending and trade imbalances, but also the Iran nuclear deal (critical to global security, yet currently threatened by President Trump), the uncertainty about the U.S. commitment to NATO, and the growing discord between the U.S. and the fellow NATO member Turkey on the Syrian civil war and the U.S alliance with the Syrian Kurds.

  • President Trump is unconventional in his use of social media and in his treatment of allies. It is not quite clear whether he distinguishes between allies and adversaries in his view of the world. This includes the retweeting of videos from Britain First, which drew condemnation of his behavior from across the political spectrum in the United Kingdom. This kind of behavior opens the space for other powers to step in, including China, Russia, but also the European Union.

  • Commenting on his transactional, “business-style” leadership, Karen recalled the January meeting between President Trump and European business leaders at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Even though these European elites were certainly appreciative of the environmental, financial, and tax benefits from Mr. Trump’s policies, they were also worried over his trade agenda, particularly regarding the possible U.S. withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they see as the same investment space. The same worry extends to the possible introduction of tarrifs on certain categories of goods and services.

  • The concept of trade agreements originated from the lessons of World War I and II, which convinced the Americans and Europeans that protectionism and closed borders did not serve their interests. Trade agreements do not mean that there will not be citizens who will not lose from agreements themselves, despite there being broad societal benefits. The question is does one abandon trade agreements in general or does one develop policies to help out those citizens who lose out.

  • Transatlantic relations are based on interest, values, but also trust. The first two are either there or they are not, but trust is built over time. The problem with trust is that it is very hard to build and it is so easy to destory. Currently, we have a major destruction of trust which the United States has been working so hard to build over decades of interaction. It is in this sense that we need to read Chancellor Merkel’s comment that perhaps Europeans can no longer rely on the United States as much as they used to.

  • There is more to the United States than the president. The conversations on transatlantic relations should now more than ever expand beyond federal leadership to involve the informal and formal subnational networks such of cities, states, and nongovernmental organizations, such as GMF’s alumni network.

  • In particular, European leaders are increasingly seeking to engage with U.S. governors and mayors on a broad range of issues such as climate change and trade. The political structure and democratic institutions of the U.S. also ensure that federal power is never absolute, and that local players may also play key roles in keeping the accomplishments of international collaborations from being completely eradicated. A good example for this would be Governor Jerry Brown of California’s commitment to meet the targets of the Paris Climate Accord, despite President Trump’s removal of the U.S. from the agreement.

  • Recently at GMF, multiple mayors came to discuss and learn from their European counterparts. These local leaders also showcased that they were much less partisan than federal politicians. They are also much more open to learning from each other. This is the reason why our GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy program grew out the Marshall Memorial Fellowship program to encourage leaders at the city level to engage in transatlantic exchange of know how and best practices.

  • In closing her arguments on transatlantic relations and roles of subnational players, Karen highlighted the work of the GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy in understanding, measuring, and assessing Russian interference in elections held in United States and other countries and the impact of such interference on democratic institutions overall. In particular, the Alliance, led by one Democrat and one Republican director, provides readers with an extremely informative dashboard that tracks Russian-influenced Twitter feeds relating to the upcoming German election.

The annual State of the Transatlantic Relations call with The German Marshall Fund's President Karen Donfried is exclusive to GMF's Alumni Leadership Council members. It provides an executive summary of contemporary transatlantic priorities and focuses on trends that are shaping the future of transatlantic relations. Members of the Council have the unique opportunity to ask questions and the presentation covers a broad range of issues that impact leadership decisions across sectors. This year, the call coincides with the first 100 days of the new United States administration, but every other year except when there is a new administration in Washington, DC, it coincides with the State of the Union address.

Access to GMF's Alumni Leadership Council is exclusive to alumni of GMF's transatlantic leadership development programs, including Marshall Memorial FellowshipManfred Wörner SeminarTransatlantic Inclusion Leaders Network, Asmus Policy Entrepreneurs Fellowship, APSA Congressional Fellowship, and New Länder Fellowship.