Engage People, Not Just Governments, to Strengthen Transatlantic Ties

June 13, 2022
Elayne Deelen
Kristin M. Lord
9 min read
Photo credit: Orest lyzhechka / Shutterstock.com
The Kremlin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine is the most vivid evidence in decades that the United States and Europe must band together to protect both shared interests and democratic values.

Indeed, in a period of days, the Russian invasion did more to unite the NATO allies than any other event in the last fifty years—resulting in increased levels of intelligence-sharing, coordination around Russian sanctions, and defense spending. Meanwhile, in a development that would have seemed impossible just months ago, Sweden and Finland have applied to join NATO. The stark nature of the threat has spurred renewed bipartisan support in the United States for the transatlantic alliance and NATO—a message President Joe Biden heavily underscored during his trip to Europe in March.

The reinvigorated sense of purpose and partnership between the United States and Europe in the wake of the war in Ukraine is a welcome development, however unwelcome its causes. But support for the transatlantic alliance cannot be taken for granted, even now. As the war drags on, with costs of the conflict continuing to rise and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy continuing to manifest, the possibility of fissures cannot be discounted. Any underlying softness in public commitment to the transatlantic alliance could emerge as an obstacle to future solidarity.

Support for the transatlantic alliance cannot be taken for granted, even now.

To minimize these risks, the underpinnings of the transatlantic alliance must be cultivated, strengthened, and sustained to not only ensure deeper and more successful coordination against threats from Russia and rising authoritarianism, but also to address a series of increasingly daunting global challenges. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that these underpinnings have weakened in recent years, with the potential to jeopardize future progress on transatlantic initiatives.   

Americans probably take for granted that Europeans see us as partners in addressing global priorities. But those who remember the special relationship between transatlantic allies during World War II, the Cold War, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall are an aging bunch. Indeed, younger Europeans view the United States as less influential than older generations do, and are less likely to think US democracy is a good example to follow. In addition, there has been a steady decline in the number of European scholars coming to the United States, and European travelers have started to account for a smaller share of international travel to the United States compared to other regions. Together these trends signal reduced engagement between publics on both sides of the Atlantic—engagement that helps build mutual understanding and trust.

Public polling in Europe sends additional warning signals. While opinion polling among European citizens immediately after President Biden’s inauguration found significantly improved approval ratings of the United States compared with views of the prior administration—in some countries by as much as 47 points—deeper analysis reveals more concerning trends. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey, perceptions of US reliability are mixed at best, even among key partners like Germany, where only half the population considers the United States to be a reliable partner. Other surveys found that a majority of Europeans across surveyed countries believe they cannot always rely on the United States to defend them, and that they do not believe Washington takes their interests into consideration when making international policy decisions. These trends underscore the need to make a public case for a strong transatlantic alliance.

US and European leaders will need sustained levels of public support to work together in the coming years. And the war in Ukraine shows that when public support is there, substantial change in policy is possible. Early images of the war in Ukraine, for example, and the inspirational defiance of the Ukrainian people caused citizens across Europe and the United States to push their leaders to take unprecedented action through punishing economic sanctions and even military support, pressuring them into major policy changes, like Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to massively bolster Germany’s defense budget, or President Biden’s decision to ban imports of Russian oil. Without public support, however, the political will necessary to advance mutual priorities could erode, imperiling crucial initiatives such as pandemic response, climate change policies, increased energy security, trade and investment, cyber security and the fight against disinformation, the prevention of terrorism, geopolitical competition from Russia and China, and countering corruption. Public support will be crucial, too, in sustaining the fight to protect and ultimately rebuild Ukraine and addressing rising authoritarianism in Europe, Eurasia, and beyond.

Fighting for Public Support

How can the United States create more conducive conditions in Europe for a transatlantic partnership that marshals popular support and endures over the long term? One way is through enhanced public engagement and public diplomacy efforts which help foster the shared values, mutual respect and understanding, and people-to-people relationships that provide the goodwill and support necessary for leaders to work together across the Atlantic. Public diplomacy—the promotion of national interests through efforts to inform, engage, and influence public opinion—was once considered a top priority of US foreign policy in Europe, especially in the years immediately succeeding World War II, a similarly critical point in the transatlantic relationship. It was during these years that the Marshall Plan, designed both to rebuild Europe and counter a rising Communist threat, was introduced.

The Marshall Plan, launched in 1948, was as much about communicating ideas and values as it was about aid, training, and infrastructure. The $13 billion (around $160 billion in today’s dollars) initiative was the legislative manifestation of the prevailing spirit at the time among foreign policy elites that combatting the ideological threat of communism would require strengthening democracies and pulling European and American publics closer together. This thinking, as reflected in the Marshall Plan, ushered in a new era of US public diplomacy investments, among them the 1946 launch of the Fulbright International Academic Exchange Program, the initial 1949 broadcasting of Radio Free Europe, and the since-abolished United States Information Agency in 1953, which coordinated overseas cultural programs, US speaker series, publications geared to specific audiences, and English lessons for foreign audiences, among other initiatives. As Nicholas Cull writes in his book, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945–1989, “Marshall Plan publicity began as an effort to ensure that Europe understood the US role in the [post-World War II] reconstruction, but soon expanded into a large-scale attempt to project the American way of life and the virtues of the free enterprise system.” It was about building solidarity and shoring up democratic ideals.

Public diplomacy will be a necessary tool in generating support for addressing today’s shared challenges, like rebuilding Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion—an endeavor which will require Marshall Plan-like levels of investment.

This focus on public diplomacy has waxed and waned with the perceived level of external threat, particularly in Europe. With recent focus on priorities in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, the last two decades have been a “waning” period for the United States. It is time to quickly refocus. Public diplomacy will be a necessary tool in generating support for addressing today’s shared challenges, like rebuilding Ukraine in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion—an endeavor which will require Marshall Plan-like levels of investment (economists currently estimate at least $220 billion will be required). Indeed, several policymakers have already pushed the idea of a “Ukrainian Marshall Plan.” For these and other initiatives to be effective, however, it will require an updated approach to foreign aid and public diplomacy that addresses contemporary concerns.  

Youth Connections

To be successful today, public diplomacy must have many components. Our embassies should keep publics informed and engaged through traditional and social media of the common threats we face and how working together serves shared interests and values. US-sponsored international broadcasting should promote quality news, information, and analysis to those who lack independent sources of media. Civil society and the private sector should promote ties that bind us closer together for mutual benefit. People-to-people interactions should occur at sufficient scale to ensure that citizens can see for themselves the values we hold in common. Allies on both sides of the Atlantic should work together to reduce misinformation and disinformation and build citizens’ long-term resilience to it.


In the last few years, for example, public diplomacy spending in Ukraine by the US government has increased by approximately 42 percent—and, while it is impossible to draw conclusions about the cause, a recent report found Ukraine to be a standout of increasing intergenerational support of democracy.

Young people should be at the heart of this reinvigorated strategy. Virtual and in-person educational, cultural, and exchange programs, for example, create networks of people—especially youth—who better understand the United States and the democratic values we share. They also build the capacity of young people to lead efforts that strengthen democratic values and practices. While exchange programs between the United States and Europe exist, of course, it is worth asking whether these programs, which include the US State Department’s Young Transatlantic Innovation Leaders Initiative Fellowship Program and the USAID-funded European Democracy Youth Network, require additional investment and expansion to be aligned with the need for democratic solidarity. Investment particularly in more youth leadership exchange programs, in the model of the US Department of State’s impactful and wide-reaching Young African Leaders Initiative, would cultivate and connect young champions of transatlantic cooperation.1

Other forms of public engagement, like American corners and spaces, youth ambassadors programs, English language programs, professional exchanges, volunteer and civic engagement programs that invest in the talents of young people and mobilize their energy, and others, can be enormously impactful as well, and create the goodwill necessary to generate support for policies of transatlantic interest. In the last few years, for example, public diplomacy spending in Ukraine by the US government has increased by approximately 42 percent—and, while it is impossible to draw conclusions about the cause, a recent report found Ukraine to be a standout of increasing intergenerational support of democracy. If the executive branch and Congress are serious about building ties between our longest-standing democratic allies, they should allocate more funding for public diplomacy programs in European countries where public support for transatlantic cooperation or the future of democracy have taken a particularly hard hit. It is also worth exploring public diplomacy programs that bring transatlantic publics together around specific shared interests, like climate change, anti-corruption, or the promotion of independent media.

The United States and Europe should capitalize on the current feelings of solidarity to solidify the transatlantic ties that will be crucial for joint action on future challenges, very much in the spirit of the Marshall Plan after World War II. Without investment in initiatives that generate enthusiasm for a deeper transatlantic relationship, support could erode, especially when anti-democratic actors both inside and outside the United States and Europe seek opportunities to fracture the alliance. Public engagement efforts like those noted here can contribute to mitigating that possibility. By investing in public engagement now, US policymakers can plant the seeds of partnership that will pay dividends on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come.

Elayne Deelen is a program officer and Kristin Lord is president and CEO of IREX, a global education and development nonprofit organization.

This year the German Marshall Fund marks its 50th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. These historic moments serve as an opportunity to highlight the achievements of one of the most important American diplomatic initiatives of the 20th century and how its legacy lives on today through GMF and its mission. Learn more about GMF at 50.

  • 1Readers should note that IREX, where both of the authors work, implements the Mandela Washington Fellowship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative on behalf of the US Department of State.