The Paris Climate Accord. Steel and aluminum tariffs. The Iran Deal. It is hard to imagine a rougher patch in transatlantic and US-German relations.
Earlier this month, when we participated in a conference with German and American opinion leaders who had gathered in Washington, DC to assess the relationship and determine concrete actions that will drive the alliance forward, the mood of our German friends reflected this rough patch. There was great pessimism about how much progress can be achieved in shoring up the relationship given the current environment.
Yet we repeat here in writing what we said at the conference: We cannot give in to this pessimism and be defeatist. The trans-Atlantic partnership has been fundamental to the success of our countries over the course of the last 75 years, and even as our governments do not see eye-to-eye on many – or, it sometimes seems, any – issues, maintaining the strength of this relationship over the next 75 years will require non-governmental actors to do all they can to protect – and strengthen – this relationship.
Together – the people of the United States and Germany as much as the governments – we have done remarkable things, and not just in Europe, but increasingly around the world.
Our deep economic ties provide jobs, wealth, and opportunities for our respective people and economies, as well as increased security around the world. German companies in the US employ roughly 700,000 people. Firms like BMW in South Carolina, which has invested $8.9 billion supporting 10,000 jobs and even more at suppliers located in the state, have revitalized entire regions of the country. German direct investment in the US amounted to $255 billion in 2015 – and $372 billion in 2016.
Shared business and economic interests build on shared educational and cultural ties. Generations of Americans have studied in Germany and Germans in America. In the last 16 years, more than 150,000 German students have come to the US and just over 135,000 Americans have visited German universities. And in recent years, the number of Americans studying in Germany has been increasing by 7-8% annually in a sign of growing interest and opportunities. These statistics don’t even include the thousands of high school students spending time in each country or the tens of thousands of American servicemen and women who have been stationed in Germany.
Citizens in both countries increasingly feel as if their concerns are not being addressed.
And even as our governments disagree about how to address major policy challenges, the people of our two countries have an opportunity to tackle a common fundamental challenge that threatens our democratic governments: increasing dissatisfaction among voters resulting from a feeling that the economy is not working for everyday Americans and Germans.
A recent survey conducted by the American Council on Germany and Atlantik-Brücke found that on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a decline in confidence in democratic institutions – one-third of Germans and Americans have little or no confidence. Clearly, citizens in both countries increasingly feel as if their concerns are not being addressed.
Even as we lament the rise of populist parties and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic that respond to this dissatisfaction, both Germany and the United States are reacting with insufficient urgency to this critical problem. America suffers from a yawning skills gap where millions of well-paying jobs are empty because employers cannot find workers with the skills they need. Skills training is an area where US companies and training institutions can learn a great deal from the Germans. The workforce training structure in Germany between unions, business, and training institutions has important lessons that can inspire the programs we need here for our citizens.
Meanwhile, notwithstanding its advances in technology, Germany trails most of the industrial world in what it calls “digitalization,” or access to the internet and digital commerce. Here Germany can learn a lot from American companies and educators, even in light of our differences around privacy and data protection.
To take advantage of the opportunities, we ought not be fearful of the future but should instead grab it. If you look at Germans and Americans in the post-war period, and especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you’ve not seen people marked by fear of the future.
Cooperation on these shared challenges – and cooperation even while our governments continue to disagree on many other issues – will serve as a reminder of the great things Americans and Germans have been able to do when we work together. It will also be a source of pressure for our governments to return to pragmatic problem solving on big policy issues.
The German-American relationship has had highs and lows, but we remain optimistic about the transatlantic alliance because at the end of the day it is built on a range of shared interests among our people, if not always our governments. By working together on this common challenge of education, training and skills, we can restore confidence in one another.
We believe that, if we engage with intentionality and hard work, the transatlantic relationship with Germany will not simply return to where it was, but will be even stronger.
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