Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mend the Gap! Making Up After the Atlantic ‘Breakup’

By Brooke Heaton,
Assistant Dir
ector of Young Atlanticist Programs, Atlantic Council of the United States

As the Atlantic community steps into an uncertain and increasingly complex 21st century, we face a set of challenges that can be tackled only through collective action. But a quick glance at our community reveals such deep polarization and mistrust, that one wonders how a rebirth of Atlanticism could possibly be shaped. Opinion polls of Americans and Europeans are not encouraging, and reveal a growth of misperception and mistrust across the pond in the past few years. According to a 2007 BBC poll, 57 percent of the British, 74 percent of Germans and 69 percent of the French see the United States as having a mainly negative influence in the world. Something has clearly gone wrong.

Why has the US become so unpopular? Unsurprisingly, it seems America’s might is working against its popularity. In one poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, the top reason why Europeans dislike the US is their resentment of U.S. power. A unilateralist approach in Iraq, coupled with European objections over the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, US reticence on climate change, and a US military presence in the Middle East have clearly paved a road to ‘splittsville’ across the Atlantic. Oh, and of course there’s o now infamous ‘Decider’ in Chief whose brash verbiage on ‘freedom’ and American exceptionalism has perhaps done as much to undue confidence in US leadership as any administration this side of the industrial revolution. But beyond the headline issues, Europeans are also critical of the US economic model, resenting the power of America’s multinational corporations and blaming the US for causing income inequality between the rich and the poor. Key European leaders have also done their part, championing a hard anti-American stance to energize electorates at the polls and inspiring further division ‘from above’.

Is there light at the end of this tunnel? It appears so. At a time when enhanced cooperation has never been more needed, it appears that it is equally wanted. In fact, a vast majority of Americans and Europeans would like to see closer ties reaching across the Atlantic, according to a March 2008 British Council poll. Americans overwhelmingly favor closer relations with Europe (91 percent) and, among all European countries polled, 62 percent favor closer European -American relations. This includes large majorities of Poles (77 percent), Germans (75 percent), Irish (70 percent), and Spaniards (67percent). A BBC World Service poll from last April shows the pendulum may also be swinging the other way for European views of US foreign policy, even in France, where those who see the US as having a mainly negative influence in the world have dropped from 74 percent last January to just 59 percent. In Britain and Germany, the numbers have also dropped, though modestly, to 53 and 72 percent respectively. Combine this with U.S. Presidential candidates elbowing for room on the stage of multilateralism and partnerships, and the future looks bright enough to wear shades.

With new leadership in Europe and a new American administration just around the corner, there is a ready supply of hope for Atlanticists. But as the evidence above testifies, much work is to be done to heal the division and to foster a greater sense of purpose in the transatlantic partnership. It will take time to renew this partnership and much work will be done by the emerging generation of leaders in the US and Europe - a generation that has grown up in an increasingly globalized world very different from their elders.

Fortunately, young leaders across the Atlantic have never been better poised to engage each other. As the world shrinks in scale through globalization and the reach of technology, the growing ‘cohesion’ of youth culture has become an important means to strengthen the Atlantic community. Widespread zeal for Facebook, Youtube, popular music, Wikipedia and ecommunication provides immense common ground for interaction and understanding. Increased educational exchanges between young Americans and Europeans can also contribute greatly to softening divisionism. Though these shifts seem incremental and subtle now, the results could prove monumental.

The Youth Atlantic Treaty Association and the Young Atlanicist Network play a central role in this effort. With a shared mission to build a new generation of Euro-Atlantic leaders who embrace our common values and promote closer ties, we can help forge a new path by promoting policies and practices that look beyond the division of the status quo to take on the challenges that we will face in our lives. With a network expanding from Canada to Kazakhstan, we understand that today’s global challenges cannot be addressed without widespread support and leadership from the US and Europe and we have more tools than ever before to take on this task. The folks on my side of the pond are certainly ready for the change.

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