Civil Society in a Time of Uncertainty: Lessons Learned from Wider Europe

The transatlantic relationship is undergoing a fundamental shift in that the idea of the West as a community of values and interests is in question—not only since the election of the new U.S. president and Brexit, but also since populist forces have gained ground on the European continent. The last year has revealed a fundamental sense of uncertainty in the West.

While some years ago, Russia was singled out as the main force undermining the unity of the West, it seems now that it is the West itself that is putting into question its institutions and structures, or as Anne Applebaum tweeted: “The biggest threat to the West is the U.S. President.”

Against this backdrop, what role can civil society play to counter disintegration forces in the West, and what can U.S. civil society, struggling with how to deal with the new president, learn from their counterparts across the Atlantic? It is time to transcend barriers and to draw lessons learned from the wider space of civil society in the U.S., Wider Europe, and Russia, which can fruitfully stimulate each other. While the challenges may be different, what they have in common is certainly an “illiberal moment” in our politics and the need to find an answer to the question of how media and civil society can deal with illiberal tendencies. Some Russian journalists have already shared their lessons learned.

The following further recommendations emerge from this agenda:

  • Civil Rights: Establish and intensify contacts between U.S., European, and Russian civil rights organizations. For instance, a better cooperation between the ACLU and European organizations could have helped to clarify the status of dual-citizenship holders during the travel ban.
  • Media: Convene conferences and establish platforms for U.S., European, and Russian media representatives to exchange lessons learned, as has already been attempted by another Russian journalist: How to cover a hostile president?
  • Business: U.S. and European business associations should speak out against protectionist tendencies, which will ultimately hurt everyone involved, instead of racing for the goodwill of their administration. More transparency, in particular in U.S.-Russian business relations structures, is urgently needed.
  • Education: Exchange lessons learned, for instance from Germany, on civil education and “political education” (“Politische Bildung”). Establish a similar institution to the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education) in the U.S., Russia, and other countries, making sure that they are independent of government funding. Reflect on the instrumentalization of history and historical stereotypes in current politics.

Through such cooperation efforts, civil society can play an important role in countering the “illiberal moment” in our politics and strengthening transatlantic relations in times of political volatility—when the need to rely on civil society is greater than ever.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Liana Fix

Körber-Stiftung

Liana Fix is the Program Director for International Affairs at the Körber-Stiftung. Prior to this, she was a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) with a special focus on Germany’s role in Europe, Russian foreign policy, and the South Caucasus. She was a DAAD/AICGS Fellow from October to December 2015. Previously, she was affiliated with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). In 2012/2013, she was a Mercator Fellow in International Affairs, working on European and transatlantic policy toward Russia at the German Foreign Office, the Carnegie Moscow Center, and the EU Delegation in Georgia. Ms. Fix holds a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science and is a member of Women in International Security (WIIS.de).

She is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).