Two weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron (MMF ‘06) stood before the U.S. Congressand defended democratic values at a key juncture in transatlantic relations, calling for a return to a partnership based on shared values of liberty, equality, and human rights. Just a few days earlier, 80 GMF alumni and grantees gathered on the frontier of democracy in Kyiv, Ukraine to formulate practical strategies to diffuse polarization and restore the common ground to keep our democracies together. Juxtaposing these two moments in transatlantic affairs points to the increasing determination among leaders to take a stand and define new priorities for a future of democratic collaboration both within and between our societies.
In Washington, Macron was both hailed and criticized as virtually the sole European leader able to forge working relations with U.S. President Donald Trump. During his first official U.S. visit, Macron used his address to the U.S. Congress to highlight concerns about the future of democracy. “We can choose isolationism, withdrawal and nationalism,” he asserted, “but closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world.” Instead, Macron offered a series of proposals with particular relevance to the challenges facing democracy. Leaders should not be afraid of confronting the challenges of today, Macron warned. “Both in the United States and Europe, we are living in a time of anger and fear,” he remarked, “but these feelings do not build anything.” They only “freeze and weaken us.” We should therefore take urgent action to provide sustainable solutions. Secondly, the international community should adapt the existing world order to the challenges we now face. If we would like to have an open trade system that creates and protects jobs, we should work through existing institutions and structures: coordinate against financial speculation at the G20 level, agree to new rules at the World Trade Organization, protect our habitat through the Paris agreement on climate. That we should do all this through negotiation was the key thread that united all of Macron’s recommendations, as well as that we should never abandon the rules we ourselves have created, allowing non-democratic regimes to shape those rules for us instead. Finally, in his answer to the shared transatlantic concern about “fake news,” Europe and the United States should work together to make sure that “innovation in technology remain in the service of liberty” and does not “corrode” our ability to make “rational decisions.” Innovation and ethics must go hand-in-hand.
These and other trends impacting democracy featured prominently on the agenda of GMF’s Marshall Seminar on the Frontier of Democracy in Kyiv, Ukraine. In addition to changes taking place in politics, themes included new developments in the digital public sphere, strategies to lead change in the short and long term, crisis of values at the center of today’s polarizations, and effective forms of transnational collaboration. Following two days of dialogues, similations, and workshops, this transatlantic gathering of 80 leaders put together a new centrist agenda and a new corporate social responsibility strategy for the future of democracy. The two documents will soon be made available for alumni feedback before being finalized for online publication. In the interim, alumni came to clear conclusions that echoed Macron’s recommendations: reclaim public discourse, recognize people’s real fears, anxieties, and concerns, strengthen the middle class, and increase the number of people participating in society’s prosperity, among other highlights.
Ultimately, President Macron’s electoral success, along with the similar ideas that are emerging from GMF alumni, point to the key challenges to democracy we are seeing across our societies, as well as offering some solutions to these challenges. The perceived disconnect between mainstream politics and the general public has for years been sapping the support of traditional parties and their centrist agendas. Having realized that this disconnect is real, Macron came up with an entirely new campaign structure that would completely uproot his country’s entrenched party system, saving the centrist agenda from the return of political extremes. Macron rallied around himself a flexible coalition of activists, opinion leaders, and organizations from different strands of French society with whom he could build a modern policy agenda and win national support. GMF alumni who discussed these same challenges to democracy in Kyiv ahead of Macron’s address to the U.S. Congress, represent precisely the type of flexible, diverse leaders that Macron has mobilized to rescue the political center in France. From Washington to Kyiv, therefore, an overarching lesson can be drawn for transatlantic leadership. The people and ideas for action in this contentious time are among us; success ultimately hinges on deft and collaborative leadership that incorporates multiple perspectives — capable of identifying and delivering on a more contemporary agenda that reflects and addresses our society’s actual and real needs.
-Filip Vojvodic-Medic, Kevin Cottrell, Megan Doherty