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Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg Headshot

Explaining the Fiscal Cliff and the Newtown Shooting Is an Urgent Foreign Policy Task

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Transatlantic impulses are repeatedly inspired by romantic, even nostalgic thoughts. An interesting, but fruitless strategy to inspire the younger generation on both sides of the Atlantic: while in the U.S. more and more feel attracted by transpacific aspirations, many young people in Europe did not grow up with an existential threat that urgently called for American friendship -- and for gratitude.

Aside from relatively uninspired references to -- certainly given -- shared values and interests, there is still a propensity to state the unrivaled global influence of the so-called "West." A remarkable hubris, if we don't work on our mutual misunderstandings and disparities as well.

Four years ago a dazzling transatlantic hope was connected to Barack Obama. Today though, while post-election expectations in Europe are again high, it seems that many Europeans turned their hope into disillusion, despite their overwhelming preference in the election for the incumbent. Some parts of the European foreign policy community even draw the conclusion that an internationally celebrated political rock-star turned out to be a one time Grammy. This is too harsh a sentiment, but it should be reflected upon in Washington.

During the election campaign, President Obama repeatedly spoke about the need to renew the U.S. global leadership position. That is more than welcome. The substance of a partnership, which is still capable to successfully confront global challenges and crises will not in itself grow out of a definition of our commonalities and shared convictions. It can only be developed through patient and consistent explanations of our differences and misgivings as well. Many of them are based on a mounting lack of knowledge and understanding.

Two recent events in U.S. society may serve as examples. Two incidents that bear the potential to impact the global image and therefore also European perception of the U.S.

Neither are part of the typical transatlantic agenda -- unlike the pivot to Asia, military missions abroad, climate change and other well-known risks and challenges. And we are not intending to break "la bonne tradition diplomatique" -- not to criticize domestic politics as guests in the United States. But as lifelong friends of America we feel obliged to offer impressions from Europe, which could lead into negative reverberation if unmanaged.

The first such event is America's handling of the fiscal cliff. Yes, markets recorded a massive single-day gain after Congress found a last-minute deal to avoid the ominous cliff. But global trust has not been gained, though. This finding is not only due to the assumption that the agreement has only deferred the most relevant issues. Aside from an inflationary described and yet unresolved debt and budget crisis, the U.S. also faces a general crisis of international understanding.

Europeans feel they are hostage to an economic event, which they have zero sway over, but which will continue to effect global markets, thus their economic perspectives. Obviously, there is little understanding why the latest solution didn't reach further than to the next showdown in Congress. Most Europeans do not know how the U.S. form of government is different from that of other democracies. In general, it is beyond comprehension for even well-educated Western European political elites, who have spent most of their political life working with America through NATO, through the European Union, through wars around the world and through millions of business transactions. Still, there is very little understanding of how Congress is part of government not just the legislature, and why bipartisanship which used to be ingrained in the political system is fading.

Certainly, Europe's own crisis calls for better public policy. Its leaders not only need to explain their grand malaise, but to finally find solutions that go beyond a culture of more or less elegantly muddling through a magnificent quagmire. However, this does not get America off the hook.

The other event, entirely different, is the recent wave of gun violence, and the responses to it. The Newtown massacre has sent shivers through the publics in Europe. The first reaction to the killing of 20 helpless little children and their teachers was that of compassion. Very soon though a remarkable wave of European media reactions gave way to worries about the course to American society. Many Europeans see the discussion after the terrible shooting in Connecticut as further signs of America and Europe drifting apart.

There is no understanding in Europe of the Second Amendment (or for that matter the First). There is no understanding for how and why America ended up with more than 250 million guns in private hands. And there is clearly no understanding that gun sales have been rising over the past half decade, with increases around the last two presidential elections, and after mass shootings like the one in Aurora, and now in Newtown. Many commentators stated that mentally deranged gunmen have destroyed not just human lives, but also caused, and continue to cause, damage to the image of the U.S.

If the president and his team took time to explain the course of action on both counts internationally, they will serve the interests of the United States and the transatlantic relationship well. President Obama and his talented foreign policy team must explain to fellow leaders, in particular their European friends, and the international public at large, what the administration intends to do to avoid the return of the threat of the fiscal cliff. He and his secretary of state must grab every opportunity to tell the world: American society deplores gun violence -- and why America is split on the question whether more guns are the solution, if at all and how the president personally intends to take the lead.

It would make a huge difference. It would be time well spent. It would be an investment with high returns.

In this context, we can only applaud the nomination of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, for secretary of state and defense respectively. They know Europe very well. They will certainly understand the seriousness of the lack of understanding as well.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is a former Minister of Economics and of Defense of Germany. He is a Distinguished Statesman at CSIS in Washington.

Ambassador Andras Simonyi is Managing Director of the Center for Transatlantic relations, SAIS Johns Hopkins University.