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Transatlantic perspectives on Iraq

by Tim Erickson

This war has become a highly emotional issue for all of us. Judging it in a sensible light has become more difficult than ever. Your discussion forum does provide a way to listen to various opinions and put them in perspective” – writes a participant from Connecticut, USA, after participating in the latest TIESWeb/Politalk online transatlantic discussion.

Over the last several weeks the tension between the US and Western Europe about the situation in Iraq, has become front page news. Both official policy and public opinion appear to be in conflict and citizens on either side of the Atlantic are left to puzzle over what has become of their long time “allies.”

While government officials and many academic specialists engage in frequent communication with their colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic, most citizens rely upon the media in their attempts to make sense of this disagreement. TIESWeb and Politalk have put together a series of online forums that provides citizens and local community leaders a real opportunity for direct transatlantic interaction on this “highly emotional issue.” It’s an opportunity to hear directly from citizens in other countries, their thoughts and opinions on the potential war with Iraq. It’s an opportunity for US citizens to share their fear of what will happen if we do not aggressively pursue Saddam Hussein and for Europeans to share their fears about about war and the United States aggressive behavior.

It is also a chance for citizens on both sides of the Ocean to hear the rational voices of thoughtful citizens, that they sometime find lacking in the diplomatic messages that are exchanged in the media. One participant from the United Kingdom observed “You have my eternal gratitude for organizing this discussion, not least because it’s demonstrated that ordinary people like me and you can hold a rational debate rather better than can some of our political leaders.”

TIESWeb and Politalk have adapted a rather structured format for their online exchanges, limiting the number of messages posted daily and screening posts for off-topic or abusive messages. This structure makes it possible for many busy individuals who are new to internet communication or just don’t have a lot of time, to get involved in the discussion. Limiting the number of messages, also makes it easier for non native English speakers to follow the English language discussion. There are plans for future discussions to make it possible for French, German, and Spanish speakers to participate in their native tongue.

While the discussion was sometimes spirited, participants remained constructive and thoughtful throughout the three week event. One of the most notable observations of the discussion, was the frustration or even anger that some Americans felt towards what they perceive as “old European” complaciency. US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfield’s characterization of France and Germany as “old Europe” struck a chord with some US participants. At the same time, even more of the US participants expressed thanks that Europe was there to put a check on US behavior.

Among European participants, there was a sense of frustration that many Americans do not seem to understand the effect of US policy in the world and an almost naïve belief about the essential “goodness” of US foreign policy.

The purpose of these Transatlantic Perspectives events is not to convince the other side or necessarily change anyone’s opinion on the fundamental issues. What we hope to accomplish, is that participants come to better understand other points of view and that over time, that understanding of citizens, will impact how our nations interact together at the highest levels. We also hope to build connections between North America and Europe that can lead to innovative collaborations between our governments, but especially between our civil societies.

As citizens of democractic nations, we have the potential to create our own connections and engage in our own partnerships that might in the long term address some of the pressing global issues before us. We need not wait for our leaders to act, we can engage each other and tackle these issues in a proactive way. One future Transatlantic Perspectives online events is likely to address the topic of how citizens in North American and Europe can work together as a constructive force for Peace in the Middle East.

Our next effort will be an “Online STUDENT discussion” involving university students from across North America and Europe in a discussion about the developing situation in Iraq and its impact on transatlantic relations. This event is tentatively set for April 7-18.

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