1. How are Americans reacting to income and wealth inequality?
The income and wealth gap has kept on widening in recent decades, not only in the US but in Germany and the rest of Europe too. Nonetheless, it's true that the disparities in the US are even more extreme than ours - and the negative trend has sped up even more in the last couple of years. What's more, the poor are worse off than they were a few years ago, while the top income groups have seen wealth continue to grow.
Not only is there greater poverty among those parts of the population which were poor before; poverty has now spread to hitherto comfortable groups, notably many white people who would previously have called themselves middle class. That's something new.
At the same time, it is becoming harder and harder for people to move up through the social classes by their own effort; their belief in the American dream is being undermined.
How, though, are America's citizens reacting to these developments? In the past, they have repeatedly shown themselves willing, unlike the majority of Europeans, to put up with a high degree of social injustice and levels of social security that have been extremely low compared with Europe's - assuming they could at the same time pin their hopes on the American dream that hard work would reap the reward of upward social mobility.
This question is key to the future of the US political culture, and we have not yet had a clear answer to it. The current election campaigns are according a major role to the country's high unemployment, the deteriorating prospects of many parts of the middle classes, and the vast discrepancies in income and wealth. However, while Democrats in particular are calling for greater social justice and higher tax rates for those who earn and own the most, significant sections of the population, especially among the white middle classes, are vehemently opposed to higher taxation and even advocate social security cuts. Their anger is directed not at the rich but at the poor, and at the idea of increasing the role of the state.
This reaction may be incomprehensible to many Europeans, but it is completely in line with American traditions. Depending on which way the American people decide to react to the current economic and social crisis, they will either move closer to European societies or become even more different. Looked at that way, it is hardly surprising that the Republican candidates have been casting Europe as the bogey man in their campaigns against their Democrat rivals this election year.
2. Is immigration from Latin America changing politics in the United States?
Immigration from Latin America and Asia is changing the US. Spanish has become the second official language in large parts of the South as well as in many cities. Policy towards Cuba is influenced by consideration for the many people who have left that country to live in the US. In this as in other areas, however, there are vast differences between various immigrant groups from Latin America. Even in terms of religion, there are greater differences than we Europeans tend to assume. Although the majority of Latin Americans are Catholic, a significant minority have joined Protestant sects. Moreover, many members of immigrant groups are now bilingual or have little proficiency in the language of their forebears.
Immigration from Latin American will presumably result in the cultural ties between Europe and the US eventually loosening. This effect is already manifesting itself in the shrinking demand for German and French. That said, the United States' increased concentration on its Pacific neighbours is less a result of the changes in immigrants' origins than of changing economic and security interests.
3. Is the political culture of the United States changing?
In the 1950s and 60s, Germany's political parties were considered ideological and the German party system was seen as polarized. In contrast, US politicians seemed pragmatic and capable of compromise. The opposite is true today. US politics have become more polarized and more subject to ideologies. And this has not happened over night; it is the result of longer-term developments. The current elections won't be the end of it either, meaning that the American political system will remain less effective than it could be throughout the years to come. Cross-party cooperation is called for again and again, but actually becomes a reality less and less frequently. It will remain extremely difficult to carry out long-overdue reforms, especially in those areas of policy - such as in all budgetary and domestic matters - where Congress has considerable influence.
4. Is majority opinion in the US in favour of necessary reforms?
The American healthcare system is simultaneously more expensive and less efficient than Germany's. The US is currently engaged, as is Germany, in trying to reform the various systems of social security to meet the changing needs of an aging population. Although demographic developments in this regard are predicted to be less extreme in the US than here, they still present a huge challenge. Given the potential strength of the economy and society of the US, that challenge is surmountable. Debt reduction is also possible, if - and this is the crucial ‘if' - the political system proves capable of conducting the necessary reforms.
5. What role do populist movements play in the United States today?
Throughout its history, the US has known strong right- and left-wing populist movements time and again. What many Europeans forget is that the US has repeatedly gone through periods of increased politically motivated violence. I would not wish to speculate about whether we are going to see major political violence in the future, given how often much smaller things have sparked major nation-wide clashes in the past.
I am pretty sure, however, that the years ahead will see more rather than less populism in US politics. I refer particularly - though not exclusively - to the right wing of the political spectrum. Populism has been gaining more and more ground there in the last few years and indeed decades. While it is true that the Bush and Romney families belong to the wealthy US elite, at the same time populist tendencies in the right wing of the Republican Party have been growing ever stronger. It is now impossible to put up a Republican candidate who isn't supported or at least tolerated by these groups.
The populist movements will appear under different names and in different forms. This constant renewal of their appearance is a sign of just how continuous their existence is.
6. How is the United States' role as a global military power developing?
Military might is only one of the factors that make the US a leading world power. It also has great economic strength and is attractive for political, cultural and social reasons too. The coming decades will see the United States' role as a global power reduced - relatively speaking - not so much as a result of a US decline as in consequence of the rise of new powers. If the US doesn't become more competitive economically, China's economic rise will lead to an even more tangible shift in the political balance of power. Militarily, the US will remain the only world power for the foreseeable future.
That said, in Asia, the growing military capabilities of the Chinese fleet could compromise the credibility of American security guarantees. That is the crucial reason behind the redeployment of US military potential from Europe to Asia. At the same time, the US has to reduce military spending unless it is to pass up all chance of reducing its budget deficit. For these economic and military reasons, the US depends on partners more now than it used to. However, it will only gain partners if it is prepared to show consideration for their interests. It is difficult for many Americans, conservatives above all, to accept these changed parameters of the United States' role as a world power.
7. How is the United States' relationship with NATO developing?
The United States' attitude to NATO, the UN and other international organizations and agreements is primarily utilitarian; they are not seen as having any intrinsic value but are judged on the basis of whether or not they serve US interests and objectives. NATO is set to remain the most important institutional expression of transatlantic relations. However, its significance from the US point of view will go down as the Pacific fleet's rises.
8. What effect do economic problems have for the United States' role as a global power?
To the advantage of the US, the dollar area is still associated with relatively credible capabilities, politically and financially, compared to the euro area. Nonetheless, the country's economic problems do risk undermining its influence and its role as a factor in global economic stability if the task of resolving them keeps being put off.
9. Is the US going to remain dependent on oil and gas imports?
Particularly by exploiting its shale gas reserves, the US will cease to depend on gas imports in the coming years. That will have a considerable impact on global gas prices. As for oil, North America's oil fields would enable the US to stop relying on imports from outside the region, if it could reduce its per capita energy consumption to the same level as Germany. Though technically feasible, this is politically impossible. President Obama nonetheless intends, unlike his conservative rivals, to at least move a little way in that direction - but even he won't want to do without nuclear power.
10. What is the future role of the financial sector?
The financial sector will remain significant. In the wake of the financial crisis though, it's not going to regain its former significance and rates of growth very soon. At the same time, new financial centres are developing in Asia, and maybe in the Middle East too. The United States will find it easier to adapt to these new developments than the UK, and its financial centre in London, for example.
11. Is the dollar here to stay as the lead currency of the world?
It has been clear for quite a few years now that the dollar, although set to remain the most important lead currency for some time yet, is losing its position as the only lead currency. In spite of the crisis that the euro area is experiencing at the moment, I see the euro's role as a lead currency increasing over time. It won't replace the dollar, but it will complement it. China's currency will also gradually find its feet as a convertible lead currency. The Japanese and British currencies' roles look unlikely to change much, apart from maybe shrinking a little. This new complexity in monetary matters reflects a new diversity and complexity in global and regional balances of power.
12. Are there changes in the balance of power between the United States and China?
The balance of power between the US and China has been shifting already and will continue to change. The shifting balances are particularly noticeable in Asia, but they are not limited to that region.
13. What is the effect of conflict and tensions in Asia?
The possibility of increasing tensions and conflicts in Asia is the key topic among experts within and outside the US Administration. Economic conflict is likely; military conflict, though not impossible, is avoidable. If military conflict is to be prevented, China, India, Japan and other powers in Asia need to be kept from misinterpreting situations and the reactions of other players. That is the objective behind the increase in communication between the relevant stakeholders. Similarly to its talks with North Korea, the United States is also endeavouring to ensure that China as a power has a stake in the search for solutions to particular problems.
At the same time, however, Asia lacks those really effective regional institutions - which Europe has - which would make it easier to contain and resolve conflicts. Asia does have a lot of issues that remain unresolved. Many of them have the potential to escalate into major military conflicts. The current governments in the US and China, and in Japan, are aware of these dangers - but there is no guarantee that things will stay the way they are. While it is true that we in Europe can have no more than a marginal influence on these conflicts in Asia, we nonetheless have a major interest in the players involved demonstrating that they are ready and able to act rationally and cooperatively.
14. Is the United States going to be primarily a Pacific power in the future?
The US is an Atlantic power as well as a Pacific one. The Cold War being over, the United States' economic and political interests have been shifting towards the Pacific region, but it has not left its role in the Atlantic behind. In contrast to the last century, Europe is no longer seen in the US as a source of global conflict; we are instead going to be increasingly expected to provide partnership in the search for solutions to conflicts on the borders of Europe and further afield. Our relevance in the eyes of the US will be determined by the extent to which we are willing and able to meet those expectations.
Germany and Europe can't be relevant everywhere. The very desire to have relevance everywhere would be completely against Germany's own interests. We therefore need to decide, through public debate, where we want to and are able to. In contrast to the Cold War era, there isn't always an obvious answer to that question. We therefore find ourselves forced by the changes in the world and in the US to engage in long-overdue debate on the future interests and priorities of our foreign and security policy. In my opinion, this process needs to involve changes to our debating culture and in the way foreign policy decisions are made.
15. Is the US going to remain our most important partner?
The United States is going to stay our most important partner outside the European Union. The EU's chances of having the US consider it an equal partner and respect it as such will depend not on the US but on Europe itself. The importance of Asia is rising for Europe, as it is for the US - but, unlike the US, we are not the kind of power in Asia that can provide security guarantees.
We need to learn to extend our global thinking to include security policy. Just like the US, our economic policy will include a global dimension. In terms of foreign policy, the EU is going to be playing a more important role regionally. The hope is that the EU will become an effective actor, respected around the world. I expect that the EU's security and defence policy will still have a primarily regional focus in 2030. It ought to gain the capacity to pursue effective defence policy, but it should certainly not be aiming to match the United States.
Karsten Voigt was Coordinator for German-American Cooperation in the German Foreign Office from 1999 to 2010. He worked in the German Parliament from 1976 to 1998, most notably as foreign affairs spokesman for the governing SPD party. Mr. Voigt is a member of the Atlantic Initiative Advisory Board.
The German version of this article has been published in our blog on German foreign policy "Deutschlands Agenda"