Transatlantic Take

Broader and Deeper: Transatlantic Responsibilities in the 21st Century

August 19, 2021
5 min read
Photo Credit: Rommma / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: This essay is from the collection Forging the New West published by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany to celebrate 40 years of transatlantic cooperation. Other authors in the collection include Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, CDU Chancellor Candidate Armin Laschet, German Minister of Defense Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer, and many others.

The Western community of values has a shared responsibility to think more creatively across latitudes. We should take a more expansive and long term view of transatlantic relations.

Transatlantic partners are used to framing policies in terms of challenges and opportunities. Much less tends to be said about responsibility. But the coming years are likely to cast questions of shared responsibility – and affinity – in sharper relief. This implies greater attention to values alongside practical interest. It also implies thinking in terms of longer time horizons and a more expansive and creative view of transatlantic relations. The responsibilities will be local, regional and global.

First, our societies expect to be protected against evident risks, both old and new. The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic underscores the vulnerability of Europe and North America to unconventional as well as traditional risks. Even before the pandemic, the idea of nations and institutions that “protect” was already part of the political discourse on both sides of the Atlantic. In the post-pandemic environment, citizens will rightly expect more of government in terms of security and effective governance. This extends to the security of economies and the security of privacy and the digital space.

Europe and North America will also need to confront threats arising from more vigorous geopolitical competition with Russia and China. Deterrence and defence remain an unavoidable responsibility, but there is a risk that national perspectives on these challenges will diverge in ways that undermine collective security. In this setting, leaderships will have a responsibility not only to acknowledge but to champion multilateral institutions, including core security institutions such as NATO. As recent experience underscores, the risk of the renationalization of policies is very real, even for core members of the transatlantic alliance. If allies are heading into an era of more dangerous security competition in Europe and Asia, we can anticipate more pointed debates about uncomfortable topics, from nuclear strategy to arms control. In this context, reassurance will be as important as deterrence. Bolstering the role of NATO as a political institution can help with this task.

Second, transatlantic partners have a responsibility to address pressing global challenges in a concerted fashion. Climate change is likely to be the animating global issue for U.S.–EU relations over the longer term. The Biden administration has already signaled a major change of course on this front with a return to the Paris Climate Accord. John Kerry’s March 2021 visit to Brussels to meet EU climate policy counterparts was among the first high-level in-person transatlantic meetings for the new administration. Cooperation around green economic recovery and a post-carbon future will be central to the future of transatlantic relations and will influence policies in other critical areas, from trade to infrastructure. This is one of the points in which international policy has a direct connection to the concerns of citizens. For the next generation in particular, cooperation on climate will be an increasingly important test for the worth of the transatlantic relationship.

The United States and Europe will also need a concerted approach to the long-term challenge of the rise of China and developments in Asia. The challenge is multifaceted, encompassing trade and technology, ideology and security. Aspects of this competition will inevitably be seen differently from the United States and Europe. The United States is a two-ocean power and the “Indo-Pacific” is already a primary strategic focus for Washington and others. To rephrase a well-used formula, we could be nearing the end of a hundred-year American pivot to Europe. This shift will have significant implications for transatlantic burden-sharing. But it comes at a time when the European security environment itself is unstable and characterized by significant risks in the east and south. Key institutions will need to take account of this geopolitical evolution. NATO may not take on new security roles in Asia, but it will surely need to address developments in the region as a political imperative for the alliance.

Third, we need to take a more comprehensive view of transatlantic partnership. Transatlantic relations are not just about the Washington–Brussels–Berlin axis. The transatlantic community has a responsibility to think more creatively across latitudes. Many of the most pressing global challenges, from public health to the environment and from migration to the future of trade and finance, cannot be tackled effectively without cooperation with the global south. Even in strictly transatlantic terms, there is a need to work more closely with Atlantic societies in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The lessons from the pandemic are very clear about the value of a broader geographic approach, especially in confronting issues at the confluence of domestic and international concerns. We have a responsibility to update our mental maps of transatlantic relations and bring new actors into closer partnership with Europe, North America and Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Finally, the United States and Europe have a responsibility to avoid complacency. Populists and nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic have taken aim at elites, their institutions and their projects. This has had a corrosive effect on attitudes toward alliances, international agreements, and not least, objective debate about foreign policy. Leaders will face the task of balancing the need to connect foreign policy to the everyday concerns of citizens, without sliding into sovereignty- and identity-driven strategies. Pressing economic and health concerns make this a more difficult balance to achieve. But it is critical to the durability of the transatlantic relationship. To thrive in the coming years, transatlantic relations need to become both broader and deeper – broader in engaging with other actors in the Atlantic space, and deeper in connecting with citizens who may not otherwise be aware of the centrality to their own interests of relations across the Atlantic. This is a human as well as a geopolitical project. Going beyond the conventional “challenges and opportunities” approach, those who care about transatlantic relations need to underscore the importance of Atlantic affinity – and a shared sense of global responsibility.