The essays collected here have at least one obvious consistency: they are all bursting at their seams with ideas. On any given topic or issue area there is a robust agenda for potential collaboration between Europeans and the new administration in the United States. In part, this reflects the sense of urgency that often accompanies a significant political change; after four years of often unnecessarily acrimonious relations with former president Donald Trump’s administration, transatlanticists on both sides know that one thing that cannot be recovered is time: this is a moment to rush to do good.
Yet, even with the best intentions, the opportunities outlined by the contributors would take more attention, technical expertise, and political capital than leaders on either side of the Atlantic collectively will be able to allocate in the coming years. Therefore, the question to ask is not “what can the transatlantic community do together?” but rather the more difficult question of “what should the transatlantic community work on first?”
Newspaper columnists and think tank panels increasingly indulge in clichés suggesting that while the twentieth century was an Atlantic century, the twenty-first century is a Pacific century. However, notwithstanding the Indo-Pacific region’s undeniable rise in strategic importance, the transatlantic relationship continues to be the essential building block of international cooperation on almost every global challenge—from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change, from addressing global financial crises to fostering economic development and managed migration.
The United States remains indispensable in world politics, even as its unusual moment of post–Cold War hegemony wanes. But its declining relative power, particularly economic power, makes its network of alliances and partnerships even more important. And the partnership between Europe and the United States endures as a relationship between two of the three largest economic actors in the world and as a bond that ties together the majority of advanced industrialized democracies in the world. In an era of renewed geopolitical challenge, particularly from China, a smart strategy for North America—and a smart strategy for Europe—includes a commitment to renewal and innovation in the transatlantic relationship.
So, again, the operative question is: where to begin? Even if one could rank issues by some composite metric (adding up details like urgency, security risk, economic impact, and so on), that alone would not generate a satisfying response. For there is an unwarranted but festering insecurity on both sides of the Atlantic about the enduring rationale for, and therefore strength of, the relationship. As the generation with first-hand memories of World War II has passed, the need for cooperation between North America and Europe that was self-evident and undeniable in the postwar era has been called into question. Transatlanticism needs a political jumpstart.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s campaign messaging underscored his commitment to reinvigorate U.S. alliances and a cooperative approach to international affairs in general. This combined with the responses of European leaders to his election—replete with barely masked relief and elation—to put both sides on record as committed to giving renewal a go. But a renaissance in transatlantic relations must be buttressed by more than leaders’ intentions; it must also be something that publics support because it delivers in demonstrable, identifiable ways on the political priorities of voters in both Europe and the United States.
For many Europeans, the most obvious area where American progress could engender confidence is climate action. Broadly seen in Europe as an urgent priority, climate change is also a challenge where the indispensability of the United States—both in terms of its own emissions and its role in marshaling international action, including by the private sector—is obvious. Biden will struggle to take the kind of domestic action necessary without sufficient support in Congress, but his selection of former secretary of state John Kerry as a presidential climate envoy augurs well for U.S. cooperation in developing a more robust “Paris-plus” international framework for climate action.
Meanwhile Americans across the political spectrum are increasingly focused on China, and China’s unfair trade practices are an area of bipartisan concern. Notwithstanding the development in 2019 of an EU strategy that recognizes China as a “strategic competitor,” Europe is likely to struggle in the coming months and years to sustain and execute a coherent policy. The December 2020 rush to finalize an investment agreement with China before Biden took office was at odds with the formal declarations made earlier that same month by European leaders stating that they intended to work with the incoming Biden administration on areas of geopolitical concern, including China.1 Going forward, Germany’s export concerns and Southern Europe’s desire for Chinese investment will complicate Europe’s position on China in different ways. And yet, if Europe wants to deliver something Biden can point to as evidence of the continuing dividends that the transatlantic relationship generates for Americans, a coherent, coordinated, and robust China policy (and averting any backsliding on defense spending commitments) would go a long way.
Climate change is not an easy area for the United States to make tangible progress; Europe won’t find it easy to respond to China’s increasing assertiveness and continued abrogation of international rules. Yet, however politically difficult these topics may be, smart, coordinated policy on both would advance the long-term interests of both Americans and Europeans. And perhaps precisely because these are not easy places to start, they would be meaningful examples of the value of a genuine relationship: part of partnership is seriously considering each other’s interests, and accepting the relationship as a reason to incorporate a partner’s interests into one’s own intentions.
Finally, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should ask themselves how they can make the transatlantic relationship compelling not only to their own citizens, but also to those the world over. One of the common refrains about the transatlantic relationship is that it is based on shared values—which usually means liberal values, including the idea that individuals are free and equal in dignity and rights. Perhaps it is time to reexamine this claim and to ensure that it is more than a rhetorical crutch. Certainly transatlanticism, which began before World War II but is rooted institutionally in postwar arrangements like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has long held up liberal values in an aspirational sense. But the transatlantic relationship was also, in important ways, a replacement for colonial arrangements that declined over the course of the twentieth century. In Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, that introduced the “iron curtain” as a defining metaphor of the Cold War, Churchill also stated that “the safety of the world requires a new unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast. It is from the quarrels of the strong parent races in Europe that the world wars we have witnessed, or which occurred in former times, have sprung.”2 The transatlantic relationship in the wake of World War II and through the Cold War was seen by its participants as a linchpin of global governance—as the seat of the free world. It was also an alliance of what Churchill—with racism typical of the day—called “the strong parent races.” The transatlantic relationship was built, in part, on an assumption that North America and Europe, in part by virtue of their common European ancestry, ought to take the helm in a diverse world. This assumption is not a firm foundation.
Going forward, North American and European democracies should commit anew to the liberal values on which they were founded. Right-wing populism, so alluring to so many on both sides of the Atlantic, is almost always rooted in part in xenophobia and/or white supremacy. It is antithetical to liberal values—to the idea of the equal dignity of individuals and the importance of their equality under the law. In pushing back against the illiberal and authoritarian elements in contemporary politics, the European and North American democracies have an opportunity: to demonstrate that pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional constitutional democracies remain the most morally defensible and practically attractive form of governance. Transatlanticism should be grounded not in some sort of vaguely race-based global noblesse oblige, but in a doubling-down on the universal values that underpin democracy and human rights. This doubling down calls for work on each side of the Atlantic, and a full-throated commitment to human rights as the moral foundation for international politics in the twenty-first century. If North Americans and Europeans wish to lead in the twenty-first century, they should plan to earn that leadership by upholding democratic values—indeed, the option of merely asserting leadership as they did three quarters of a century ago is not on the table today.
1 “Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council: A New EU-US Agenda for Global Change,” European Commission, December 2, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/joint-communication-eu-us-agenda_en.pdf.
2 Winston Churchill, “The Sinews of Peace (‘Iron Curtain Speech’),” speech at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946, https://winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1946-1963-elder-statesman/the-sinews-of-peace/.