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Sep 29, 2022

Future-Proofing Transatlantic Relations (III): Keeping the Transatlantic Mojo

Europeans have to make an extra effort to maintain the transatlantic relationship. Some suggestions for what they should and should not do. 

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and France's President Emmanuel Macron stand during a ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany May 9, 2022.
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Having spent a good part of my life in the United States, I think of myself as a transatlanticist. It’s not just that I’m the sentimental type. I firmly believe that Europeans and Americans have been well served by the relationship that was built after World War II and continued to prosper in the post-Cold War era.

But the world has dramatically changed. The relative weight of the West has declined. Authoritarianism is rising. Securing European and American interests has become much harder.

Europe and the US have also changed. Domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic are polarized and turbulent. In the US, Europe can no longer count on coming first. For Europe, it’s different: Because we are so dependent on the United States as a security provider, maintaining a strong relationship is existential. So how do we keep the transatlantic mojo going? Since our ability to influence US policies and politics is limited, we should focus on what Europe can do.

By Europe, I mean the European Union member states and the European NATO states plus those countries that align themselves with us. Including Ukraine, which is sacrificing so much in defense of fundamental principles and values.

What follows is an (admittedly arbitrary) list of things Europeans should and should not.

Don’t Keep Calm

Europe is not in a good place. To its credit, it has weathered a series of crises over the past 15 years. Nonetheless, Europe today faces a cascade of challenges, internal and external. Even when Russian imperialism has been defeated (as it will be), Russia will pose a threat. Our Southern Neighborhood has been battered by the pandemic, climate change, and conflict. Europe has not yet felt the full impact. China will challenge us across multiple domains. Sanctions against Russia and soaring energy prices are affecting Europe far more than the US, creating economic and political turbulence. Fear is a poor adviser, but let’s just agree this is not business as usual.

Don’t Ask What America Can Do for You

America does a lot to support European security and that’s how we’d like to keep it. But the current state of affairs will not endure. It’s perfectly clear that the US will have to shift resources to the Indo-Pacific and that Europeans themselves will have do more. This is what the term Zeitenwende (or “watershed moment”) is meant to convey: It’s about Europe and specifically Germany stepping up and investing in security and defense. Important decisions have been taken. But the change needs to be real and sustained.

Don’t Ask What You Can Do for America

During a recent visit to Washington, I witnessed an exchange between a European diplomat and a senior US official. The former asked how Europe might support the US on China. The latter replied that this was the wrong question: Europeans were not bystanders and presumably had their own issues with China. They should therefore come forward with ideas of their own. The takeaway: Europeans need to think the big issues through for themselves. Once we’ve done that, we can have more serious transatlantic conversations.

Do Your Homework

Europeans have plenty of homework to do. Defense has already been mentioned. Let’s just add three more issues:

Economy: The EU has done well in terms of delivering stability and balancing markets and social justice. But it has failed spectacularly to become “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world,” in the words of the 2000 Lisbon Agenda. Having failed so far doesn’t mean we should give up. The EU has its Green Deal and its Digital Agenda as well as a number of other major initiatives. What it does not have is an overarching and ambitious project comparable to the 1986 Single European Act which revitalized the then European Community.

Neighborhood: Europe has done much to support Ukraine, but not nearly as much as the US (leaving aside support for Ukrainian refugees, with currently 1.3 million in Poland and 1 million in Germany). Europe needs to do more, not just in terms of military support, and it needs to be there for the long haul. More generally, Europe must reach out to its Eastern Neighborhood and to the Balkans. The newly established “European Political Community” looks like a promising framework to do so. Equally, the EU must articulate a comprehensive vision for its Southern Neighborhood, first and foremost with regard to Africa.

Trust: Among many partners and/or allies in Central and Eastern Europe there is a lack of faith in France and Germany, specifically over Russia policy. Rebuilding trust will be crucial.

Keep China on Your Mind

European attitudes toward China have evolved in recent years in response to Beijing’s increasingly coercive behavior. While there is a significant level of convergence between transatlantic partners, European and US interests regarding China are not identical. Given that the People’s Republic is the number one international issue for the US and given the challenge it poses for Europe, Europeans must do their part to rapidly develop a transatlantic agenda on China with as much alignment as possible.

Build a “Transatlantic Space”

In December 2020, the EU published a “New EU-US Agenda for Global Change.” Many items on this to-do list have since been taken forward, including creating a US-EU Trade and Technology Council. But we need to be far more ambitious: In a world of systemic rivals, we must create a transatlantic space for trade, investment, technology, data, and standards —leveraging our significant regulatory power and fostering growth and innovation on both sides of the Atlantic.

To achieve that, we must think big and we must push back against protectionism (some provisions in the recently adopted Inflation Reduction Act are decidedly not helpful from a transatlantic point of view).

Get Yourself an “America Strategy”

The EU and its member states must work harder to understand what’s going on inside the United States. That requires devoting more resources to monitoring US politics. Europeans can also take a page out of Canada’s playbook: We should cover the US systematically, coast to coast, identifying key players, and making sure that our embassies, consulates, chambers of commerce, and cultural institutes are closely coordinated and pulling in the same direction.

US politics will be highly polarized for a long time to come, with the electorate increasingly divided into two separate blocs. In the aftermath of the Trump presidency, some Europeans are shying away from engaging with Republicans. Whatever Europeans think of the former president and whatever his current hold over the Republican Party, at the end of the day there is simply no alternative to working with both sides of the aisle.

Common Destiny or Bust

So those are my top seven suggestions. Anyone interested in extra homework can check out the Munich Security Conference’s “transatlantic to-do list.”

We can think of the transatlantic community as a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, a community that shares a common destiny. Whatever divides us pales in comparison to the gap between what we believe in and the vision of humanity put forward by Russian and Chinese leaders (to mention just two examples). Perhaps what is needed is a European vision of its place in the world, hardnosed rather than sentimental, and based on a sober assessment of realities. A vision that is communicated to, and debated with, citizens across Europe and that makes clear what is at stake and also that sacrifices will be required.

Some will say a transatlantic framework is insufficient to solve today’s global challenges—first and foremost the climate crisis. This is true. But it is an indispensable building block for a global coalition that can do the job.

While working in the US, I often quoted a sentence attributed to Benjamin Franklin at the time of the American Revolution: “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” Today, the same logic applies: As Europeans and North Americans, we must hang together to defend our interests and values. But we may fail to do so—unless Europeans make an extra effort to keep the mojo going.

Boris Ruge is Vice Chairman of the Munich Security Conference. He has been a German Foreign Service Officer since 1989. Before joining MSC, he was Germany’s Deputy Ambassador in the US.