Towards a Renewed Transatlantic Bond

Commentary | April 05, 2013

Wolfgang Ischinger, EWI board member and chairman of the Munich Security Conference, urges the United States and Europe to make good on their recent rhetoric about redefining and expanding their ties.

This column, which originally appeared in the German daily Handelsblatt on February 1st, is part of Ischinger's regular Monthly Mind column.

In recent months, the words of American politicians on the subject of transatlantic relations have often sounded a bit like the Van Morrison classic: “Have I told you lately that I love you?” Since the U.S. government announced its “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific, hardly a speech has failed to mention a clear commitment to Europe: ‘Europe is still America's most important partner. America will not abandon Europe. Vice President Joe Biden is not making a special journey to Beijing, but to Germany for the Munich Security Conference.’ And so on, and so forth.

In Europe, and in Germany in particular, we like hearing these things. On both sides of the Atlantic, we seem to have this feeling that our affection for one another needs to be constantly reaffirmed. Where does this insecurity come from? Transatlantic relations are actually more harmonious and less problematic than they have been for a long time. However, in certain ways, we have begun living – staying with the metaphor – somewhat separate lives.

Both of us – Americans and Europeans – have recently been occupied largely with ourselves. The Europeans' attention has been primarily directed towards managing the Euro crisis, while the Americans, for their part, have themselves been struggling with the effects of the financial crisis and a highly polarized and self-obstructing political class. European politicians shake their heads over the endless disputes in Congress about the debt ceiling, while their American colleagues press the EU to finally generate more economic growth in Europe.

In the realm of foreign policy, the U.S. is strengthening its involvement in the Asia-Pacific, whereas Europe is barely considering its own strategic role there. On the other hand, in and around Europe, the U.S. no longer insists on taking the leading role in conflicts and interventions – for the first time since NATO was founded. This was the case in Libya and now once again in Mali.

The U.S. and NATO cannot be everywhere at once, their officials say. At the same time, they warn Europeans against further reducing their defense expenditures. Complaints were recently heard in Paris that the U.S. was demanding large payments for providing urgently required transport capabilities for the Mali operation. Perhaps this was only a misunderstanding - but it somehow seems symptomatic.

Europeans and Americans now have to come to a fundamental understanding of what they want to do together in future, and what each would prefer to do on their own. There are excellent reasons for us to continue to define as many common goals as possible. Just as in every relationship, however, it also means that we will have to invest something.

A significant step would be to set up a common economic area with a common free trade zone as a core, which, according to the estimations of some experts, could allow the gross national product of Europe and the USA to increase by several - highly valuable - percentage points. But such a free trade area would not only benefit both economies. It would also contribute to a dynamic in which standards and rules to which the U.S. and Europe agree become a sort of blueprint for the entire globe.

Fortunately, this idea, which is not exactly new, has found prominent support and has gained ground in European capitals as well as in Brussels and Washington. President Obama has just expressed his personal support. Such complex projects will only be successful if the negotiations are carried out “top-down” and do not simply get pushed back and forth in the respective bureaucracies. The obstacles are numerous and the stakes high. Let us hope that Obama, Merkel, Barroso etc. will persevere.

Another area that calls for closer cooperation is the U.S. “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. The transatlantic conversations about potential common goals and policies in that region have been too timid. Europe will not be willing or able to involve itself militarily in Asia in the same way as Washington - nor should it be. But the EU can - and should - have its own clear positions, e.g. on the Chinese-Japanese conflict. From an Asian perspective, Europe barely appears on the radar when it comes to strategic questions. And a division of labor under which we sell expensive cars while the United States works towards strategic stability in Asia will eventually trigger significant transatlantic frictions. There are a number of issues on which we could work together more closely – with respect to promoting democracy or strengthening multilateral structures and organizations, for instance.

When it comes to NATO, there is also a need to act. Of course, we could continue to make speeches reassuring one another on a regular basis that NATO is the most successful alliance of all time. But in the long term this will be insufficient. The decisive question is how we can define the future of NATO together and ensure that it is able to fulfill its purpose. After all, the member states today have quite different ideas about the primary reason for the alliance’s existence.

It is unsettling that the alliance has increasingly developed into a sort of platform for "coalitions of the willing" in which only a certain percentage of members are actually actively involved. The integrated military structure of Nato is unique. But this alone is no guarantee that we can pursue our security interests together and successfully. It must be supported by a strategy, the relevant capabilities, and a minimum amount of solidarity.

Regrettably, over the past few years, European governments have cut their respective defense budgets without considering the bigger European picture. As a result, important military capabilities are being lost; perhaps they could have been retained had there been prior consultation. We need to use pooling and sharing to finally overcome the European ‘small-state’ approach in the area of defense. We could use the European defense budget far more efficiently if we trained and bought together. Such a step towards European self-affirmation would be met with American support.

We should take seriously the warnings of our American partners, which have become clearer and clearer, that the United Statess is simply no longer in a position to bear to main brunt of every crisis. For decades, Europeans have spoken of a two-pillar NATO, of a partnership of equals. This is their chance to actually turn this into reality. From an American perspective, further European integration and a close transatlantic partnership are no longer an either-or proposition. One depends on the other, and vice-versa.

The two new faces of American foreign and security policy, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are true transatlanticist with intensive connections to Europe. They take a genuine interest in us. Both have been loyal supporters of, and participants in, the Munich Security Conference. For the next generation of Americans, however, the connection to Europe is less and less close to the heart. Opinion surveys have revealed a trend that Europe's importance for the USA is slowly but consistently decreasing. In a Chicago Council survey last year, among those surveyed 58 percent aged 35 and younger said that Asia was more important to the U.S. than Europe.

This should remind us that the close transatlantic partnership is not a self-evident truth. We have always been connected by an unmatched level of economic interdependence, a network of stable institutions, many common interests, and last, but not least, our common identity as liberal Western democracies. In the coming decades these connections will become ever more important: in a world with new powers, Europe and the U.S. will only be able to stand up for their liberal values and interests together. In order to be able to do this, however, we must invest in these bonds between us. Maybe, we should not only be telling each other how important we are to one another, and how much we value each other. We should once again be embarking on inspiring projects together.