The world is not in good shape, and neither is the transatlantic relationship. The United States and Europe diverge on a range of issues including climate policy, trade, foreign affairs, and pandemic protections, divides that are deepening the liberal international order’s erosion that was already under way long before U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Worse still, these divisions are playing out amid rampant global warming, environmental degradation, and unprecedented levels of inequality, exacerbated by the recent coronavirus pandemic.
Even if much of our old alliance can be restored once the United States elects a new president, environmental and social injustice will continue to impact our future. The global community has been increasingly challenged by issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, which, in the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are “problems without passports.” Consequently, a renewed transatlantic relationship must go beyond pre-Trump and pre-pandemic arrangements. If there is a time to envision bold change, it is now.
We must recenter our politics on universal values and human dignity and embrace subnational diplomacy—particularly the existing and potential collaborative work between cities—as an engine to drive progress in a new era.
Reimagining a Progressive Transatlantic Relationship for the Twenty-First Century
Above all, I imagine a transatlantic alliance that has planetary and human well-being at the forefront of its agenda. Economic growth has also created a grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth. If Western democracies want to live up to their own noble ideals of human dignity and equality, they must aim at a much fairer balance than the one putting half of the world’s wealth into the hands of the top 1 percent.
Rather than starting a quixotic fight against the forces of globalization, we need to tame them. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—along with any other bilateral or multilateral trade agreements—should be reevaluated with labor and environmental protections at its heart. The strategic rationale still stands, and our regions are in dire need of a constructive trade and investment partnership rather than a trade war.
Human welfare also needs to be redefined, especially in our transatlantic region, which accounts for the lion’s share of consumption-based, historical greenhouse gas emissions. Poverty reduction must remain our priority, but we cannot fight poverty simply by increasing global consumption. Western societies must lead the way in reimagining human welfare in qualitative, not quantitative, terms. They should mainstream progressive policy positions such as reduced work hours and universal basic income. These policies would ensure less human impact on nature, while allowing us to live more liberated, meaningful lives.
The rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech, and pluralism must remain the cornerstones of our communities. But here, too, old ways will not suffice. Our transatlantic community needs to be vigilant and enforce the principles of Western political thought for the sake of both our democracies and those looking to us as an example to follow. We cannot tolerate authoritarian and illiberal leaders, lest we risk the resilience of our communities.
Backing words with deeds is just as important when it comes to diversity. The next generation shaping transatlantic relations must reflect our ever more diverse societies. When brought to life, transatlanticism may have been championed predominantly by white male strategists and experts. This pattern cannot continue in the twenty-first century, or else it will cease to be a valid cultural reference for young Americans and Europeans alike.
New challenges necessitate that we engage in new fields of cooperation. With the coronavirus pandemic, public health has emerged as a key aspect of national security. What is more, it is one where we can make use of our joint military capabilities. As Karen Donfried and Wolfgang Ischinger pointed out recently, a transatlantic pandemic strategy, a shared system of global medical surveillance, and stockpiles of medical equipment are all within NATO’s reach and would go a long way toward protecting our citizens.
Leveraging Cities to Drive Progress
Local governance can do much to advance these objectives, and urban populations on both sides of the Atlantic can be a source of political capital and ideas to drive them forward.
Urban, metropolitan populations want more democracy, not less of it. In Budapest, like in many other European cities, citizens’ engagement, participatory budgeting projects, and bottom-up adjustments to the political process offer compelling propositions to disenfranchised voters. Good local governance—close to the people and focused on addressing their daily struggles—is an effective remedy to the crisis our democracies face.
The need for good governance also implies that value-based city alliances can function as stalwarts of socially liberal, pluralistic, and inclusive societies. Our Pact of Free Cities—formed last year with Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw—has that very aim at its core. We intend to counter the illiberal wave, as do many U.S. cities with progressive leadership. Joining forces in transatlantic networks of cities would advance and renew U.S.-EU ties.
At the policy level, too, urban voters represent similar values on both sides of the Atlantic. For several years now, U.S. cities and states have been leading the charge in transitioning to a low-carbon economy. An increasing number of European cities are taking the same path now. By sharing know-how, technology, and best practices, our cities can boost business, innovation, and people-to-people ties to act together for a sustainable future.
One of the challenges that many of our democracies face is waning confidence from the citizens we serve. City authorities and local government officials often have a more direct impact on the daily lives of their inhabitants than national governments do—cities play a key role on issues of policing, education, sanitation, economic development, integration of immigrants and refugees, and so on. Collaboration between cities in Europe and North America on key challenges of municipal governance is an opportunity to strengthen our respective societies.
Looking ahead, convergence outweighs divergence in our relationship. We still have the same interests and challenges—protecting the climate, bolstering public health, and curbing social inequality being the most current and crucial ones. Large and politically active urban populations cherish our founding ideals of pluralism, internationalism, and openness. They are less favorable, however, to unregulated market capitalism and rampant inequality. If the Western alliance can renew itself around environmental and social justice while remaining the standard bearer of liberal democracy in an ever more illiberal international environment, progressive local governance can greatly contribute to transatlantic ties.
Gergely Karácsony is the Mayor of Budapest.