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More people live on Earth now than at any other point in human history, and we are weathering one of the most profound changes to the global order in recent history. More than 70 million people have been displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution; we are managing the first global pandemic since 1918; climate change has moved from ravaging the Global South and Oceanic states to devastating communities across the United States and Europe with droughts, fires, and storms; and the rise of automation and machine learning is poised to change the ways we work, build economies, and fight wars.

Against this backdrop, the meaning and utility—not to mention the ethics—of a transatlantic partnership that privileges security, economic, and cultural relations between North America and Europe is increasingly being called into question. The transatlantic relationship of the future must be less about creating a fortress to protect North America and Europe from external threats and more about leveraging the resources and capacities of the richest countries in the world to address global challenges.

One Thing to Stop Doing

Both sides of the Atlantic should stop preparing for twentieth-century wars. The United States currently spends $730 billion on defense and, prior to the pandemic, Western European countries were projected to spend over $300 billion on defense by next year. The allocation of $1 trillion of total security spending reflects a false assumption that the majority of our security challenges will look like yesterday’s wars rather than tomorrow’s multifaceted security threats. The United States and our European allies continue to overwhelmingly define “threats” in terms of an overland or sea invasion and have failed to sufficiently focus on modernizing approaches to warfare and deepening our capacity to counter the systemic and transnational threats we are already facing.

Linda Etim
Linda Etim is the former Senior Adviser on Africa Policy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a former Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

This is not to say we should jettison things that are working: NATO, in the face of growing Russian aggression, has never been more relevant to these traditional threats. However, NATO—in part because of the distraction of U.S. entanglement in forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—has been too slow to define strategies for addressing twenty-first-century threats, such as climate change, mass migration, cybersecurity, weaponized misinformation and deep fakes, and global health challenges.

While it is not realistic in practice, the United States would benefit from a zero-based budgeting exercise on defense, diplomacy, and development. Forcing ourselves to confront the mismatch between our current budget and the challenges we will face in the coming decades could help us begin to remedy the imbalance and could be the basis for a more strategic approach with European partners.

Three Things to Start Doing

First, we should rework the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) into an international assistance reform effort, charging the DAC with renovating the Global North’s approach to economic development. As with our national security budgets, development assistance budgets must be assessed in light of shared goals and needs. (We are almost certainly heading in the wrong direction today: we have seen a regrettable trend in Europe and in the United States of cutting overseas development assistance precisely at a time when it is most needed.) The links between climate change, migration, conflict prevention, and economic development mean that a U.S.-Europe strategy for economic development must be more sophisticated than national aid agencies dividing up a focus on different countries and putting together a bouquet of projects.

Domestic bureaucratic reshuffling alone is unlikely to drive real change in the strategic approach and effectiveness of development assistance. The coronavirus pandemic’s limits on global travel have brought into sharp relief the need to transfer ownership and responsibility for the conceptualization and delivery of assistance programs to the communities closest to the action. New research is showing that antiquated, donor-driven, high-overhead approaches have poor outcomes when compared to streamlined approaches that focus on empowering people through methods like direct cash transfers. Europe and the United States should consider a Marshall Plan–like effort that is conceptualized and implemented by the countries themselves, in line with the New Deal for Fragile States that was never properly realized.

Second, Europe and the United States need to seize the moment. We should create a new initiative around training the next generation of global health workers. This is a sustainable development goal that looks daunting on its face, but it is imminently achievable if conceptualized and coordinated at scale and in partnership with the governments of the Global South. This will have the added benefit of helping to address the long-term healthcare worker shortfalls in Europe and the United States at the same time.

Finally, we must prioritize the fight against global white supremacy and nationalist populism that verges on fascism, both in our own countries and internationally. The rise of xenophobic and ultranationalist populism is not only a domestic threat to our democracies, but it also leads to a dangerously perverted understanding of the world. The legacies of colonialism and persistent racism continue to impose a burden on the inhabitants of too many countries. There will be some in the Global North who push for an inward turn—who push to ignore what U.S. President Donald Trump infamously called “shithole countries” in a racist quip.

But while politics may change, geography does not. Starving the Global South of attention and resources will not only lead to humanitarian disasters but will also provoke massive security challenges that dramatically impact the Global North too. The Black Lives Matter movement arose out of the specific context of the persistent race-based caste system of the United States. But the movement’s fundamental claim—of the equal dignity and rights of all persons by virtue of their humanity—is one that needs to be driven through our perspectives and approaches to international development as well.

What the World Has at Stake

A final thought before closing: what is at stake is not only the individual lives and futures of billions of people but also the idea of a sustainable and stable world. As colonialism waned and the Cold War ended, the Global South became something that the wealthiest countries thought about only episodically, when convenient. But the Global North cannot routinely pretend away the rest of the planet—and perhaps no phenomenon demonstrates this point as clearly as migration. Human migration is not a new phenomenon; it has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. It cannot be stopped by seas or walls or deals with autocrats: when forced to do so, people will seek security and freedom elsewhere when they become convinced there is no hope to find it at home. Exchanges of people, ideas, and goods across oceans and borders can enrich us all, but a failure to consider the political and economic welfare of those distant from us can contribute to shocks—conflicts, economic collapse, and massive movements of people—that strain the systems that facilitate our common existence on the planet we share.

We already know that climate change—and the disasters and conflicts that accompany it—will make the twenty-first century a period of mass migration. Managing migration is a governance challenge for every region and will test the capacities of many states. Increasing the size and effectiveness of U.S.-European investment in economic development, climate adaptation, conflict prevention, and food security is the single most important step we can take to promote a world in which migration is manageable. Such a world, in which sustainable global economic growth provides a future for all people, is the foundation for political stability.

Linda Etim is the former Senior Adviser on Africa Policy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a former Assistant Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.