While much of the current focus is on the U.S. presidential election and its impact on transatlantic relations in 2021, it is worth taking a step back to contemplate where the relationship will be five or even ten years from now. Regardless of whether President Donald Trump is reelected or whether Joe Biden becomes the forty-sixth U.S. president, one thing is certain: transatlantic relations will not snap back to what they used to be.
The litmus test for both U.S. and European policymakers will be how to readjust and rebuild a partnership that has served both sides so well for decades so that it is equally prepared to manage tomorrow’s challenges. As the eighty-year anniversary of the Atlantic Charter approaches in 2021, it is an opportune moment to ponder what a new Atlantic Charter for the twenty-first century would look like.
Revitalizing Transatlantic Relations
The authors of this volume set out to provide a diverse series of fresh perspectives on the future of transatlantic relations across various issues to spur collective U.S. and European thinking about what the transatlantic partners might aim for in 2025 and beyond. Two basic central questions deeply informed this effort: 1) what should we stop doing and 2) what should we start doing?
The main takeaway is simple: not only can we not turn back the clock, but we shouldn’t want to—the transatlantic relationship should not strive to return to what it was in the past but should strive toward a deeper and broader partnership that is suitable for the world we’re in now. When the two of us asked the authors to share their views, we did not steer them in a certain direction—other than the two open-ended questions mentioned above.
As we read the contributions together, we are struck by several broad takeaways.
- Getting our own houses in order: A starting point for renewing and rebuilding the transatlantic relationship is to clean up our own domestic messes on both sides of the Atlantic. This task requires firmly pushing back against racism, democratic backsliding, the politicization of democratic institutions, corruption, and illiberalism within our own societies. For instance, Tom Malinowski and Sarah Margon argue for a far more ambitious joint transatlantic approach to fighting kleptocracy—including by clamping down on shell companies registered in the United States and having the EU pass and implement a new set of Magnitsky-style sanctions.
Franziska Brantner reminds us that more transatlantic cooperation is needed to ensure “safe and humane digitalization” by countering hate speech and fake news online—an issue that is even more relevant today in light of rising anti-vaccine sentiments and vaccine-related disinformation on both sides of the Atlantic amid the ongoing pandemic. Digitalization also provides new threats—and opportunities—when it comes to securing the integrity and legitimacy of our democratic institutions. Michael Chertoff points out that, while there are opportunities for a transatlantic partnership on thorny tech issues, both Europe and the United States first have to take steps domestically to make good on these openings.
- Putting citizens first: The transatlantic alliance cannot just be an elite-driven relationship between politicians and business leaders—it must include ordinary citizens at its center and be inclusive. As Franziska Brantner notes, it is not enough for Europe and the United States to just talk about each other: they must also talk with each other more, on more issues, and in more ways—including by strengthening people-to-people connections and civil society dialogues while also ensuring that these discussions are diverse and inclusive. As Gergely Karácsony points out, locally driven dialogues between Europeans and North Americans can play an instrumental role. Even at a time of heightened populism on both sides of the Atlantic, city-to-city transatlantic dialogue can drive a cosmopolitan agenda even when national governments are not in the driver’s seat.
Another area where citizens must be put at the core of the relationship is on trade. As the protests across Europe against the prospective Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership in the mid-2010s highlighted, when politicians choose to ignore citizens, they put themselves in a position of great peril. And as Catherine Ashton rightly notes, any future EU-U.S. trade talks must take into account the impact such an agreement would have on the middle class and job markets.
- Forming a more perfect partnership will require a more equal one: As opposed to the traditional Cold War–era transatlantic relationship, which was generally shaped by Washington, U.S.-European cooperation in the twenty-first century is based on an increasingly equal partnership. The United States is no longer the unipolar power it once was, and the EU is gradually emerging as a more coherent, stronger player through several crises in recent years—the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit, and (most recently) the coronavirus pandemic.
While Europe seeks to continue growing as a military, diplomatic, economic, and technological power, the prospect of a more autonomous EU is not a contradiction to a healthy and vibrant transatlantic partnership. On the contrary, a stronger European pillar in the transatlantic relationship would actually be a positive development. As Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer notes in her chapter, U.S. leadership remains crucial, but Europe must also be more ambitious about its own role in the world, and Germany has a particularly important role in this regard. In other words, Europe cannot passively wait for Washington to take the initiative—it must be willing and able to share more of the burden and assume greater responsibility.
- Redefining security: While NATO’s role as a collective defense alliance remains the core of transatlantic ties, the relationship must be reoriented to better meet tomorrow’s challenges. As several authors note, the security challenges of the next decade will be multifaceted in nature—ranging from conventional military threats to nonmilitary hybrid tactics like cyber or information warfare. In addition, transnational challenges such as climate change, migration, food security, and pandemics will require more attention and cooperation between not only the United States and Europe but also with other countries around the globe.
An important part of successfully addressing these challenges, argues Linda Etim, is to address the mismatch between military spending and spending on diplomacy and development as well as other efforts to prevent conflicts in the first place. In the same vein, Malinowski and Margon argue for a new definition of burden sharing—one that is much broader than NATO countries’ 2 percent defense spending goal and that takes into account countries’ actual contributions to global peace and security in a broader sense. At the same time, traditional threats will not disappear though they may evolve in the future. As Kramp-Karrenbauer reminds us, the long-standing issue of nuclear arms control is becoming increasingly complex as Russia engages in a massive arms buildup while China also adds to its nuclear arsenal.
- Thinking beyond the West: The transatlantic partners must lead with values centered around a shared agenda for a free world to push back against growing authoritarian influence. The shared democratic values underpinning transatlantic ties are universal—they don’t apply or resonate only in North America and Europe, and North Americans and Europeans must actively engage with other like-minded democratic partners around the world. Karácsony proposes a vision for a progressive agenda that can hold global appeal. Brantner puts forward a joint approach to dealing with China’s authoritarian systemic rivalry by responding to the Belt and Road Initiative, the security risks of partnering with unreliable vendors of 5G technology, and WTO reform. At the same time, Etim reminds U.S. and European leaders that they must be fully cognizant of the unfortunate legacy of colonialism and the persistent racism from some of our own leaders.
- Recognizing that it’s the geoeconomics, stupid: While we should invest in the transatlantic partnership, we should be clear-eyed about its centrality in the strategic challenge of our time: Europe and the United States need to think strategically about how to leverage economic tools to serve their middle classes, make their democracies deliver, and maintain their global competitiveness in an age shaped by a rising China. This task will require paying far more attention to aligning domestic technology policies and investments to compete and present a different vision than China’s state-driven authoritarian model. Technology is rapidly emerging as a key front for greater transatlantic action.
Ashton argues that the United States and Europe also need to reorient their traditional trade and investment cooperation with a stronger emphasis on the digital economy and standard setting for emerging technologies. And, as Chertoff writes, the convergence between U.S. and EU views on cyber and digital challenges should inform a joint agenda in the coming five years that encompasses data protection, online content moderation against hate speech and disinformation, and cyber security cooperation on issues such as 5G connectivity.
From Handwringing to Seizing the Moment
While reflection and self-criticism can be constructive, Americans and Europeans should not let our examination of the transatlantic relationship we currently have blind us to the possibilities of the transatlantic relationship we can have and will need in the future. The last decade has taught us that we cannot take institutions and relationships for granted; they must be constantly renewed. We have learned that even self-evident truths must be reaffirmed in each generation.
The good news is that, as we look into the 2020s and beyond, there are abundant opportunities for a strong and dynamic transatlantic relationship to be a linchpin in addressing global challenges. There is so much work to do—on combating climate change, reinvigorating our democracies, promoting global health, delivering broad-based economic growth, and thoughtfully seizing the opportunities of rapid technological innovation—and all of that work will be more successful if we do it together. The transatlantic relationship’s raison d’être has not disappeared: rather, it has evolved, and it is as dynamic and compelling as it ever has been.
As former president Dwight D. Eisenhower put it in a 1951 speech: “The road ahead may be long—it is certain to be marked by critical and difficult passages. But if we march together, endure together, share together, we shall succeed—we shall gloriously succeed together!”