Center for American Progress

A Progressive Blueprint for Repairing the Trans-Atlantic Relationship

A Progressive Blueprint for Repairing the Trans-Atlantic Relationship

One of the dramatic foreign policy failures of the Bush administration has been its handling of the trans-Atlantic relationship. While U.S.-European relations have undergone major crises before, the current crisis across the Atlantic is unprecedented in its scope and intensity. The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States produced an unprecedented wave of solidarity across the European continent and support for developing a common trans-Atlantic approach to terrorism. Instead of building on that support, President Bush alienated our closest allies, and undermined America’s credibility and standing on the continent.

Yet the rift across the Atlantic also masks a growing divide within the United States on how to deal with Europe. A strong trans-Atlantic relationship used to be a foreign policy goal that enjoyed widespread bipartisan support in the United States. Today, however, progressives and conservatives view differently the reasons for the trans-Atlantic divide and what can be done about it. Whereas progressive instincts are Atlanticist and multilateralist, many conservatives have increasingly moved in a unilateralist and Euro-skeptical direction.

To be sure, one can still find Atlanticists in the ranks of conservatives. But, increasingly, they no longer represent the intellectual center of gravity on the right. Instead, a growing number of conservative thinkers see hegemony as the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy and have emphasized America’s need to be able to go-it-alone. They have also downgraded Europe as a partner and put our former allies at the margins of U.S. foreign policy. They argue that the gap in military power across the Atlantic has rendered the United States and its closest allies strategically incompatible – and that this justifies an American unilateral approach. And they urge Washington to learn to live without Europe as an ally – or NATO or the United Nations. The Bush administration has not only abandoned long-standing American support for European policies and institutions, but senior officials, especially in the Defense Department, have openly expressed their disdain for our traditional allies and the constraints of working through multilateral institutions.

In contrast, there are four reasons why American progressives still view the trans-Atlantic relationship as central to U.S. foreign policy.

First, a progressive foreign policy does not view American power or hegemony as a goal in itself. Rather, we see American strength as the means both to defend our country and to promote a world order in which liberal democratic principles and values can thrive. American power and credibility derive from the principles we stand for, not just our innate power. We believe that America and Europe are natural allies and partners in promoting such a world because we share those principles and values. Progressives spent much of the 1990s building a post-Cold War trans-Atlantic strategic partnership that could confront the challenges and threats of a new Europe and a new era. A central premise of the Clinton administration’s policy toward Europe was that the Alliance needed to be transformed and reoriented for an increasingly interdependent and globalized world.

For progressives, the lesson of Sept. 11 is not the need to maximize American power and freedom of action, but to mobilize our allies and the world behind us. We want to build on the accomplishments of the 1990s, not jettison them. Our vision is one in which America better defends itself by reinventing rather than discarding our alliances. If the United States cannot cooperate effectively with its closest allies in Europe, with whom can we work?

Second, in addition to a philosophical commitment to the U.S.-European relationship, progressives consider Europe to be a critical ally of the United States in a very practical sense. It is the single largest potential source of financial assistance and military manpower in the world – as well as key votes in many multilateral fora. While the United States undoubtedly retains the option of acting alone, there are very real limits and risks to such an approach (see: Overcoming Iraq).

Third, there are domestic reasons for progressives to support a close U.S.-European partnership. Public opinion polls repeatedly show that Americans are willing to play an active world role, especially after Sept. 11. However, they do not want to shoulder the burden alone. They want an effective multilateralist foreign policy and the naturally look to Europe for support. The great lengths to which the administration has gone to emphasize the coalition of the willing in Iraq and the often modest contributions of its members underscores the political requirement not to be seen as acting unilaterally.

Fourth, progressives view working with Europe and through trans-Atlantic democratic alliances as providing a unique form of political and moral legitimacy. The United States, Canada and Europe are the leading Western democracies, and cooperation with and among them can provide the United States the kind of moral legitimacy necessary – at home and abroad – to achieve its global goals. For progressives, working with Europe must be a cornerstone of any future world order and central to reform of global institutions such as the United Nations.

In sum, progressives reject the intellectual and political logic that has driven many on the right to downgrade or abandon the trans-Atlantic relationship. While certainly critical of Europe at times, they believe that the recent crisis across the Atlantic is largely attributable to bad policy and worse diplomacy, rather than to the sudden emergence of ostensibly incompatible strategic cultures among the world’s leading Western democracies. Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman created the “arsenal of democracy,” the United Nations and the Atlantic Alliance, at a time when the U.S.-European power gap was far greater than it is today. For these reasons, repairing the trans-Atlantic relationship is a top foreign policy priority for progressives.

A progressive blueprint for rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship should be built on four pillars.

Recreating a Common Strategic Purpose and Paradigm. The first and most important step in rebuilding the trans-Atlantic relationship is reestablishing a sense of common strategic purpose. The trans-Atlantic relationship worked during the Cold War because both sides shared the goal of deterring and eventually defeating the Soviet Union. It worked again in the 1990s once the United States and Europe, after initially stumbling in the Balkans, coalesced around the project of building a new order in a Europe that was whole, free and at peace. This meant intervening in the Balkans to stop ethnic cleansing; opening the doors of NATO and the European Union to help anchor and integrate Central and Eastern Europe; and constructing a new relationship with Russia that transformed our former adversary into a new partner.

Today it is the gap in common strategic purpose rather than the gap in power that lies at the heart of current trans-Atlantic difficulties – and which progressives on both sides of the Atlantic must overcome. A new common strategic agenda that could bring the United States and Europe back together would divide naturally into two parts. The first centers on the challenges within the continent and in a wider Europe; the second on those issues beyond the continent, and especially in the Greater Middle East, where the most dangerous threats to our common security lie and where U.S.-European cooperation is essential.

Within Europe, the agenda should start with Russia. A Western policy designed a decade ago, and premised on the belief that Russia was gradually democratizing and anchoring itself to the West, needs to be revisited in light of the country’s trend towards authoritarianism at home and harder-line policies abroad. The Balkans, too, have been allowed to drift, and the recent violence in Kosovo underscores how fragile stability there remains. Final status negotiations on Kosovo will take place during the next administration and again put the Balkans at the center of the U.S.-European agenda. With the successful integration of Central and Eastern Europe, NATO and the EU face the need to define a new strategy to help extend democracy and stability to Europe’s new borderlands – the Ukraine and the wider Black Sea region – as well as to finally confront Europe’s last totalitarian ruler in Belarus. Last but not least, there is the job of completing Turkey’s full integration into the West.

But the greatest security challenges to both sides of the Atlantic today emanate from beyond the continent. The United States and Europe must confront the rise of new, potentially catastrophic threats resulting from the nexus of radical Islamic totalitarian ideologies, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. We need to deepen our cooperation on homeland security. Our past differences over Iraq do not change the fact that success or failure on the ground there – as well as in Afghanistan – is likely to affect the security of both of our continents. The effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is at a critical phase. U.S.-European coordination is essential if we are to make progress toward – and then sustain – peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. We need to develop a strategy for helping to promote transformation and democratization in the region to address the underlying causes of terrorism. Clearly, there are numerous problems for the United States and Europe to address; what we must generate is the political commitment to tackling them together.

Rethinking European Integration. It is time for progressives to take the lead in rethinking American policy on European integration. One of the most important changes in U.S. policy toward Europe that some conservatives have advocated has been downgrading U.S. support for European integration – on the grounds that a strong EU could become a geopolitical rival to the United States. Such hostility runs the risk of undermining the very unity that we ought to be encouraging in Europe. Washington’s unilateralism has only begotten the same impulses among Europeans, increasing resentment of Washington and strengthening the hand of those who claim it is impossible to cooperate with the United States. Even those allies who have supported the United States on Iraq, for example, have warned us in private that it would be a mistake for Washington to assume that it can afford to break ranks with countries like France and Germany again and again. Instead, they have urged us to repair our relationships with the major powers on the continent as quickly as we can.

Progressives must not only clearly distance themselves from the Bush administration’s loose talk about “disaggregating” Europe, but must come forward with clear support for the European project in word and deed. There are few steps which would be more politically powerful than clearly aligning America with the success of Europe’s top priority. Nearly everything progressives want to accomplish around the world today requires a stronger, more effective and outward-looking Europe that can take on additional burdens in and beyond the continent. America’s strategic interest therefore lies in helping the European Union (EU) to integrate so that it can assume such a role.

The best way to ensure that the EU evolves into the kind of outward-looking partner open to working with the United States is to help it succeed. American progressives should therefore clearly and unequivocally support the EU. A progressive strategy should go beyond the kind of qualified support offered by previous administrations and embrace what might be called a “Kennedy approach.” President Kennedy was perhaps the most enthusiastic American leader in the 20th century when it came to supporting European integration and encouraging the emergence of a united Europe as a strategic partner. Progressives need to return to that philosophy and apply it today. Not only would this approach help turn the page in the overall relationship, but it is the best way to maximize the chances that the EU will become the kind of strong, pro-Atlanticist partner we seek – one that is interested in cooperating closely with America.

Upgrading the U.S.-EU Relationship. A new, more positive approach toward European integration should go hand-in-hand with upgrading the U.S.-EU relationship. The relationship must now move to the center of American decision-making vis-à-vis Europe. Most of the challenges we and Europe face today – such as dealing with Russia, securing the homeland, or promoting democracy in the Greater Middle East – cannot be solved through the framework of NATO, which is too narrow and focused on military cooperation to provide the right forum. And in Europe, policies on a growing number of core foreign policy issues are increasingly made in the EU.

Therefore, it only makes sense for the United States to seek to build a U.S.-EU relationship that reflects the growing importance of these new issues and the need for cooperation in new areas. Our goal should be to make the U.S.-EU relationship as central as NATO was during the Cold War. This does not mean abandoning or downgrading NATO. In fact, revitalizing and retooling the Alliance has been at the heart of the progressive foreign policy agenda in Europe since the early 1990s. It simply means recognizing that the tasks ahead are different and require a more balanced set of institutional capabilities. Therefore, in parallel to upgrading the U.S.-EU relationship, we need to support NATO’s transformation so that the Alliance is better equipped to deal with a new, broader and more diverse agenda, capable of playing a greater role in places like Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East. And we need to bring a new U.S.-EU relationship and NATO together in a new package that allows us to integrate policy politically, economically and militarily.

Structured Dialogue and Cooperation. Rebuilding the trans-Atlantic dialogue will not only require defining a new common strategic vision and creating and strengthening institutional links. It will also require a concerted effort to generate agreement on substantive policy decisions. One of the tragedies of U.S.-European relations under President Bush has been the near collapse of a meaningful strategic dialogue and the kind of consultations that could have produced such agreement. At a time when the United States and Europe should have been expanding their dialogue, many of the informal and formal mechanisms used to narrow differences and generate political action in the past have been downgraded or simply abandoned.

There is a real need for U.S.-European collaboration in addressing this growing agenda. Both sides of the Atlantic can take a page from the EU’s own playbook and replicate on a trans-Atlantic basis some of the instruments the EU has used to build a more common foreign policy within Europe. For example, one of the mechanisms that is central to the creation of a common foreign policy agenda among Europeans is, specifically, what the EU refers to as structured European political cooperation. Through this mechanism, countries commit to narrowing their differences and agree to engage in structured consultations with the goal of establishing a new and common approach. We should create the same mechanisms to rebuild common ground across the Atlantic=

While intensified consultations and structured dialogue cannot always transcend real differences, they can help. Today we often forget that when American and European leaders decided to create the trans-Atlantic alliance in the late 1940s, they did not necessarily agree on how to handle the major strategic question of the day – how to deal with Stalin’s Soviet Union. What they did share was the political determination to arrive at a common policy, and recognition of the need for a mechanism that would narrow differences and eventually produce a common strategy. The same can and must be done today.

Overcoming Iraq. Progressives were divided on the war in Iraq. Many, including this author, supported the use of force to oust Saddam Hussein in spite of Bush. We did so because we were convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was defying the United Nations and the international community. We had concluded that there was little if any chance of peaceful democratic change coming from within the country given Saddam’s totalitarian rule. Many other progressives opposed the war. They felt that the West had more time to pursue containment or a more aggressive inspection regime, and that the uncertainties of the use of force and trying to rebuild Iraq outweighed the potential benefits. They were not prepared to act without the support of the international community.

The Iraq issue not only created divisions among progressives in the United States but across the Atlantic, where the opposition to the war was widespread. It is time to put the debate over Iraq behind us. The rift across the Atlantic will never be healed and the trans-Atlantic relationship rebuilt until both sides overcome the divisions caused by the war. Progressives in the United States and Europe must therefore create the common ground that can help stabilize the situation in Iraq and bridge the rift between them.

In the early 1990s the trans-Atlantic relationship was in danger of being destroyed by an out-of-control war raging in the Balkans. Both the United States and Europe had a clear interest in stopping the violence, but they could not agree on the right strategy to do so. In this particular case, major European countries had deployed troops who were risking their lives, while the United States was on the sidelines, offering advice but refusing to join and share responsibility for managing events on the ground. The turning point came when the Alliance, led by the United States and France, realized that the situation was in danger of spinning out of control, and found a way to overcome their past differences. They coalesced around a new approach that reestablished shared risk and responsibility, and that was effective in halting the bloodshed and renewing a sense of common purpose and faith that the two sides could work together.

Today the United States and Europe are at a similar turning point. The war in Iraq is far from a mission accomplished. The Bush administration’s mismanagement of the post-war reconstruction effort in Iraq has left Americans inadequately prepared to resolve the crisis, which has grave implications for Iraqis, Americans and Europeans. Today America needs the helps of its allies more than ever before, but is standing largely alone. Key allies are refusing to assist us because of the bitterness of the rift with the United States, misgivings about the current stabilization strategy and their doubts about the willingness of the current administration to give them any meaningful voice or say in how policy is set.

The United States can still succeed in Iraq and fulfill its commitment to the Iraqi people – but it will need help. While there were deep differences over the war, both the United States and Europe now have a shared interest in seeing a positive outcome on the ground. For progressives, the way out of the current crisis must be to agree on a realistic plan to stabilize the security situation, to establish a legitimate and sovereign Iraqi government as soon as possible, and to be prepared to broaden and further internationalize the coalition to assist Iraqis in transforming their country into a democratic and sovereign state – so long as such assistance is clearly wished for by the Iraqi people and government. Just like Bosnia, Iraq can and must be transformed from a trans-Atlantic failure to a success.


A new progressive foreign policy agenda in the United States would include a genuine and sustained effort to repair the trans-Atlantic relationship. It would not, of course, automatically eliminate all differences across the Atlantic; we would still have debates, for example, over the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the issue of preemption. But a progressive policy agenda would recognize Europe as a key partner in addressing a range of problems around the world. Progressives would be open to working together, consulting and sharing decisions with close allies.

A progressive foreign policy agenda would ask much more of our European allies as well. Working more closely together would require Europe to shoulder more responsibilities and burdens. It would also require changes in European attitudes and policies. European governments and publics must ask themselves whether they, too, are prepared to make the effort required to rebuild the trans-Atlantic relationship. It is not only American but European political leadership that would be put to the test.

Dr. Ronald D. Asmus is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs from 1997 to 2000. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his organization.

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