Center for American Progress

Revitalizing the Transatlantic Partnership: A Speech by John D. Podesta at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany on November 14, 2007

Revitalizing the Transatlantic Partnership: A Speech by John D. Podesta at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany on November 14, 2007

John Podesta speaks at Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, Germany on how the United States and Europe can begin to work together again.

Good evening. 

Thank you, Michael, for that very generous introduction and thank you for inviting me to participate today. 

Back in the 1940s Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican Senator who worked with President Truman to help rebuild Europe and launch the Marshall Plan came to embody the adage, “partisan politics stops at the water’s edge.” 

Well, tonight I am sorry to say we are going to have to put that saying aside in favor of the words of President John F. Kennedy who said, “The great enemy of the truth, is very often, not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic.” So tonight, I would like to lay myths aside and speak openly about the truth.

Because the truth is that over the past six and a half years, the Bush administration has pursued an international policy centered on the aggressive assertion of American national interest and the demonstration of American power at the expense of the views of our key allies, international legitimacy, and the rule of law itself. And we can all see the consequences of that policy in the devaluation of many of America’s long-standing alliances. This go-it-alone policy has failed, and the resulting breakdown in transatlantic relations and the rise of anti-Americanism has rippled through an international system once based on constructive American leadership. I believe that the result of this grand neo-conservative experiment has been to weaken the national security of the United States.

The American people want change and are frustrated that their votes in the 2006 midterm elections have not produced more change. This discontent, coupled with an upcoming presidential election in 2008, presents us with an opportunity to restore America’s place in the global world order and to revitalize our alliances.

We have a difficult task ahead to restore our moral authority to lead the international community, and some may be understandably reluctant to accept the return of American global leadership. But America has learned that in this new century, projecting military power is not sufficient to meet the enormous challenges we face. The United States must use all the instruments of national power—diplomatic, economic, moral, as well as military, and return to a policy that marshals the counsel and support of key partners, integrating all contributions to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Tonight I’d like to discuss with you what I think are some of the most pressing issues we need to address to revitalize our transatlantic alliances and what America should do to address them. But first a little history on how we got here.

The first year of the Bush administration will always be remembered as one that changed the course of American and world history. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were certainly  seminal events, but decisions taken during the first eight months of the Bush administration had already laid the groundwork for what followed that awful day.

President Clinton signed the Rome Statute, the treaty which established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the year 2000.  But almost immediately upon taking office, President Bush took the unusual step of suspending the signature process, declining to participate in the ICC, declaring that it was “an organization that [ran] contrary to fundamental American precepts and basic constitutional principles of popular sovereignty, checks and balances, and national independence.”

On the question of global warming, President Bush reversed his own campaign pledge and said the United States would not regulate carbon dioxide emissions and that he had “no interest” in pursuing Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Finally, Bush prepared to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to develop and deploy a ballistic missile defense system.

It is easy to understand each of these actions when viewed through a narrow lens of American national interest. Many in the military and broader national security establishment were deeply concerned that ICC prosecutors—who they deemed unaccountable—could target Americans for political reasons and there were even serious divisions in the Clinton administration over whether to sign the treaty, although I am proud that not withstanding substantial reservations he ultimately did sign.

There was widespread fear in the business community that the economic costs of Kyoto would adversely affect American companies in the intensely competitive international market. And in any event, despite scientific consensus on the causes of global warming, most congressional Republicans were still skeptical that humans were to blame, leaving no real prospect of Senate ratification.

Missile defense was one of the highest priorities of the new administration and, even though the system had never even completed a successful test, their early plans for deploying interceptor missiles would indeed violate the conditions of the ABM treaty. Cumulatively, these actions represented the beginning of a broad assault on the post World War II bipartisan consensus that America’s strategic interest would be built on a multilateral foundation, and were a signal to our allies that the Bush administration would aggressively assert the primacy of America’s national interests over and above those of our allies.

In late 2001 and early 2002, the Bush administration tossed aside the mantle of American leadership on human rights and more than a century of American policy on military justice in favor of perceived expediency. So with a mixture of fear and hubris they rejected the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete.” In the words of Vice President Cheney, “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side.” Darth Vader had nothing on our vice president.  

The U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was chosen as the location of a detention center for prisoners captured during operations in Afghanistan precisely because it was believed to be outside the reach of any court system. The president then unilaterally declared that those detainees were not eligible for status as prisoners of war and invented a new definition plucked from an old World War II case to describe them: “enemy combatants.” Soon, Guantanamo was filled with hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

The prison was staffed with inexperienced interrogators who knew little, if anything, about terrorism or Al Qaeda. And when interrogators struggled to produce valuable information, senior Bush administration officials decided that the interrogation techniques weren’t harsh enough. They threw out the old interrogation manual and authorized a new set of aggressive techniques without regard to international or U.S. obligations under the convention against torture.

For an entire new generation of young people across the globe, the symbols and images attached to the United States are not the Statue of Liberty and the breaking down of the Berlin Wall; they are the black hole of Guantanamo and the image of a hooded Iraqi standing on a box with electrodes attached to his body at Abu Ghraib. These new images have done incalculable damage to America with friends and enemies alike.

The full implications of the Bush administration’s detainee policies were not know in the summer of 2002. The United States was still riding the wave of support that followed September 11 and what up to that point had been a successful military campaign in Afghanistan. But then President Bush and his advisors took a fateful step. Rather than keeping the pressure on Al Qaeda, they preferred to settle old scores and chose the wrong enemy to fight. Of course, I am speaking of the invasion of Iraq –a misadventure that I believe will go down as the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.

The Bush administration conflated pre-emptive self-defense, a legitimate military option recognized in international law as necessary to counter an imminent attack, with preventive war that sought to destroy the capability of an enemy to ever attack. The denigration of traditional alliances and multilateral organizations that resulted from this shift has cost the United States dearly. For when things began to turn against us in Iraq, we did not have much support to fall back on.

The Bush administration turned a truly unique opportunity to unite much of the international community against real threat from extremists and turned it into a quagmire. Who can forget the headline in Le Monde that “We Are All Americans” or the quarter million Germans who spontaneously gathered at the Brandenburg Gate or even the thousands of Iranians who marched in a candlelit procession through Tehran.

The opportunity we have wasted is great. But our task ahead is greater.

Simply changing the American government is not going to solve all of the challenges we face. While I appreciate the fact that Gordon Brown has reiterated his support for the special relationship, Chancellor Merkel has visited Crawford, Texas, and even President Sarkozy says that he wants to “re-conquer the heart of America,” surely we need more than affinity for one another to meet the challenges of the 21st century. 


Many new trends are driving rapid change in the modern world and we need policies to address these challenges head-on.

Power is shifting away from traditional centers along the Atlantic seaboard and many new factors play a role in politics today.

China’s explosive economic growth continues, with a GDP ranked fourth in the world behind the United States, Japan, and Germany. Over the last 20 years, China’s annual growth rate is just below nine percent, a figure comparable to Japan’s average 10 percent annual growth rate during its boom years between 1955 and 1972.

And the resurgence of Russia on the back of rising oil and gas prices, along with President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use Russia’s energy exports as a political weapon, has introduced an additional dynamic into Europe’s future security. So much of Europe’s oil and gas originates in Russia and is transported through a small number of pipelines—97 percent of Hungary’s natural gas supply and 70 percent of oil from Russia through just one gas and one oil pipeline—that it gives the Russians an outsized influence over European energy policy.

Russia’s resurgence finds its way into more than just energy diplomacy. Their intransigence to move forward on the Athissari plan for an independent Kosovo threatens to destabilize southeast Europe.

Not only are these rising powers changing the dynamics of our world, but it is the first time since the Westphalian system of nation-states changed international affairs in the 17th century that non-state actors have demonstrated the capability to alter and shape national and international events. Radical Islamist ideology, for example, is not new, but its appeal has certainly grown more rapidly within the last two decades, as has the intensity of violence associated with some of its adherents. The freer movement of peoples prevalent today has helped spread this ideology beyond the Islamic world and now is a serious challenge in many European countries struggling to integrate Muslim populations, which are expected to double by 2025.

As these non-state actors rise in power, military force is becoming less of a decisive factor in international affairs. Military power will not disappear, of course, but even in instances where force is used, victory on the battlefield is now only a part of a successful military campaign. As we are witnessing in Afghanistan and Iraq, the traditional military campaign lasted only weeks but the effort to reconstruct those societies has taken years and will take many more.

Moreover, against this backdrop of competing powers and complex relations, we have the challenge of global warming. Many European countries and European leaders, like Chancellor Merkel, have been leaders on this issue, but over the past six years the Bush administration has done nothing to wean us from the economic dependence on foreign oil and has done very little to promote alternatives to high-carbon sources of energy. But this delay only makes immediate action that much more pressing.

Today’s world is vastly more diffuse and complex than during the Cold War, and as such, we need a more comprehensive approach to addressing these challenges. 

The challenge for the next American president is to recover America’s reputation, restore its position of leadership, and resume cooperation with our allies.

The question is how do we begin restoring the credibility of the United States given the many complex problems I just laid out?

Today, I’d like to offer three solutions to start repositioning the moral compass of the United States in the right direction again.  These suggestions are not exhaustive, but rather offer a starting point to begin reengaging with the international community and address some of the most pressing issues we face today.

The first challenge will be to extricate the United States from Iraq in the best possible way. It is clear that the Bush administration’s open-ended commitment to Iraq has made Americans and the world less safe and it must come to an end.  Over four years of a continuous substantial American combat force presence in Iraq has weakened U.S. ground forces, has served as a rallying cry and recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and has destabilized the region.

I am proud to say that at the Center for American Progress, we have pushed the national debate toward such a strategy, releasing a report titled, “Strategic Redeployment” in 2005 that called for an 18-month timetable for reducing our ground forces in Iraq. That pride is tempered by the realization that despite overwhelming support for this plan from the American people and majorities in Congress, the number of American troops on the ground has only gone up.

It is clear that President Bush has settled on a policy of strategic drift and decided to leave all the hard choices about our Iraq policy to his successor. But I believe the next American president will begin that process of redeployment, along with a more effective strategy of brokering a political settlement to Iraq’s conflicts and buffering Iraq’s neighbors from the effect of the conflict.

As a result of the failure of going alone, we now have a greater appreciation of our allies and the importance of international legitimacy. Policymakers know that Americans will demand much more critical examination of the intelligence and other information that is used to build the case for military action. And while the military is still held in high regard for the sacrifices they have endured, there is a better understanding of the limits of military power. If these lessons take root, as I believe they will, they point toward a more constructive and positive American international posture.

Secondly, we need to re-examine our current interrogation practices and do away with anything that might tarnish America’s reputation as a moral and just nation. 

Recently, the appointment of Judge Michael Mukasey –a true conservative and a very respected legal figure –to be the next attorney general was called into question when he repeatedly refused to declare waterboarding illegal. He gave a convoluted legal analysis of why he couldn’t. But I don’t think it takes a law degree or a top-secret security clearance to conclude that forcing water into the lungs of a detainee, drowning him just short of death, is torture. After all, it has been considered so since the Spanish Inquisition.

When people with the stature of Judge Mukasey can’t do that, something is very wrong. America needs to recover its sensibility. We need to clearly say that waterboarding and other forms of abusive interrogation are illegal, immoral, and have no place in America. We need to recognize that we can’t keep demanding that other countries accept detainees from Guantanamo if we are not willing to close Guantanamo, as all the Democratic candidates for President as well as John McCain have called for, and accept some of them in U.S. prisons.

We have the facilities to do it – either at the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, or the super-maximum security penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. Sure, there is some risk involved in following that course, but the status quo at Guantanamo is an enormous risk, harming relations with our allies, fueling hatred of America, and driving more people into the arms of our enemies. It is long past time to draw a line through this tragic chapter in American history.

Third on my list of recommendations is that the next American President takes decisive steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resume cooperation with our allies on energy policy and climate change. The United States cannot solve the climate crisis alone, but the international community cannot solve the climate crisis without United States leadership.

To move forward we must re-engage in international climate change negotiations and provide the leadership needed to reach a global, binding climate agreement. This requires, first of all, that the United States restore its credibility on the issue. Rapidly emerging countries such as China simply will never be persuaded to curb their own carbon emissions until the United States has demonstrated a serious commitment to reducing its own.

We know that we’ve got to clean house in America, and lead by example, and I can promise you that we are fighting hard to do just that. 

At the Center for American Progress we have developed a visionary roadmap to help our next administration accelerate our transformation to a low-carbon economy. To achieve this we advocate the implementation of a cap-and-trade system and a number of complimentary policies to meet the overall goal of reducing emissions.

Given the current political and public attention on energy, I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to make policy changes on this issue and lead on this pressing problem. 

I understand that this challenge is enormous in scale but so is its potential.  A resumption of constructive American international leadership is an important first step to revitalizing the transatlantic alliance and will create more opportunities for success. 

Now I have spent much of this discussion outlining the challenge for the United States, but I have one for Germany and for Europe as well. Ultimately, now more than ever, the success of our partnership will depend on the participation and support of allies – neither the United States nor the Europeans can accomplish their goals without the other. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in Afghanistan. It is clear that the mission there is struggling; the Taliban is resurgent, the United States has been bogged down in Iraq, and troop commitments from other NATO countries have not been sufficient to meet requirements. Afghanistan is not Iraq, but support for that mission is clearly eroding because of American failures in Iraq. But it is not just America’s neck on the line in Afghanistan. This is the first true out-of-area mission for NATO, and the organization’s credibility is at stake. Future allied military engagements are much more likely to resemble Afghanistan than Iraq, such as humanitarian assistance missions in Africa, and the performance of NATO in this mission will influence decisions about its suitability for those tasks.

The United States will continue to be the largest military power within the alliance, but NATO’s performance in raising necessary troops for the Afghan mission without major U.S. contributions should serve as a much needed wake-up call to European governments.

It will be much easier for future American governments to shift resources to address broad alliance priorities if European governments develop complimentary military capabilities that lessen the burden on U.S. forces.

Germany can play a particularly important role here.  Germany has contributed 3,000 troops to the mission in Afghanistan but requires that they remain relatively quite north of the country. Around 1,500 Dutch forces operating in the south will be leaving next year, creating a gap in an already thinly stretched force. Shifting part of the German mission to replace the Dutch troops in the south would clearly signal that Germany is serious about working together to address all of the challenges we as allies face.

And finally, let me say a word about Iran. Iran poses serious security challenges to the region and the world—its support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia Militants in Iraq have undermined security in the Middle East, and its nuclear research is destabilizing and threatening in its own terms, and can set off a new nuclear arms race in the region.

We can’t address this challenge alone. In order to properly address the threat posed by Iran, the United States needs to work with Germany, other European allies, as well as China and Russia to develop a comprehensive multilateral policy that shapes Iran’s actions in a way that benefits rather than weakens security in the Gulf region – a policy centered on “hard-headed internationalism” to steal a phrase from Gordon Brown – and coercive diplomacy aimed at changing Iran’s behavior. Coercive diplomacy means discarding the Bush administration’s ineffective approach on regime change in Iran and instead focusing on regime disarmament.

Working with its allies, the United States should present a package of incentives, including security guarantees and economic benefits like possible membership in the WTO, and cooperation on civilian nuclear energy with oversight from the international community.

Iran’s nuclear program is only in its early stages, so there is enough time, and we should do everything possible to avoid rash and reckless moves. The United States can lead, but properly addressing this challenge will require a joint effort of the international community including the willingness of our European partners to impose tough sanctions.            

These last years of disenchantment and discontent have allowed many grave crises to fester and roil. It is no comfort now that we recognize the serious challenges that lie ahead of us. Our only comfort is the knowledge that when we have worked together in the past, we have accepted great responsibility and been found worthy of the task.  I hope that we can do so again.

Thank you.


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