Thinking About the Transatlantic Relationship

I had the opportunity to attend the Fourth Annual Transatlantic Editor'sRoundtable (sponsored by the Center for Applied Research of the University of Munich, http://www.

I had the opportunity to attend the Fourth Annual Transatlantic Editor's

Roundtable (sponsored by the Center for Applied Research of the University of Munich, this past weekend in New York City.

This event brings together editors from major foreign affairs periodicals from both sides of the Atlantic and is a useful way to take the pulse of the transatlantic relationship. I left feeling both reassured and troubled about the health of that relationship.

The fact that there can be significant and vocal disagreements among allies is a testimony to the strength rather than the weakness of the Euro-Atlantic community. Yet what remains worrisome is the sense that the schism among Europeans and between Western Europe and North America over Iraq was not an outlier, an isolated if regrettable tiff, but represents the beginning of a more serious divergence over how to address what are the common threats to both Europe and America: international terrorism, rogue regimes and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. There were some of the usual disagreements: should terrorism be conceived of as primarily a security threat to be dealt with by the military or a law enforcement problem; more of the "U.S.-is-unilateralist" versus charges that continental Europe is "free-riding" on America's back; debates over the proper role of the United Nations in world events.

As for me, I walked away with several questions about the future of the relationship.

The first is whether American confidence in the strategy of "cherry-picking" European allies is viable for the long-term; that is, can the United States continue to forge temporary "coalitions of the willing" behind its agenda without having to engage in serious negotiations with European states? Britain's "special relationship" with the United States, of course, is based on an intricate web of shared interests. But the change of government in Spain and the resignation of Lezsek Miller in Poland highlights the weakness of predicating policy on the viability and survivability of specific governments and individual political leaders.  So it would seem that viable, sustainable transatlantic action has to take place within the context of established institutions. So the consensus was that, had NATO - as an alliance - reached a consensus over Iraq and troops had been deployed as a matter of formal commitments, Spain would not be withdrawing from Iraq at this time.

The second was over what sort of "global actor" the European Union aspires to become.  Let us leave aside, for the moment, the question as to whether the "European project" will be consolidated. It is not a foregone conclusion that the EU will emerge in the next decade as a more effective actor in foreign and security policy. But for the sake of argument, let us assume that, as Charles Kupchan, Wayne Merry and others have argued, that a more consolidated Europe is a reality in the near future.

The United States is an actor with global reach, with deployments in more than 120 countries.  A post-Soviet Russia, in contrast, has eschewed a truly global position (closing outposts in Cuba and Vietnam, among others) to concentrate on being a "regional superpower" in Eurasia. To which of these two models would a consolidated Europe lean towards? Would the EU begin to duplicate American power-projection capabilities and so function in the international system as a second actor with global reach? Or will Europe "concentrate" its efforts on securing its own core territory and the adjacent regions, and so, like Russia, be a meaningful world power precisely because it is a leading regional power?

This is not a matter of semantics. A Europe with global reach is in a position to either forge an effective partnership with the United States or emerge as a serious counterweight to it on the international stage. By contrast, a Europe that seeks to play an active role in Eurasia and the Greater Middle East (and parts of Africa) but leaves large sections of the world outside of its zone of intervention will relate to the United States differently. Here, the United States would remain the "hub" of the international system-to use the typology presented by Josef Joffe in our pages two years ago.  Europe might be a leading "spoke", but it would not truly be a co-equal global partner of the United States-it could only be an equal partner, say, in the transformation of the Greater Middle East, but not in resolution of the North Korean crisis.

Finally, there is a question of focus. The transatlantic relationship, in the end, was grounded in the assumption that the connection was of primary strategic, political and economic interest to both North Americans and Western Europeans. Several weeks ago, speaking on the television program "Diplomatic Immunity" (TVOntario), Henry Kissinger noted that the "transatlantic" dimension of the relationship may be weakening, as "the center of power in America shifts more to the West and southwest and as the Europeans become more and more absorbed in their own internal problems.  One has to remember that European leaders spend between a third and half of their time on issues of European unification and on abstruse subjects of European constitution …" In other words, a Europe looking away from the Atlantic toward the center of the continent and an America increasingly focused on its trans-Pacific relationships with China, Japan and Korea may not place the same amount of priority on the transatlantic connection.

One thing is clear: the relationship is evolving. And it is critical that both Americans and Europeans keep an eye on where things are headed.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.