The Atlantic Pivot

August 14, 2016 Topic: Security Region: United StatesEurope Tags: BrexitUnited KingdomNATO

The Atlantic Pivot

Brexit or not, Europe remains an indispensable strategic asset for the United States.

This postsecular agenda—in, from and about the greater Middle East—is especially urgent. Afghanistan is representative of the difficulty. After September 11, this was widely viewed as a legitimate war; now, after fifteen years, progress in pacification, reconstruction and stabilization remains far from satisfactory and ever further from resolution.

Regretfully, Afghanistan is not an aberration, and no Euro-Atlantic country can be sure that future interventions will yield results. The secular war in Iraq, which aimed at regime change, became a sectarian war for Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s removal. Now that the rise of the Islamic State has forced the need for a return of U.S. forces, it is time to address two daunting questions. Can Iraq ever have a functioning state at peace with itself, and if not, what is there to assist and against whom? Can any Iraqi state ever live at peace with its neighbors, and if not, what is there to deter and by whom?

Elsewhere, the situation is getting worse: in Tunisia and Egypt, where the Arab Spring got its start, but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan. The latter four are dying states buried under civil wars that are spilling over into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and, increasingly, Turkey—an important NATO member (but not a member of the EU) dangerously singled out by the Islamic State as a target of choice. Risks of a meltdown are also rising in Saudi Arabia, and the next Israeli-Palestinian war seems near, separate from but also inseparable from everything else in the region. Finally, while a military confrontation with Iran has been postponed, the risk cannot be discarded yet, especially as Tehran extends its reach and influence throughout the area.

The Middle East is a region where surprises are expected, but even so the current implosion has been surprising. Agreeing on, or debating, what should not have been done (as in Iraq), or what was not done (as in Syria), or done poorly (as in Libya) and late (as in Iran) is easier than agreeing and acting on what should be done now. The region does not lend itself to much strategic coherence: if the enemy of my enemy is not my friend, but the enemy of my friend is not my enemy, who is my friend? In the century’s new global Balkans, this is a true Sarajevo moment, whose only strategic clarity is the urgency it conveys. By 2020, the expanding area of homeless nations, rearranged into sects, tribes and clans, will define the region and shape a new status quo—either much better or much worse but not the same.

President Obama’s professorial talk about “the unfixable” greater Middle East may well be justified. But that is the tyranny of primacy: as it has been noted, great powers do not do windows. Given this bleak picture, the Euro-Atlantic community’s fragmented response has failed to exploit its complementary range of national and institutional capacities—political, economic, military and social strengths with which to reduce the region’s instabilities and counter the spread of militant radical Islam. In a globalized and interconnected world, withdrawal from this struggle is not an option. A Transatlantic Strategic Dialogue would aim at some informal understanding as to which states or institutions should take the lead in producing the “first draft” of a comprehensive policy for consideration by all the members of the Euro-Atlantic community in response to, or in anticipation of, an evolving or emerging crisis.


THIRD, A postnational agenda transcends the nation-state and exceeds its capacity for effective management alone. Included in this agenda are slow-moving issues that do not sustain public interest and are bundled into circumstances that cannot be resolved without broad interstate cooperation: flows of refugees who seek an escape from failed and failing states; the rise of radical militant Islam within the Euro-Atlantic states; energy security; structural economic relations, including the management of multilateral institutions so as to make room for the emerging economies; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including loose nukes, a subject now dominated by the ambitions of Iran, the defiance of North Korea, the instabilities of Pakistan and the known unknowns of the Islamic State; environmental concerns, including the nearly universally acknowledged threat of global warming and the enforcement of the Paris Agreement of December 2015; the unregulated and potentially decisive world of cyberspace; and much more.

In responding to these threats and challenges, Europeans and Americans face institutional rigidities that diminish their capabilities and stand in the way of successful outcomes. NATO often falls short because it lacks nonmilitary functionality; the reverse applies to the EU, because it lacks political punch to complement its economic jab; meanwhile, NATO-EU and EU-American dialogues often bog down on mundane qui-fait-quoi questions of competence between the institutions or among their members. Yet, even in a world in mutation said to be turning post-Western, the United States, NATO and the EU offer a unique set of relevant and complementary capabilities to lead in a multilateral context.

These capabilities will be made more effective if they can rely on a shared Euro-Atlantic security framework that includes EU members that are not in NATO and European members of NATO that are not in the EU. If twenty-one EU members can agree with their six NATO partners on a strategic concept, they should also be able to agree with their other seven EU partners on a strategic framework paper that can accommodate the six non-EU members of NATO. What is included in this document will be important, of course, and drafting it will not be easy. But as significant as its specific content will be, the demonstration that the Euro-Atlantic community shares a common view of the world is paramount.


IT IS in Europe that America completed its apprenticeship as a superpower, and it is with the United States that the former great powers of Europe regained their composure and confidence. Now, after half a century of total wars, and another of containment, this is a moment of permanent crisis. Neither the United States and NATO, nor the states of Europe and the EU, can passively await a solution. In December 1995, which was a time of transition, a New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA) was designed to respond to major political and institutional changes in Europe, including the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Treaty on the European Union. The dialogue that followed proved to be the high point of transatlantic economic integration for an entire decade, and shaped a “big-bang” enlargement of the Euro-Atlantic community. But although the NTA facilitated cooperation on counterterrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, it proved to be of limited relevance to high-politics issues, and transatlantic political differences therefore remained high, and policies erratic. It is that deficit that now needs correction to meet the strategic challenges of the moment.

A new transatlantic agenda with an elevated focus on security and foreign policy would not pretend to minimize differences in attitudes or interests on specific issues and regions of concern. Nor would it neglect the distinct mission, structure and identity of both NATO and the EU. Nor, finally, would it suggest that what is good for one transatlantic partner is necessarily beneficial, in equal measure, to all the others. But it would imply that what is bad for either institution, or any of its members on one side of the Atlantic, is likely to be bad for the other. And it would facilitate a process of Euro-Atlantic Political Coordination with a vital set of capabilities to help promote shared interests, common objectives and compatible values in a dangerously turbulent world.

Simon Serfaty is a professor of U.S. foreign policy and eminent scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair (emeritus) in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (csis). Some of his most recent books include A World Recast (2012), Un monde nouveau en manque d’Amérique (2014), Architects of Delusion (2008) and Vital Partnership (2004).

Image: “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry listens to newly installed British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson addresses reporters in the gilded Lacarno Media Room in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London U.K., on July 19, 2016, during a news conference following their first bilateral meeting. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]”