Transatlantic relations ? three paradigms, three urgent changes

This week?s Munich Security Conference offers a platform for transatlantic change. Ulrike Gu?rot discusses three necessary paradigm shifts

This article was published in eGov monitor on 9 February 2009.

At the Munich Security Conference, everybody is expecting and preparing for a fresh start in transatlantic relations.

The conference has been the stage for unusual and sharp confrontations in recent years: one easily remembers Joschka Fischer‘s “I am not convinced”, in 2003, when US-Defense Minister Donald Rumsfeld tried to provide evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The errors of the past urgently need to be put aside. Today, an important American delegation led by Vice-President Biden is the expression of a new style of communication and a new form of dialogue in transatlantic relations.

What will be the next steps in transatlantic relations? Will it include a formal request for more troops from President Obama for Afghanistan and Iraq? The willingness of European countries to provide more troops is fairly non-existent. But this question is not the one that desperately needs to be solved.

The real issue is how much difference the ‘Obama-difference’ will really make. Will Obama only slightly change US foreign policy at the margins? Or will Europe and the US be ready and able to profoundly change their patterns of foreign policy making which are still driven by a cold-war mind-set?

The ‘Obama-difference’ impact is governed by three distinct but inter-related paradigms. All need to be changed for successful future transatlantic relations and world order.

The first paradigm: Everybody wants to rule the world

‘We‘ – meaning the West (ie Europe and the US) – are no longer running the world and no longer have the means and power to set the rules of the game in international relations. The time of the transatlantic credo “if only the US and Europe work together, the world is a better place” are over – it no longer true for large parts of the world. We are collectively loosing power in setting the international law agenda, from human rights to WTO agreements and treaties such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (TNP).

The underlying assumption that the West has the right to possess and to do things that others cannot and do not is no longer accepted in many parts of the world. The West does not determine the rules: That is the first and most important change of paradigm that we need to undergo. In 2050, the US and Europe combined will have something like 7% of world population. This means that the West needs to give power, space and ownership to the other 93%.

The second paradigm: The generation gap

The 21st century is not the 20th, as silly as this sentence may sound. The foreign policy mind-set is no longer the same for large parts of the young generation, especially those born after 1989. Polls and sociological studies show that the ‘usual’ patterns and institutions, such as NATO, that carried transatlantic relations are no longer known and understood and have no space or reality in the head of a today‘s 15 year old (who will run tomorrow’s world). The US and Europe need to adapt the institutional set-up of their relationship to modern times and young heads. Transatlantic Trends Data of September 2008 showed, for example, that among young Germans, Russia gets nearly as many sympathy points (50) than the US (51). (This was on a scale from 0 to 100.) Therefore, the unconditional commitment  to the US is gone (thanks to the Bush administration!) and most young Europeans want a ‘peer relationship’ between the US and Europe.

Time has come to realise that NATO may not be the best and most appropriate institution to make this work. There are two reasons for this. First, the institutional structure of NATO does not allow Europe to voice difference – the US is the primus inter pares and NATO votes with unanimity. This was the bitter lesson of Rumsfeld‘s “you are either with us or against us”, and incidentally, NATO as an institution hardly offers any other choice. Secondly, the security topics of today – from climate change to energy protection to pirates at the horn of Africa – are not NATO issues, as much as the Alliance desperately tries to feel responsible for and competent to deal with nearly everything in the understandable ambition just to still feel ‘useful’. We have known since the days of Max Weber that institutions don‘t die. But NATO is visibly undergoing a morbid starving and it can no longer carry transatlantic relations alone.

But which institutional frame for transatlantic dialogue should be build? This is the creative question for the future. A first step would be to disentangle NATO and the EU, especially with respect to membership and enlargement questions. Including Ukraine or Georgia in the EU would not constitute a problem for or provoke Russia, but taking them into NATO would. To what extent the most recent moves of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy on Franco-German positions within NATO will mark the wind of change in view of the NATO-birthday summit on April 4th remains to be seen. This is one of the most interesting questions for the weeks to come.

The third paradigm: The US-EU-Russian trio

It is fair to say today the West no longer agrees on the Russia question. Whereas US foreign policy makers were busy in recent months restabilising cold-war rhetoric (‘Thanks to Russia, NATO is back’) with issues such as the missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland becoming an ardent strain on US-Russia relations, most Europeans want and need a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia. Not that Europeans are naive or like Putin or think that Russia is a shining democracy. But ‘Realpolitik’ driven by gas interests, money and pipeline-flows are determining the view of Russia in continental Europe much more than in the US. For many Europeans, Michael Saakashvilli has not been a victim of the Russian Bear, but a hazardous provoker, and the recent Russian/Ukrainian gas crises was for many more a transit problem with Ukraine than a reliability problem with Russia. These are clearly diverging perceptions. And if the common threat perception was the most constitutive element the West had for many decades, the diverging perception must be drawn together now. The US and Europe need to work on a constructive triangular relationship between Russia, Europe and the US in the 21st century. Institutional creativity is needed here. Joschka Fischer recently suggested Russia‘s NATO-membership, a proposal that triggers  head-shaking in the US. However, the times, again, have changed dramatically – but many of the changes since 1989 have not yet arrived in the heads of foreign policy leaders.

Perhaps this years Munich conference will be the starting point to prepare the future of transatlantic relations. Hopefully we can avoid past reflexes.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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