After the events of 2016, the future of the transatlantic relationship at times seems tenuous, fraught with national interests and publics that seem tired of looking beyond one’s own borders. As leaders in the U.S. and Europe navigate through uncertain waters, they will do well to remember two important milestones in transatlantic relations: the announcement of the Marshall Plan and the creation of the European Economic Community. These events—both marking anniversaries in 2017—may offer some insights for today, but more than that, they also remind us that we are in need of new narratives to reflect major transformations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Marshall Plan was announced seventy years ago, in June of 1947, at a Harvard commencement speech delivered by then Secretary of State George Marshall. Otherwise known as the European Recovery Program, it was an American initiative to aid Western Europe with over $12 billion in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies in the wake of World War II. A mixture of benevolence and self interest, the argument for the Marshall Plan in the U.S. was embedded in the emerging confrontation with the Soviet Union and the need to secure the future of Western Europe as a bulwark and ally in what was to become a four-decade-long Cold War. It was not an easy argument to make to a country exhausted by war and horrified by the atrocities committed by Germany—a major beneficiary of the Marshall Plan. In the end, the Marshall Plan became more of an icon, a benchmark used by many to address other challenges elsewhere in the world, from dealing with instability in the Middle East and parts of Africa, to facing global threats like climate change, mass migration, or disease outbreak. Mobilizing its resources to address major problems in Europe was possible for the U.S. to accomplish given its singularly preeminent power after 1945. But it was also the intention of the U.S. to mobilize a network of allies to help deal with global threats. Seventy years later that recipe has not changed.

The creation of the European Economic Community sixty years ago in 1957 formed the basis for
the European pillar of transatlantic relations over the next several decades. An international agreement signed in Rome by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany, the initiative was the foundation of today’s European Union of twenty-eight member states. In 1962, in a speech in Philadelphia, President John F. Kennedy heralded “the age of interdependence” among nations and singled out united Europe as a major partner of the U.S. in that framework: “We believe that a united Europe will be capable of playing a greater role in the common defense, of responding more generously to the needs of poorer nations, of joining with the United States and others in lowering trade barriers, resolving problems of commerce, commodities, and currency, and developing coordinated policies in all economic, political, and diplomatic areas. We see in such a Europe a partner with whom we can deal on a basis of full equality in all the great and burdensome tasks of building and defending a community of free nations.”

In the twenty-first century, those lofty ambitions have largely given way, and now we see that the disorder that has plagued much of the globe is spreading to the transatlantic relationship as well. Today the European Union is being buffeted by Brexit and populist backlash movements pulling at the fabric of Europe in ways that question the sustainability of the Union itself. The United States has become marked by a polarized environment in which some question the relevance of transatlantic ties in the framework outlined by President Kennedy over a half century earlier. In fact, the next administration sends signals that the transatlantic relationship may be of a more transactional nature.

The path from here is uncertain. The narratives of these past decades may not be enough to confront new forces now pressing on both sides of the Atlantic. Germany’s current leadership remains steadfast in support of the European project in its own interests. Yet Angela Merkel is more isolated in that position than she has ever been during the past dozen years in office. The anti-European winds are blowing harder not only in the UK, but across the entire continent—including in Germany. And she is up against a tough election campaign in 2017 that will test her staying power as she tries for a fourth term as chancellor.

The future priorities of the Trump administration remain unclear and unpredictable with regard to transatlantic ties. Much of that is a function of an unconventional presidency, but it is also evident that the foundation of the transatlantic relationship is in transition, now seventy years after the Marshall Plan was announced. That foundation was based on a set of shared perceptions of goals, values, and threats informing policies designed to sustain shared stability and security not only for the transatlantic relationship, but for the global community. Today we are no longer as confident that the foundation is secure. Recently Henry Kissinger argued that the U.S. is at a “hinge moment” in its history, in which it is deciding whether to continue playing the role it has played since 1945: “for the first time since the end of the Second World War, the future relationship of America to the world is not fully settled.” And that development is unsettling the entire global landscape.

At the same time, Germany is also at a hinge moment as it ponders its own role in dealing with both new responsibilities and expectations yet unsure how far it can go in exercising leadership. During the past half century, Germany’s mantra was always “never again, never alone.” Today, Berlin is facing the challenge of sustaining its commitment to Europe while facing harsh criticism for its stand on refugee policies or economic policies that are attacked as selfish or self-serving.

These developments are unfolding while other powers around the world are rethinking their own strategic goals and interests. That leaves open a good deal of ambiguity and unpredictability of aims and action, be it in Moscow, Beijing, Riyadh, or Tehran, just to name a few.

During the next twelve months we will need to take sober stock of the narratives that have described how the German-American relationship—embedded in the transatlantic framework—has evolved through the present, what remains of its legacy, and what needs to be reset in light of the global transformations around it.

While the interdependence of interests and goals remains intact, the prescriptions and policies we design to meet our current challenges need to be adjusted. Today Germany and the U.S. share different equations of leadership and partnership than was the case in the past. They are framed in different sets of responsibilities and expectations, both in terms of their respective domestic debates as well as their relations with each other and with other significant players around the globe. The web which has surrounded the German-American relationship has been a reliable source of answers to four key questions: where, when, how, and why do Germany and the United States need each other. But those answers are not static.

In comparison with other regions, transatlantic relations—and in particular the German-American relationship—have been and still are the most intensively networked web of relations shared anywhere in the world. Today, the narratives of how we accomplished that need to be refreshed with new narratives about where we should be headed.

It is now up to the leadership of those in European capitals and in Washington to determine whether they remain committed to an interdependent transatlantic community and, if so, to forge a new narrative that supports it. If the transatlantic relationship is no longer a priority, then the vacuum it will leave on the world stage will be quickly filled with narratives written by other actors with different agendas. And as a result, one of the most important chapters in the effort to craft a peaceful international order of cooperation among nation states will begin to unravel.

The new year offers several reminders of how far we have come since 1945, but anniversaries are not enough to sustain us. Among the key leaders who can help shape that effort are Germany and the U.S. In an age of increasingly complex interdependence, there are answers to how, when, and where our two countries need each other today. But they need to restate the most important answer: why.

  • Don’t worry a dent on that automobile’s front fender may somehow be overlooked. After all that is said and may be done in the present day and age.