For those who make the rounds of conferences on the transatlantic circuit, there is often a tendency to find similar groups assembled around similar topics drawing similar conclusions about the status of transatlantic relations. Agendas and activists overlap, leading to a feeling that the congregation is attending another church service for those already converted.
On other occasions, the congregants are accompanied by new guests, who are able to bring a new outlook to those who come wishing to avow the usual creeds and hymns surrounding transatlantic relations.
Over the past ten years, the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. has developed a forum in Brussels that has steadily helped to expand the lens of transatlantic encounters. This year’s forum took as its theme the combination of revolution and evolution to encompass a set of issues that raise fundamental questions about what transatlantic relations are about in 2015, and what they are going to be about in the coming decade.
By most measures, the agenda is full: concerns about the continuing violence in Ukraine, the euro, or return to a Cold War between Russia and the West; worries about the splintering of liberal democracies in Europe and the polarization of American politics; frantic efforts by some to push forward (and by others to oppose) new transatlantic trade regimes; apprehensions over electronic surveillance; and the fears of immigration movements, terrorism, and economic uncertainty. All of these concerns consume the transatlantic dialogue ad infinitum.
Yet when one broadens the bandwidth of both sides of the Atlantic, the parameters of transatlantic relations take on a new set of dimensions. They become enveloped in the larger web of a world in which 12 percent of the world’s population (Europe and the U.S. combined) are juxtaposed against another 88 percent whose concerns range far beyond transatlantic relations.
Influence beyond the Transatlantic Space
Normally the hymnal of transatlantic relations contains references to well-known affirmations. The U.S. and European Union represent 12 percent of the global population; together, they are the largest economy in the world, accounting for over 50 percent of world GDP and one-third of worldwide trade. The transatlantic security alliance, NATO, is the most successful and effective military alliance in history. And shared values of democratic institutions mark the members of the transatlantic community. More recently the reference to the efforts to complete the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has been billed as the next phase of the every closer Euro-U.S. partnership.
Yet while this partnership has been evolving, so has the rest of the world. Economic growth, dynamic demographic developments, and the rising political impact of many countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and in the Middle East are changing the global landscape. The transatlantic community has been increasingly confronted by a changing arena, in which more players are emerging and influencing the global agenda.
The Brussels Forum offered several platforms for important voices from China, India, Brazil, and South Korea, among others, who reminded the audience of the impact of developments well beyond the transatlantic framework. That begins with the sheer force of Asian demography and the growing economic weight of Asian markets: a population of 4.4 billion (roughly 60 percent of the world population) and a total GDP at purchasing power parity of $38.8 trillion in 2013. China alone accounts for 42 percent of the regional output.
There is also an expanding web of interests and dialogue among other continents. China is increasingly inserting its presence in Africa and South America. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing, with an anticipated $100 billion in registered capital, serves as an example of the changing calculus in the network of global financial institutions. The fact that several European nations, including Germany, have opted to join that bank was a point of debate in Brussels, leaving some American officials critical of the move but unable to do anything about it. That some news reports suggest the U.S. may now join the AIIB is a clear indication of the attraction of capital and markets, and signals the changing leverage of political and financial power. Underlying the public debate, we have seen a clear clash between Washington and Beijing over China’s clout in the world’s leading financial infrastructure, set up largely by the United States in the wake of World War II, and still largely dominated in the senior ranks by U.S., European, and Japanese officials.
In line with these developments, countries like Brazil and India have expressed their frustration that the long debated reform of the International Monetary Fund’s voting rights to reflect the new global pecking order has been blocked by gridlock in Washington between the White House and the Republican-dominated Congress, along with other such confrontations, including the clash over negotiations with Iran. American domestic politics is becoming as much a danger to U.S. global leadership as external threats.
Yet global perceptions of Europe are equally critical. Given Europe’s frantic concern with the meltdown in Greece and the clash with Russia over Ukraine, as well as worries over the future of the euro and the overall economic outlook in the EU, outsiders may conclude that Europe is indeed more preoccupied with itself and its immediate environment. While aspirations for European political or even military integration, as much as they may be desirable, crash often on the shores of national sovereignty, the push and pull of the EU struggle to organize itself absorbs the majority of its members’ fiscal, political, and economic energies.
A Global Outlook for the Transatlantic Relationship
The final sessions of the Brussels Forum dealt with what defines the transatlantic relationship now and what it might look like in ten years. At the center of today’s concerns were references to the search for leadership, the crisis of trust in government, the rise of populist backlash, democratic deficits, and political apathy. Meanwhile, the challenges facing liberal democracies are manifold, stemming from being confronted by authoritarian systems of government that seed doubt among those questioning the role of democracy. While Vladimir Putin is upending the framework of the postwar European order by defying borders, annexing parts of sovereign countries, and threatening those countries that challenge it with military weapons, he is also inviting the representatives of extreme right-wing movements, and underwriting them in Europe, to share his vision of the future and Russia’s role in it.
Meanwhile, China also represents a challenge to that same postwar order, which it sees as in need of adjustment for its vision of the twenty-first century. While China is not alone in that clash of views, it is also certainly not leading a consensus on what the alternative world order should look like—as reflected by conflicts in its own regional framework with its neighbors.
Zbigniew Brzezinski articulated his sense of the future, saying the United States remains a global superpower with no equivalent. But while America is not declining, others are rising. Both power and influence is more diffuse. His advice to those seeking to respond to these challenges was to think strategically and reflect historically. The parameters in which we must both think and reflect are today global and are shaped by the increasingly complex—and often conflicting—set of narratives about how we got to where we are. That complexity is generating horrific bloodshed and terror in some parts of the world, while in other parts, it could contribute to shared goals and even values.
Regardless of where we live, we cannot insulate ourselves from this expanding mix of centripetal and centrifugal forces.
The path of transatlantic relations has been complex and contradictory over many decades. Still, it has led to what we have today, which is a community of nations that share common reference points, practices, and aspirations. That is because there has been a willingness to think strategically and reflect historically together on both side of the Atlantic. We often recall that when we mark major milestones, as is the case in 2015: 70 years after the Second World War, 25 years after German unification, and 40 years after the Helsinki Act, among others.