The transatlantic agenda is clearly marked by its inheritances from the previous decade, many of which are impressive achievements—while others are heavy burdens on the global stage. Over the past ten years, we have seen:

  • A major economic earthquake, which endangered not only the transatlantic community, but the entire world.  The aftershocks are still being felt today.
  • Political earthquakes stretching across an arc of Arab countries. Beginning with the Arab Spring, they have evolved in different and divergent directions. The bloody civil wars in Libya and Syria have become killing fields immersed in the battles between religions, terrorists, and dictators.
  • Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two conflicts have been the source of both transatlantic cooperation and serious conflict.
  • Turbulence in many areas of Africa, where ethnic conflicts and health epidemics continue to take the lives of thousands.
  • Evidence that the planet we inhabit is being increasingly burdened with irreparable environmental damage and unforeseen consequences.

Within Europe, seventy years after a catastrophic war ended and sparked a new effort to avoid repeating that tragedy, the strength of the European Union was noted by the entry of more members, with others eagerly waiting to join. The appearance of a shared European currency, along with other initiatives to widen and deepen the European project, are historically unprecedented. Such initiatives are promising in this experiment of pooled national interests and resources for a shared future. And yet, the path remains long and challenging with a continuing need to remind 500 million Europeans that they must confront vital questions: how much unity does Europe need? How much diversity can it endure? And how can Europe find the right balance for a phrase that Americans aspire to: e pluribus unum.

Building a Stronger Europe—without Russia

Even as the EU remains a construction site with competing engineers and architects, Germany has become more powerful in some dimensions, while lagging behind in others. And as the parameters of the European project have become increasingly complicated, there have also been trends throughout Europe—including in Germany—where there has been a blow back among the publics, and indeed even in some governments, as to what the European future should look like. There has been increasing uncertainty about how far Europe can reach, where its borders and boundaries should be, how much democracy should/must be involved, and how it should/can be implemented. This is a challenge for all of the members of the EU, but it is increasingly a question Germany needs to answer for itself.

Over the past decade, Europe has also been confronted with the continuing aftershocks of the post-Cold War transformations around it, particularly in dealing with Russia. Several years ago, the conflict in Georgia and the smoldering tensions over Abkhazia and Transnistria signaled the growing confrontation with Moscow over the future of its role and interests in the shape of Europe. The conflict surrounding Ukraine has underscored the uncomfortable fact that there is no consensus with Russia—and, indeed, over the past decade Vladimir Putin has plotted a conflicting and confrontational course with the United States and Europe. That has been a bitter medicine for Europe, and particularly for Germany, to swallow. Ever since unification, the message from Berlin about the future of Europe has been to follow a path of widening and deepening.  The expansion of the EU to the east was greeted as a vindication not only of the end of the Cold War, but also of the values of the EU as a post-Cold War phenomenon in which the threat of war was abolished and the gradual transition to a common set of goals and standards was to be accepted on the entire continent. Putin’s agenda in annexing Crimea and then helping to foment the pro-Russian dissidents in eastern Ukraine ran directly counter to that narrative.

The post-Cold War hope that a Europe, whole and free, could include Russia has been smashed in the past year with little expectation of resolution after the events of 2014. Yet that fact could still galvanize Europe into injecting new energy into the European project, not only in economic terms, but also in the form of a more coherent foreign policy projection of both influence and power. The time for that is now.

A Superpower for the New Century

On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States has experienced a set of challenges to its sense of purpose and policies during the past decade. The shock of 9/11 left the country all too aware of its vulnerability, but the shaping of its responses to that challenge forced the country to face many unanswered questions that have lingered since its inception. Balancing the use of force and diplomacy, power and legitimacy, and foreign policy realists and idealists remains unresolved. The result is what Henry Kissinger, in his book World Order, has called an ambivalent superpower.

Amid the debates over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the desire to protect itself and its allies, we see these arguments reflecting the core beliefs behind the American creed—the sense that the universalist values we cherish require a sense of responsibility for not only ourselves, but for the world—and that American power and resources are indeed indispensable to achieve a peaceful, just, and harmonious world order.

There is no better example of that belief being translated into policy than how the United States engaged in rebuilding Europe after 1945 and, indeed, in its commitment to a former enemy after a catastrophic war and heinous crimes, for which Germany was largely responsible. That commitment was rewarded on October 3, 1990 on the steps of the Reichstag in Berlin. That same sense of responsibility has resulted in a network of institutions and alliances spanning the globe over the course of many decades. But it is not without mistakes, both of judgment and of policy, when seen in retrospect. Cases in South America and Southeast Asia, among others, can attest to that.

Today, the debate continues over how the United States, still the most powerful nation in the world, will shape its policies—and those shared with its allies—in an increasingly multi-polar world. The U.S. is facing hard decisions about the range and reach of its global commitments and the strength of its domestic resources, both political and economic. It is less a debate concerning whether the U.S. engages globally, and more a question of where, with whom, and how.

The last ten years of two wars have exacted a toll on the American public, further reflecting the ambivalence of power and responsibility. While the threats after 9/11 have not lessened—in fact they have metastasized—the tools used for responding were over-militarized and underestimated in terms of the both the type and duration of the threats. In the beginning, the narrative after 9/11 was to end evil. Ten years later, the lessons learned involve a realization that we are still in a world in which evil exists, in which final victories are fleeting, and in which continued challenges must be managed.  We are entering a world with multiple versions of modernity among emerging powers, who are gaining a voice in the global arena. How will the American narrative deal with that reality?

The Next Decade

What this means for transatlantic relations in the next decade is clear. Close cooperation between Europe and the United States is the most important goal for both sides of the Atlantic and represents the world’s most important partnership. But, as Charles Kupchan, Senior Director for European Affairs at the National Security Council, has written in No One’s World, “the two sides of the Atlantic face opposite challenges. Europe needs to increase its means if it is to make credible its ambition to become a more capable actor on the global stage. The United States had to face recalibration of its goals if it is to pursue a solvent grand strategy—in equilibrium with its available resources and public support.”

This means that the challenge for transatlantic relations is to define a new parameter for the partnership. As Henry Kissinger wrote in World Order, “The Atlantic Community cannot remain relevant by simply projecting the familiar forward. Cooperating to shape strategic affairs globally, the European members of the Atlantic Alliance in many cases have described their policies as those of neutral administrators of rules and distributors of aid. But they are often uncertain about what to do when this model was rejected or its implementation went awry. A more specific meaning needs to be given to the often invoked Atlantic partnership by a new generation shaped by a set of experiences other than the legacy of the Cold War.”

The web of interdependence binding Europe and the United States has no counterpart anywhere on the globe. The U.S. needs Europe to help sustain both its interests and its values. The same holds true for the European Union. Yet twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, we continue to struggle with past challenges and a future we need to define.

Download the Munich Security Conference 2015 Report