This essay was originally published in German by the Center for International Security and Governance at the Universität Bonn in its volume “Internationale Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert – Deutschlands internationale Verantwortung,” edited by James D. Bindenagel, Matthias Herdegen, and Karl Kaiser.


The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once stated that the essence of statecraft is locating the point of concurrence between the parochial and the general interest, between the national and international common good.[1] Niebuhr emphasizes that realism implies an obligation to see the world as it actually is, not as we might like it to be. He warned that hubris can blind realism, finding expression in outsized confidence in both the power as well as the values of a country as being universal. Any country is susceptible to such temptations.

The narrative of the values and interests of any country is a reflection of its history and its interpretation of itself. In the case of the United States, values and interests are often presented as overlapping. This has been particularly true of the American narrative with its emphasis on exceptionalism in world history and the assumption that what the United States stands for is truly shared by all mankind. The mission of the United States has been portrayed from the beginning as one which serves as a beacon of liberty and freedom in a world that shares a common security and a common set of values. How one can pursue that mission best has always been the focus of debate in the U.S. but the ruling assumption throughout U.S. history is that American interests are fundamentally in line with American values and in turn those values are universal. While that has not always been the case—one thinks of slavery as the original sin of the American Republic or dealing with autocratic leaders around the world as another illustration—the “city on a hill” image has been the overarching theme of American self-images.

During the post-World War II period, the equation between values and interests became accentuated again within the framework of the Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. The United States emerged as the leader of the Western network of alliances and began to use its dominant leverage to fashion a new order based on collective security and a liberal order anchored in liberal democracy and a web of international institutions to further open commercial and financial ties while exporting democracy and markets to the developing world. Even though the confrontation with Moscow also involved relations with dictatorships which did not exactly embody proclaimed American values, American leaders continued to echo their commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy along with security and prosperity in a liberal Western order. The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991 only underscored that mission with the assumption that the only alternative to the Western path had been defeated.

In his book “No One’s World,” Charles Kupchan has best described this phase as follows:

“The collapse of the Soviet Union appeared to herald the ultimate triumph of the West […] the United States and Europe promptly teamed up to integrate their former adversaries into the Western order. The European Union and NATO opened their doors to the new democracies of central Europe. A panoply of global and regional institutions such as the world trade organization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Asia-Pacific economic cooperation forum and NATO partnership for peace, were created to promote trade, political liberalization and geopolitical stability. Such efforts yielded impressive results. During the decade after the fall of the Berlin wall the global economy enjoyed robust growth and a wave of democratization swept not only Europe’s east but also Asia Africa and Latin America. Not only had the Western way been globalized, but history really did seem to be coming to an end.”[2]

Overall the combined values of liberal democracy, capitalism, and secular nationalism were seen as the foundations of the new world order which lay ahead.

But that was a premature judgement.

In fact, the world continued to evolve in ways that would challenge visions of order as perceived by leaders in Europe and in the U.S. As developing countries such as China, India, Brazil, and Indonesia, along with a resurgent Russia, emerge with their approaches to governance systems, commercial relations, and perceptions of global order, the questions about what constitutes a legitimate and multipolar framework of international relations would confront the Western dominance of political order during the past two centuries. This represented a direct challenge to what has been generally referred to as the West. It is not only an ideological challenge, but also one measured in the dimensions of economic, military, demographic, and trade polices that do not always line up with interests or values of Western liberal democracies. Kupchan has framed this new development in the following way:

“It is doubtful that any country region or model will dominate the next world. The twenty-first century will not be America’s, China’s, Asia’s or anyone else’s. It will belong to no one. The emergent international system will be populated by numerous power centers as well as multiple versions of modernity. For the first time in history an independent world will be without a center of gravity and a global guardian […] A global order if it emerges will be an amalgam of political cultures and competing conceptions of domestic and international order.”[3]

What we can expect in the coming decades is an increasing diffusion of both power and ideas about how to craft both domestic and international relationships. The Western model of secular nationalism, industrial capitalism, and liberal democracy has been a dominant force since its emergence in the eighteenth century. Much of that was attributed to the material and commercial success of the Western order for the states of those which built it. The military strength and reach of those states underscored the weight of its influence in the modernization evolution. Indeed, the capitalist system was also a force of success and was adopted by many developing countries.

However, the adoption of systems and structures is not necessarily synchronized with the adoption of ideas and values. The impact of both culture and tradition have acted as a filter for countries in developing their own orientation toward the concepts of sovereignty, trade relations, the form of government they choose, and their definition of national interests. The result is a set of alternatives to global relations and order in the twenty-first century which may look very different than the twentieth. Democracy and its structures in some states may have a different equation between the government and citizen, between the state and religion. As in the past the definition of sovereignty and regional interests will differ among states with competing interests whether they are liberal democracies or autocratic systems. And the web of international organizations and institutions which have shaped global governance during the past half century will be a platform for debate and contest in an arena of multiple modernities and power centers. The challenge will be to define how the competition over values, principles, and interests can unfold within a new consensus on rules which can sustain stability and security.

The transatlantic community has been central to the basis of international order for the past seven decades. That community has been formed on the basis of shared interests and values.

How will the United States and Europe respond to these new challenges? What will be the equation of interests and values which are not based entirely on the Western narrative? What will be the consensus on which diverse forms of capitalism, democracy, and governance as well as the arenas for global interaction can sustain stability? Or put another way—what will be the bargain that the twenty-first century will be built on? Henry Kissinger warned that “world order depends on a structure that participants support because they helped bring it about.”[4] That order will be a far more complex one in a multi-polar world.

While the peculiarities of American history reflect a preoccupation with the values underlying the founding of the nation as inherently universal, those values are also part of the narrative of other liberal democracies within their own respective historical narratives. The commitment to democracy, capitalist economic systems, and stability and security within a web of alliances was formed around a shared set of standards for the current members of the European Union and the members of the NATO alliance. Indeed those goals and values were written into the constitutions of many if not all of the nations in this web of cooperation. They have been constant reference points to this in transatlantic and even global institutions. Much of this was the result of the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century and the common commitment to build a world in which such disasters could not be repeated. The Western nation victors of the war engaged in this effort to spread liberal democratic systems and a common economic order led by the United States. The confrontation with the Soviet Union strengthened the resolve in the context of the Cold War. Indeed, the emergence of the many institutions which were to shape the international order around the U.S. were based in Washington and New York. But the web of interlocking networks across the Atlantic served to fuse the national interests of Western Europe with those of the U.S. The United States also formed similar ties elsewhere in an effort to contain Moscow’s ambitions in the developing world. But the most comprehensive framework was built across the Atlantic.

This effort was framed by what was defined as the shared values and interests was symbolized in many ways by the Wall in Berlin as defining both. After the Wall and the Soviet Union with its block of nations collapsed, more organizations and networks emerged to encompass what was seen as a global opening to share the values of democratization and economic growth.

We need to keep in mind that throughout this period, those interests and values did not always overlap in a consistent manner. Relations with regimes which did not reflect shared values were part of the Cold War period and necessitated pursuing interests with autocratic regimes in alignment within the East-West standoff. That discrepancy was part of the reality of the global political confrontation including dealing with the Soviet Union directly. Across the Atlantic there were also continual clashes of interests despite shared values. The confrontation over the Suez Canal in the 1950s, negotiations with Moscow over nuclear disarmament, and more recently the conflict over the Iraq War highlighted the potential for dissonance in the value-based Atlantic community. There has also been continual friction over the deep and wide economic and trade relations across the Atlantic currently best illustrated by the debate over TTIP[5] today but with many previous cases of competition in conflict between two enormous markets.

Yet despite these clashes, during the initial period after the Cold War was deemed to be over, there was a good deal of hubris in the West. The Western values system and its modalities could be seen as now spreading around the globe in a flat world where billions would be able to join a global economy and escape poverty while Cold War conflicts might be tempered as stakeholders around the global would be invited to join the Western club of nations.

It was a vision short-lived. There would be other visions emerging challenging the Western model and the framework in which it was built.

During the past quarter century, the balance of economic, military, and political power and influence has been in transition. The rise of China and India along with other powers including Brazil and the potential of temporary recovery of Russia has begun to challenge the primacy of the Western community. This can be measured in the metrics of economic growth, demographic expansion, military power and projection, and most exponentially the impact on the global governance network of both current institutions and alliances and those emerging anew. Whether it be the creation of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, among others, or the rising influence of countries like Turkey, Iran, or Brazil in their respective regions, the landscape of the world is changing with implications for more diversity and also debate within the international rules of the global order.

The leader of this trend is clearly China. The challenge it poses to defining anew the equation between economic growth and political liberalization will be significant.

Charles Kupchan described the implications of this trend as follows:

“Just as Bismarck’s Germany took advantage of the stability provided by British had the money to expand its trade and influence, China is reaping the benefits but not sharing the costs of the global public goods provided by the United States. The United States Navy guards the world’s sea lanes making it safe for tankers and freighters to circumvent the globe on their way to and from China’s ports […] The United States has been sacrificing lives of the soldiers and spending about $100 million annually to bring stability to Afghanistan. China make strategic purchases of that country’s mineral deposits. As Washington organized sanctions to convince Iran to shut down its nuclear programs, China buys its oil. In general American engagement in trouble parts of the developing world is often in the service of security by combating extremist, preventing civil conflicts and addressing the socioeconomic causes of instability. In contrast China heads to the same areas to secure raw materials for its industrial machine. Beijing is also positioning itself strategically in more developed economies. In Brazil for example China has invested billions of dollars in ports and infrastructure. China’s foreign-policy just like it’s the domestic policy is guided by an effective if cold-blooded realpolitik.”[6]

China is just one example of a world in transition with diverse interests and competing national positions in an increasingly interwoven network of interests and values. The outcome of the conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and other regions of Asia as well as the uncertain path of Russia taken together present the challenge of forging a consensus around the goal of securing a stable and peaceful platform to engage in this ever more complicated global arena.

In light of these developments, questions arise concerning the sustainability of the transatlantic community and its foundation of shared interests and values in forging a new global order. How coherent and cohesive will that community be in meeting the transitions ahead? The track record of the past two decades is mixed. European-U.S. relations have not been spared from the transitions going on around them. The immediate celebration of the end of the Cold War was followed by transatlantic conflicts over arguments dealing with the Balkan wars, Iraq, the responses to the great economic recession, cyber security policies, and trade negotiations, just to name a few. Yet in taking a wider look at the challenges facing Europe and the U.S., the reference to the shared values and indeed common interests resurfaced. Amid various disagreements over policy options, shared strategic goals remained visible. Indeed the affirmation that the uniqueness of the transatlantic community was reflected in the necessity of working together to deal with the new emerging challengers and stake holders in the global arena. As President Obama stated in 2010, “our relationship with our European Allison partners is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world and a catalyst for global corporation. With no other region does the United States have such a close alignment of values, interests, capabilities and goals.”[7]

That said, that close alignment has not always been a formula for coherence either within Europe. The alignment of values, interests, capabilities, and goals within Europe—let alone across the Atlantic—is no easy walk itself. There are several challenges facing Europe simultaneously. One is the gap between the commitments and institutions contained within the EU Lisbon Treaty when it comes to implementing a common foreign and security policy and the current trend toward a renationalization among the member states. That stems from both the political barriers to pooling sovereignty and the difficulty in forging a common policy when it comes to confronting challenges. The dissonance over the nature of military engagements has marked the effort to respond effectively to situations in Afghanistan, Libya, and of course Iraq. The current tensions over the refugee crisis has endangered the Schengen and Dublin policy on asylum and immigration policies, just as the crisis over Greece burdened the ability of the euro zone to act in sync. There is no doubt that the European project is under duress in the aftermath of the recent global economic crisis. A backlash against Brussels has taken root in many national frameworks—most recently in Poland where the new government removed the European flag from its public buildings.

However, the impact of the terrorist attacks in Paris, with others anticipated elsewhere in Europe, have generated a call for European solidarity in meeting these threats. How that unfolds with regard to both policy coherence in Europe as well as in the fight against ISIS remains to be tested over the long run.

Meanwhile in the U.S., there is a trend toward inward-looking interests and outsourcing certain obligations to partners including Europe. Particularly in a presidential election year, the debate over American interests with regard to responsibilities, both financial and military, is in full form. At the same time, the mix of fear connected with terrorist attacks in the U.S. along with the desire to eradicate the source of terror in the guise of ISIS is generating a highly polarized atmosphere which may be conducive for discussing multilateral approaches to these challenges.

In that context, a renewed emphasis on shared values and interests may emerge. That was recently demonstrated in Paris during the climate conference in which the combined effort of the U.S. and European partners helped to forge a consensus with the rest of the world.

It is evident that the United States and Europe remain indispensable partners for each other. The combination and collaboration of resources available to provide for global stability are unique and irreplaceable. But the need for this partnership must be directed at working with the new actors and indeed rising powers to shape the parameters of a stable and peaceful world. To lead that effort rather than let it drift is the decisive challenge ahead. Here again, President Obama has painted a picture of what that world should resemble:

“The United States supports a set of universal rights; and these rights include free speech, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for women and men, under the rule of law and the right to choose your own leaders […] Our support for these principles […] is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions and supported by all diplomatic economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”[8]

Those are the same values espoused by the European Union. Hence the need is to seek ways in which that support can be coordinated into those concrete actions with all tools available. Many of these actions will be found well beyond the boundaries of the transatlantic community—in Africa, the Middle East, or driven by common concerns wherever they are such as terrorism and climate change.

As Stefan Fröhlich has written:

“For the very reason that the EU in the United States face the same challenges and problems that raise critical security political and social concerns they need to work together and make use of their comparative advantages in the military and security sphere and in the other global issues. Meanwhile both sides especially in the United States have accepted the traditional security concerns are increasingly bound up with problems which cannot be addressed by military power alone but that need a common and multilateral approach. […] no matter how much the two partners may differ on the perception of threat […] We cannot change the fact that a shared vulnerability is an unavoidable variable in today’s world.”[9]

A shared vulnerability was part of what held the United States and Europe together during the decades after 1945. But it was not the most important part. The basis of the transatlantic partnership was rebuilding a community of nations dedicated to building a future with fewer vulnerabilities and more opportunities for people to have the rights for which both sides of the Atlantic community stand. That community is now made up of a global audience that shares vulnerability but also aspirations, shares diversity as well as ideas about how a global order can and should look. Neither Europe nor the U.S. can dictate the blueprint of that world. But by pursuing a narrative that aims to connect values with interests that address vulnerabilities as well as opportunities, they can argue that on a global scale, the sum can be greater than its parts if principle, purpose, and policies are in balance.


Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS.  Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.


[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The World Crisis and American Responsibility (New York: Association Press, 1958), p.41.

[2] Charles Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 73.

[3] Ibid., p. 3.

[4] Henry Kissinger, “An End to Hubris,” The Economist, 19 November 2008.

[5] The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the United States.

[6] Charles Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 102.

[7] Barack Obama, “Europe and America: Aligned for the Future,” The New York Times, 18 November 2010.

[8] President Obama speech text, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times,The Middle East has a choice between hate and hope,” 19 May 2011.

[9] Stefan Fröhlich, The New Geopolitics of Transatlantic Relations (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012), p. 8.