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The Old Alliance is history: Lacking political vision, the Europeans have no choice but to seek protection under the wings of the United States

NATO’s new strategic concept is less than six months old, but it is already risks being overtaken by events. The joint NATO operation with the Arab League in Libya is symbolic of a dramatic truth which is confronting Alliance Foreign Ministers as they meet in Berlin this week:

The world as we have known it is coming apart at the seams. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is time finally to bid farewell to our tidy post-war Atlantic community and replace it with an Atlanticism reset to a global scale.

Some will argue that the Atlantic community is no longer relevant in a multipolar world. Others will contend that NATO should not be a global organization. But neither of these arguments touches the core of the problem.

Today’s new political and economic geography is based primarily on the ingenuity and resources which emerged from Western society; in particular the growing web of high-speed information and logistics networks, which has knitted global societies together in new an exciting ways. And there are no obvious candidates to assume our central role.

China and India lost their global roles in the nineteenth century as they failed to adapt to the industrial revolution. This time they are taking full advantage of the twenty-first century methods, while Russia is not. A similar challenge now faces the West: Learning to adapt our behavior to the task of maintaining our advantage in the twenty-first century.

Here is where a new Atlantic equation will be essential. Post-Cold War America has immense resources and an uncanny ability to exert influence by projecting its values across time and space. Americans create networks in spaces not evident to most other nations – Facebook is only the most recent of many examples. But it does not have the patience for managing international balances of power. It needs confident European partners at its side.

Europeans seem slow to understand that their societies cannot flourish if their vision of unity is not redefined on a global plane. Although European companies are rapidly expanding across the world, they are short of tools for influencing a globally integrated world. Germany is brilliant at building global logistics networks, but lacks strategic vision. The EU’s only political roadmap is a twenty-page treaty which outlines its internal bureaucracy.

In coming years, pressures of global markets will likely lead European nations to scale back hopes for an independent political role and increasingly to seek cover within the U.S. global perspective. There is no other option.

However, Europeans are very adept at integrating diverse elements into modern network systems. A new sort of pragmatic European identity could be a cornerstone of the new Atlanticism.

The key will be to integrate the strengths of both sides of the Atlantic into solid intellectual leadership. By intellectual leadership I do not mean scholarship, invention, or even ideas as such, but rather the ability to define solutions for the design and direction of this new type of global integration.

Without an internal compass based on Western values, high speed networks could spin out of control or be hijacked by those seeking personal gain or conflict. So far, our success at defining such a compass has been limited.

Had ethics played a greater role in financial networks before 2007, for example, much if not all of the financial crisis might have been avoided.

Confusion over how to react to the diverse democratic movements in the Middle East is a further demonstration of gap between networks and values. Guido Westerwelle’s abstention in the UN is more typical of overall Western indecision than most would like to admit.

One reason is that most global intellectual leadership today comes from technological innovators. They spend their time keeping up with the rapid pace of technological change. Politicians do not even have a vocabulary yet to describe what is going on.

The intellectual gap between technology and society has rarely been greater. One result is improvisation and confusion. Public confidence in both business and government is at an all time low.

Closing this gap is one of the most important immediate tasks facing both government and industry today. To do so will require skill in adapting innovative concepts of management – already applied in global corporations – to the need for self-regulating value propositions in public life also.

For example, mobile communications companies have long understood that within high speed integrated networks, expanding cooperation with competitors is often the best method for gaining market share. Applying such successful examples of cooperative network behavior could certainly add value to political and diplomatic tasks as well.

The good news is that our liberal values remain the most pragmatic available foundation for a global operating system. Innovation works best in open societies which encourage dialogue and risk-taking. By defining a pragmatic vision of openness and transparency, we can help emerging powers master the new global economic geography, and at the same time build the tools for sustaining justice, prosperity and peace in the turbulent years ahead.


Ambassador John Kornblum is a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, an AICGS Trustee, and Senior Counselor at Noerr Stiefenhofer Lutz Rechtsanwälte.

A German version of this essay originally appeared in the April 15, 2011, edition of Handelsblatt, and in the April 21, 2011, AICGS Advisor.