Will There Be Another Generation of Atlanticists?

An Aging Partnership

In November 2013, Victoria Nuland gave her first public speech as Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. In her introductory remarks she proclaimed that it was “cool to be a Europeanist again.” In a tour de force, starting with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), touching upon questions of energy diversification and independence and a number of ongoing conflicts in the EU’s neighborhood, and concluding with a few clarifications on the NSA debate, Nuland made the case for a “transatlantic renaissance.”[1]

The audience seemed to like the speech—and so did I. But I could not help wondering whether the speech and its audience were a true reflection of the current state of transatlantic relations. As at almost any transatlantic event, the dominating color was grey: grey suits, grey hair almost everywhere. Sitting there was—in the majority—a generation of Atlanticists who had not only built strong ties with their European partners during the Cold War, but also transformed and renewed the partnership after the Iron Curtain disappeared with the peaceful revolution in Central and Eastern Europe—a generation that really made the twentieth century the “Atlantic century,” as the historian Kenneth Weisbrode called it.[2] This generation seemed eager to hear from Assistant Secretary Nuland that the administration would “double down” on the transatlantic partnership. Younger faces, although probably equally committed to the transatlantic partnership, were in the minority.

Nuland, born in 1961 and thus one of the younger torchbearers of Atlanticism, was well aware of this generational challenge. In the Q&A session, Nuland responded to a question from the audience: “I worry in particular that it’s only old farts like us who actually still remember what NATO is for. […] And I worry about the forty-and-unders who really don’t understand the alliance.”[3] Similar concerns were raised at the Core Group Meeting of the Munich Security Conference in early November. Some participants expressed their worries that the next generation in both Europe and the United States would just not deem the transatlantic partnership to be of vital importance anymore.

Listening to these committed Atlanticists reminded me of Robert Gates’ valedictory speech as U.S. Secretary of Defense in Brussels. Warning of a “dim, if not dismal future” for NATO, Gates had argued that “future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”[4]

I am not sure whether Gates’ message has been really understood in Europe—at least in Germany. To be sure, after the Obama administration announced its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, many in Europe wondered whether that meant the United States would now abandon Europe. Yet, most seemed content when a series of U.S. high-level visitors, for instance then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, came to Europe to underline that “Europe is our partner of first resort.”[5] Less thought has been given to the question what Europe can do to ensure that this remains the case. Neither am I sure that the younger political class in Washington still feels deeply connected to Europe and understands, for instance, why Europeans are so upset about the NSA revelations in 2013.

Nuland’s speech was, as Damon Wilson put it, a “clarion call” for those who care about the transatlantic partnership. According to Nuland’s diagnosis, the transatlantic partnership was again facing an inflection point—and needed more than just recovery. Instead, she called for a bolder approach: “We can and must make the kinds of investments in each other now—and in our way of life—to continue to play the leadership role that the world needs and expects of us in these complex times.”

More than anything else, this “inflection point” is a generational one. Indeed, it is high time that the current Atlanticists define a new common purpose that speaks to those generations coming after them. Nowadays, it does not look as if there are political leaders in both the United States and, especially, in the European Union who are willing to forcefully make the case for such a renewed partnership and to invest in it.

Both pillars of Atlanticism, the United States and Europe, seem to have remained in a full-blown crisis of confidence[6]—at a time when a unified and self-confident West is arguably as needed as ever. So far, however, the transatlantic partners have failed to even address the obvious challenges in their neighborhood, not to mention on a global scale. If the current generation in power, those between the age of 45 and 65, fails to provide their own vision of Atlanticism (as their predecessors did admirably), it will be much harder for the diminishing number of Atlanticists in the next generation to follow in their footsteps.

Where Are The Future Atlanticists in the United States and Europe?

Today, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are, like Nuland, stalwart Atlanticists whose worldview has been shaped by the close engagement with Europe over decades. Yet, it is far from clear whether the secretaries of the next U.S. administration will share a similar perspective. President Barack Obama himself has already underlined that he considered himself to be “America’s first Pacific President.”[7] In recent years, numerous European politicians and diplomats have complained about Obama’s distant relationship to the Old Continent. While he is probably the most European U.S. president that Europe could hope for in terms of political convictions, he is also the least European U.S. president in terms of heritage and education.

For obvious reasons, fewer and fewer young people will be shaped by personal transatlantic experiences in the coming years. For the past sixty years, literally millions of American families came to Europe, mainly to Germany, with the U.S. military and built ties that often lasted for a lifetime. As a result, their commitment to Europe was steadfast because they had experienced first-hand what the American commitment to Europe meant. With most of the U.S. troops now leaving the continent this link binding millions of American and Europeans will slowly wither away.

The same might be true for university students, another group of young people who have often served as bridge-builders between our societies. Understandably, for young and ambitious Americans, Europe is not the only place to go anymore. For those interested in a career in business or politics, it might make sense to turn to those regions that promise to be more interesting for future employers or a political career. While the EU countries remain by far the top destination for Americans studying abroad, we can already observe a shift in attention. The most vibrant political and economic centers nowadays are to be found somewhere else—and it begins to show. In 2010-2011, China (with 14,596 U.S. students) was already more attractive to U.S. students than Germany (9,018 U.S. students).[8] Ten years before, in 2000-2001, Germany was still far ahead of China (5,116 compared to 2,942 U.S. students).[9]

In the 2012 foreign policy survey of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for the first time (the surveys go back to 1994) more respondents (52 percent) answered that Asia was more important to the United States than Europe (47 percent). Strikingly, when the data was analyzed selecting for different age cohorts, the trend was even more obvious: Among the respondents under the age of forty-five, only 40 percent thought that Europe was more important to the U.S., while 58 percent thought it was Asia. In contrast, the older cohorts still thought that Europe (54 percent) was more important than Asia (46 percent).

Yet, young Americans are not the only ones we should worry about. Young Europeans might also develop a more distant relationship to the United States. American policymakers should take note that especially those who have usually been the most pro-American in German politics, i.e., those who think of the United States as a model for democracy and human rights, have been deeply irritated and disappointed by U.S. policies in recent years. This is true for the post-9/11 excesses of the Bush administration, exemplified by Guantánamo and Abu-Ghraib, but also for the apparent inability of the U.S. political class to close the prisoners’ camp that, as President Obama himself admitted, “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”[10] The shock about the NSA revelations in Germany can only be understood if one acknowledges that many Germans are deeply disappointed by the revelation that the intelligence agencies have assumed such a powerful role in the American political system that they even seem to operate without close political control.

Those generations for which “Atlanticism” is not obvious anymore will not buy into a transatlantic partnership if there is no convincing narrative explaining it. Specifically, it will be hard to garner support for a united West that—as Nuland calls for—promotes and defends its values abroad as long as many people doubt that Western governments stick to these values at home. A re-commitment to the fundamental values of the liberal democracies on both sides of the Atlantic is thus necessary for its promotion abroad—something that might be as necessary as ever if the Euro-Atlantic democracies want to preserve their way of life and the open, liberal international order for the coming century.

The current generation of transatlantic leaders faces enormous challenges in the European neighborhood that also represent the great opportunity to renew Atlanticism for the next decades. What is the Arab Spring if not a strong demonstration that people in all cultures aspire to govern themselves, to enjoy personal freedoms, and to have a decent standard of living? What are the ongoing demonstrations in Ukraine if not proof of the willingness of a new generation that wants to become part of the Euro-Atlantic community built on liberal democracy and the rule of law? What are all those refugees trying to enter Europe if not a confirmation of Europe’s continued attraction?

So far, however, the Western responses to these challenges or opportunities have been surprisingly mute. It seems as if the energy of the political elites has been entirely consumed by their efforts to rein-in their domestic crises. At the Munich Security Conference in 2012, then-Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd remarked succinctly: “The danger that I see is Europe progressively becoming so introspective and so preoccupied with its internal problems on the economy and on the euro zone in particular that Europe runs the risk of talking itself into an early economic and therefore globally political grave.” The same could be said about the United States, severely hampered by an increasing political polarization and deeply unsettled by its experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Where is the New Project? Why “Administrating” Transatlantic Relations Is Not Enough

Helmut Schmidt is said to have remarked once: “If you have visions, go see a doctor!” In Germany, this quip is still a sort of battle cry for all those who think that politicians should focus on solving concrete problems, not on devising grand visions for society. Yet this is a very limited understanding of policy—albeit one that seems to have a firm grip on the current generation holding most influential posts today: my parents’ generation. Imagine where we would stand today if this conception of policymaking had prevailed in the second part of the twentieth century. The whole project of the European Union would have almost certainly never come into existence. Central and Eastern Europe would still not be part of Western institutions. And NATO would have probably faded away a long time ago.

In contrast, today’s leaders seem content with “administrating” the transatlantic partnership. The commitment to a “Europe whole and free” has been substituted by an “enlargement fatigue” (relating to both NATO and the EU), new initiatives aiming at a deepening of European integration or the Atlantic Alliance are scarce and often not undertaken because leaders fear a skeptical public.

Nowadays, American and European politicians often evoke the successful history and the good old days of the transatlantic partnership from the Berlin airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But those in power today have not shown the ambition to write their own chapter, the next chapter in transatlantic relations. Yet just telling ourselves again and again about our glorious common history will not suffice to build the ground for a strong transatlantic partnership.

It is more than telling that the project of a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has now assumed the role of a “silver bullet” saving the transatlantic partnership. Its potential benefits for both the American and European economies notwithstanding, it is also a good symbol for a relationship that is becoming increasingly transactional and less and less emotional—and thus perfectly reflects the current generation in power. Yet, it should be doubted that an agreement about lowering tariffs or the easing of import restrictions actually infuses the transatlantic partnership with a new sense of meaning. We need a more political definition of Atlanticism for the next generation.

To his credit, when Barack Obama came to Berlin in 2008, speaking as Democratic candidate for president in front of a huge crowd of around 200,000, he tried to spell out such a renewed mission for the transatlantic partners. Going back to the old transatlantic success story, referring to the Berlin airlift, the strong transatlantic bridges, and the fall of the Berlin Wall they brought about, Obama argued: “Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”[11]

When he came back as president five years later, for good reason disappointed by the European reactions to his initial ideas, his second Berlin speech seemed much more cautious. Speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in 2013, he again drew upon the golden history of the transatlantic partnership. The speech had it all: the Berlin airlift, the Marshall Plan, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet Obama remained quite bleak when it came to spelling out future common projects. Nothing that he said was wrong: Who is against fighting for the first generation without AIDS, who would not argue that more action against climate change is needed or that there are still too many nuclear weapons? But there was no concrete proposal, no specific plan what the next steps toward these lofty goals could be—except his signaling intent to further reduce deployed strategic nuclear weapons.

Of course, this is not primarily Obama’s personal fault, but rather a symptom of the general trend that the American and European policymakers are having troubles to identify and commit to common projects. Arguably, Obama’s counterparts in Europe have been even less forthcoming with new initiatives. The president was quite frank in admitting it: “Today, people often come together in places like this to remember history—not to make it. After all, we face no concrete walls, no barbed wire.  There are no tanks poised across a border. There are no visits to fallout shelters. And so sometimes there can be a sense that the great challenges have somehow passed. And that brings with it a temptation to turn inward—to think of our own pursuits, and not the sweep of history; to believe that we’ve settled history’s accounts, that we can simply enjoy the fruits won by our forebears.”

Those in Berlin who wanted to see a more proactive stance of, in particular, the German government on international issues rejoiced when Obama argued that “complacency is not the character of great nations. Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago, but the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity—that struggle goes on.”[12]

In December 2013, however, one is hard-pressed to say that the response by American and European elites to all those instances in which people are struggling for “freedom and security and human dignity” looks a lot like, well, complacency. This is not only true for the transatlantic reactions on the cruel civil war in Syria just beyond Europe’s borders,[13] but also—on a less dramatic level—for the timid reactions to European governments that use force against peaceful protesters or introduce legislation curbing freedom of speech.

After 9/11, transatlantic leaders have probably not thought enough about the limits of their power. Nowadays, the opposite seems to be true.

There is no reason, however, why the history of Atlanticism should come to an end. Just like in earlier times, Atlanticists have to face the challenge, as Obama put it in 2008, to build new bridges and further promote those values that have served as the foundation of our partnership for decades. Just like in earlier times, they will have to do their share if they do not want to see the progress made so far to be revised. It is in a re-commitment to those values that the transatlantic partnership can be revived and infused with a new purpose.

It may well be that we cannot expect that much from the generation in power today. Maybe Victoria Nuland is one of the remaining few who still embody the sense that there is a greater purpose for the transatlantic relationship. In any case, it will be much harder for my generation and future ones to reinvent and thus preserve Atlanticism if there is no “transatlantic renaissance” now.

Tobias Bunde was a visiting DAAD/AICGS research fellow in October and November 2013. He is a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies and has been a member of the policy team of the Munich Security Conference since 2009. This essay only reflects his personal opinion.


[1] Victoria Nuland (2013): “Toward A Transatlantic Renaissance: Ensuring Our Shared Future,“ Washington, DC, Atlantic Council, November 13, 2013, http://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/rm/2013/nov/217560.htm.

[2] Kenneth Weisbrode (2009): The Atlantic Century. Four Generations of Extraordinary Diplomats Who Forged America’s Vital Alliance With Europe (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press).

[3] For the Q&A session see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qE6XjfwarOY. The quoted section starts at around 00:47:30.

[4] Robert Gates (2011): “The Future of NATO, As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates,” Brussels, The Security and Defense Agenda, June 10, 2011, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581.

[5] Hillary Clinton (2012): “Remarks at the Munich Security Conference,” Munich, February 4, 2012, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2012/02/183337.htm.

[6] See Strobe Talbott (2014): “Atlanticism in the Era of Globalization,” in: Stiftung Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz (ed.): Towards Mutual Security. Fifty Years of Munich Security Conference (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht), 417-434.

[7] Barack Obama (2009): “Remarks at Suntory Hall,” Tokyo, November 14, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-barack-obama-suntory-hall.

[8] Institute of International Education (2013): “Top 25 Destinations of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 2010/11 -2011/12, Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange,” http://www.iie.org/opendoors.

[9] Institute of International Education (2002): “Leading Destinations of U.S. Study Abroad Students, 1999/00-2000/01, Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange,” http://www.iie.org/opendoors.

[10] Barack Obama (2013): “Remarks by the President at the National Defense University,” Washington, D.C., May 23, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/05/23/remarks-president-national-defense-university.

[11] Barack Obama (2008): “A World That Stands As One,” Berlin, July 24, 2008, full text available at http://edition.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/24/obama.words/.

[12] Barack Obama (2013): “Remarks by President Obama at the Brandenburg Gate,” Berlin, June 19, 2013, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/19/remarks-president-obama-brandenburg-gate-berlin-germany.

[13] One may debate whether a more forceful diplomacy, including a credible threat of force, in earlier phases of the conflict could have had a positive impact (I would concur). It is less debatable whether the overall reaction (beyond the rather narrow debate about military intervention) by the Western countries, including humanitarian support or asylum for refugees, has been adequate. For some figures see Amnesty International (2013): “Fortress Europe: Syrian Refugee Shame Exposed,” http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/fortress-europe-syrian-refugee-shame-exposed-2013-12-11.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Tobias Bunde

Munich Security Conference

Tobias Bunde was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in 2013. He is a researcher with the Centre for International Security Policy (CISP) at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Since 2009, he has served as a policy advisor to Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), since 2014 as Head of Policy & Analysis. During his DAAD/AICGS Fellowship in October and November 2013 while being a PhD candidate at the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies, Tobias conducted interviews for his dissertation on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO). His dissertation, supervised by Prof. Dr. Thomas Risse and Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Seibel, asked how different interpretations of NATO’s “collective identity” affected the patterns of conflict and cooperation among NATO member states.

In addition to a PhD in Political Science from Freie Universität Berlin, Mr. Bunde holds a joint Master’s degree in International Relations from Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt Universität, and Universität Potsdam. He also studied at Technische Universität Dresden, the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Strasbourg, and George Washington University. Before entering his PhD program, Mr. Bunde was an associate member of the research group “Konfliktgeneratoren” within the Center of Excellence “Cultural Foundations of Social Integration” at Universität Konstanz as well as a research fellow with the Berlin-based think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, where he worked on German foreign policy.

He has conducted research and published on German foreign and security policy, NATO, liberal order building, and the politics of international law. His work has appeared in journals such as Contemporary Security Policy, Sicherheit + Frieden, Internationale Politik and WeltTrends, He has written opinion pieces for FAZ, Tagesspiegel, the Financial Times, and Project Syndicate. Mr. Bunde is a contributor to the IR Blog. He has received scholarships from the German National Academic Foundation and the German-American Fulbright Commission, and is an alumnus of the Manfred Wörner Seminar and the Atlantic Council’s NATO Emerging Leaders working group.