Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Experts Weigh in On Transatlantic Relationship

Apr. 24, 2018

What is lost if the transatlantic relationship fails?

We asked the participants of the forum and launch events for the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship for their 200-word response to this question.


Douglas Alexander, Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project; Former U.K. Shadow Foreign Secretary:

Douglas Alexander"The transatlantic relationship had proved the corner stone of the international system for seven decades, because it expresses shared ideas as well as shared interests.

NATO today represents the richest, most powerful alliance in history. If the transatlantic relationship falters it would limit profoundly both sides' capacity to address security treats ranging from a resurgent Russia, nuclear proliferation, hybrid warfare, and the growing cyber threat. We cannot predict where the next crisis will occur but we can be sure we will be stronger facing it together.

Today, however, confidence is declining faster than capability in the transatlantic relationship. The Trump Presidency has left allies uncertain and concerned while within Europe the rise of the populist right and left has confirmed the need for wide ranging economic, political, and social reforms.

Historically the West stood for something rather than simply against something. The transatlantic relationship must rediscover the will to defend and promote democracy, rules-based economies, plural societies, and human rights. In this era of renewed great power politics, at issue is the future international order.

The loss of the transatlantic relationship would increase immeasurably the prospects of dominance of other competing, hostile, and threatening world views."


Nicholas Burns, Faculty Chair, Project on Europe and Transatlantic Relationship; Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, Harvard Kennedy School:

Nicholas Burns "We would lose our strongest anchor in a dangerous and complex world—our NATO allies and the members of the European Union.

On the morning after 9/11, I was in Brussels as United States Ambassador to NATO. The allies had come to me the evening before to pledge to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty—an attack on one is an attack on all. I called National Security Advisor Condi Rice to let her know and to gain the President’s concurrence that we would pledge to fight Al Qaida together. At the end of the call, Condi said with some emotion that it was good to have friends in the world at a time like this. Indeed, it was. The NATO allies all went into Afghanistan with us and they remain there nearly seventeen years still with us.

That is what is at stake at this critical moment in the transatlantic relationship. American power and purpose in the world is magnified a thousand times over by the strength, conviction and friendship of Canada and the Europeans. In a networked, globalized and often dangerous world, we depend every day on the friendship and solidarity of Europe. NATO is our most important military alliance. And the EU remains our largest trade and investment partner.

The crisis across the Atlantic takes many forms. The crisis has been caused in large part by Russia’s challenge to our NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and in Putin’s cyber aggression designed to weaken our electoral systems and the sanctity of the ballot box. The crisis includes the insidious nature of anti-democratic populists on both sides of the Atlantic who seek to unravel social stability and weaken our commitment to freedom and the rule of law. And, let’s admit it, the crisis has been exacerbated by President Trump’s open ambivalence towards NATO and his treatment of the EU more as an economic competitor than a valued friend.

The United States will always benefit if we remain closely allied in spirit and purpose to the free, democratic societies of Europe and Canada. I believe our countries will surmount all of the challenges before us if we stick together and believe in the transformational principles of the West."


Paula Dobriansky, Senior Fellow, The Future of Diplomacy Project; Vice Chair, National Executive Committee, U.S. Water Partnership:

paula dobriansky "Despite some domestic and foreign policy challenges, the transatlantic partnership remains strong, resilient and will not falter. It is predicated upon a unique combination of shared strategic interests, shared values and shared history. Our relationship's sturdy foundation, rooted in a deep respect for the rule of law and human rights and for a collective defense, ensures that it will endure and overcome any challenges, both current and future. Indeed, it has faced challenges in the past and has surmounted them -- and has preserved peace, stability and security for decades post-World War II."


Douglas Lute, Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project; former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO:

douglas lute"If the transatlantic relationship falters, then America would lose an incomparable geo-strategic advantage. America begins its response to any international challenge — political, economic, military, or humanitarian — with NATO allies at its side, individually or collectively. NATO’s democracies are diverse, but they are bound together by common values, shared responsibility and standing mechanisms for political consultation and military action. No potential competitor nation has similar advantage. Alongside our transatlantic Allies, America never has to “go it alone.” That is a strategic advantage worth preserving.

If the transatlantic relationship falters, not only the United States would suffer. NATO stands as the world’s most successful, most durable alliance founded on common values – democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law – and committed to defend these values. As international institutions are questioned and nationalism is on the rise, the transatlantic alliance can set the example of adapting to new challenges while holding to foundational values. The world needs to see institutions that can cope with the stresses of the 21st Century, delivering for their citizens, restoring credibility and maintaining integrity."


Joseph S. Nye, University Distinguished Service Professor and former Dean, Harvard Kennedy School:

joe nye"Some realists proclaim that a liberal international system of rules and values to manage global interdependence cannot be maintained if two of the three great powers – China, Russia, United States – are illiberal. But this syllogism forgets the importance of Europe. When the EU acts as an entity, it is an economy the size of the United States. And Europe has had a more consistent commitment to a rules-based system than does the United States. On some important new issues like the role of privacy in cyber space, or climate change, Europe has taken the lead. But most important, there are no two major parts of the world that share more common values and capabilities than do Europe and the United States. This ability to influence the future of a rules based international order is what we will lose if the transatlantic relationship falters."


Muriel Rouyer, Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School:

muriel rouyer"The transatlantic partnership faltered in the past: Gaullian’s dream of a third way détente, transatlantic dissensus on Iraq… Each time, the benevolent hegemon demanded solidarity in exchange for the unquestioned provision of security to “the West”, united by common values and strong institutions, despite trade “coopetition” between the US and the young EC.

Today, the US, in withdrawal from normative leadership in the world, questions its friends and allies, and with its own core principles - rule of law, liberal democracy, free-trade - the predictability of an order that allowed the EU to grow and become the original power it is now.

It is the end of innocence for Europe, that unruly teenager reborn from its ashes thanks to the once motherly care of America. The demise of a certain naiveté, that “end of history” feeling that had the West believe that anger and misery were over, and Europe, that democracy would flow freely amidst a Kantian ring of friends…

No longer the case, if it ever was. Yet, where the erratic will of “strong” men and the private bonds of equity replace the security of law, political leadership resembles more and more the job of “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without heart"."


Klaus Scharioth, Professor of Practice, Fletcher School for Law and Diplomacy; former Ambassador of Germany to the United States (2006-2011):

klaus scharioth "Never change a winning team: This is as true in soccer as it is in foreign policy. It was close transatlantic cooperation that made it possible to overcome the division of Germany in 1990 and a few years later of Europe. And it was North America and Europe working in tandem (especially through NATO and the unique integration offerd by the EU) that created the conditions for peaceful, prosperous and democratic societies, guaranteeing the rule of law and working towards social justice.

Worldwide, the transatlantic partners teamed up effectively and shared the responsibility to advance human rights, democracy, free trade, a free internet, disarmament, the peaceful resolution of conflicts, and in general the values of the enlightenment: freedom of the press, religious freedom, rule of law and tolerance. In a world, where not everyone shares these values, each of us alone would be much less effective. We are indispensable partners for each other, or better said: friends who would sorely miss the other side."


Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution; former deputy assistant secretary for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean Affairs, State Department:

amanda sloat "The United States is grappling with challenges to political institutions at home and weakening commitment to defend democratic values abroad. The European Union is looking inward amid financial and refugee crises and fractious Brexit negotiations; parliamentary gains by right-wing populist parties and illiberal policies in some member states have fueled skepticism about the merits of union. The transatlantic alliance is strained by a mercurial American president pondering security and economic policies with potentially divisive consequences.

History has shown repeatedly (e.g., Balkan wars, Iran agreement, Russia sanctions) that America and Europe are stronger when working together. These lessons are being forgotten as the post-war generation leaves the political stage and international institutions struggle to connect with citizens. Yet the myriad challenges facing the alliance – Syria, terrorism, refugees, cyber warfare, climate change – are too big for any country to solve alone.

It would be difficult if not impossible to unravel transatlantic ties, while the cost of their demise is far higher than the investment needed to sustain them. Transatlantic leaders should defend the continued importance of collective approaches to shared problems. But they must also address citizens’ calls for more responsive governance by reforming institutions to share burdens more effectively and address the uneven outcomes of global trade."


Julianne Smith, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security:

julianna smith "Let’s not kid ourselves. The transatlantic relationship is faltering. Generational shifts in both Europe and the US have reduced the number of people that have firsthand experience living or working on the other side of the Atlantic. Fewer Americans put Europe at the center of American foreign policy. Fewer Europeans view the United States favorably. Populist winds on both continents are fueling nationalist sentiments and spurring illiberal slides in places like Poland and Hungary. America has a president that has questioned the utility of NATO, supported Brexit, and expressed admiration for President Putin who is actively working to divide Europe from the United States.

I worry about all of these trends.

But identifying what is “lost” is challenging. The EU-U.S. trade relationship, one of the crown jewels of global trade, is still standing, even in the face of tariffs from the Trump administration. France and the United Kingdom just launched strikes in Syria alongside U.S. forces. NATO’s forces are still operating in Afghanistan, in the Balkans, and in the Mediterranean. Trump is hosting both President Macron and Chancellor Merkel this week. Is this the beginning of the end or is the relationship far more durable than we all realized? On verra."


Jake Sullivan, Senior Fellow, Future of Diplomacy Project; Martin R. Flug Visiting Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School; former Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State:

jake sullivan"American foreign policy would lose an anchor — and be set adrift. It would have a profoundly negative impact on our capacity to mobilize common action to solve the world’s great problems, from climate change to pandemic disease, from nuclear proliferation to financial upheaval. It would sap the momentum and energy from efforts to establish and enforce rules of the road on everything from economic competition to freedom of navigation. It would embolden our adversaries more than perhaps any other act we could take — making both the United States and Europe weaker and less secure, and raising the likelihood of conflict. And it would do meaningful damage to the historic experiment of free peoples, with free markets and open societies, shaping their own destiny. All of the people in the United States who shrug and say, “who needs the Europeans, anyway?,” and all of the people in Europe who shrug and say, “who needs the Americans, anyway?” — they would find all of this out the hard way. And so would the rest of us."

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For Academic Citation:Experts Weigh in On Transatlantic Relationship.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 24, 2018.