Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Kennedy School

The Importance of the Transatlantic Relationship

May 24, 2018

Nicholas Burns on why a focus on Europe and its relationship with the United States remains vital to the world (and to the academy).

The primacy of America’s transatlantic relationship is not what it used to be. The country’s foreign policy has, for a quarter century or more, recognized the growing strategic and economic importance of other parts of the world and shifted, rebalanced, and pivoted accordingly. A sequence of crises or quasi-crises that seemed to put the European experiment at risk—from the Greek financial crisis to Brexit, from the rise of populism and even authoritarianism across the continent to Russia’s aggression—have surely not helped. And neither has the current American presidential administration’s apparent ambivalence to NATO and the European Union. But a similar ambivalence, it could be argued, is also present in the academy, where the study of Europe seems to have reached a low-water mark. Enter the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship. The project, housed at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and launched in April, is led by Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and to Greece and now the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations. We asked Burns about why Europe remains important and what he hopes the project will accomplish.

Q: Why Europe and why now?

Europe is our largest trade partner. Europe is the largest investor in the American economy. Europe contains the greatest number of American allies in the world—treaty allies through NATO—so Europe is of vital importance to the United States. Then add to that the crises of the past three or four years that have buffeted Europe, and this seemed to us to be the right time to do it.

There was a large reservoir of funding for academic research on Europe after the Second World War. All these centers for European studies in American universities grew during the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. A lot of that funding is drying out, and a lot of professors are retiring. At many universities, there’s a smaller, narrower focus on Europe and a much bigger interest in cyber, and China, and India. Those are all important, but those three data points about Europe are compelling to me: largest investor, largest trade partner, largest number of allies in the world for America. I don't think the European Union is going to wither away. It's going to continue to be a big force in the world. The European Union is the largest global economy. The combined 29 countries have a population of over 500 million people. It's a big force on climate change, justice issues, and international law. A lot of people underestimate the sustained power that I believe we're going to see coming out of Europe for the next couple of decades.

Q: Why this project?

We launched this program on Europe and the transatlantic relationship because we don't have anything like it at the Kennedy School and we have a great number of students here who have a profound interest and who want to see a deeper academic commitment to understanding modern Europe: the transatlantic relationship, Russia, Ukraine, the states of the former Soviet Union—so Europe very broadly defined in a geographic sense. So, this was demand driven.

Q: What will it do?

We want to deepen scholarship, expand course offerings, bring more fellows here from Europe—politicians, business leaders, labor leaders, other academics. We will have an annual conference on the transatlantic relationship. We're also organizing with the American University in Paris a conference in Paris in 2019 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Versailles conference, because that was an epochal event for modern Europe and the world.

We want to raise funds for a professorship. And in the meantime we have the Pierre Keller Visiting Professorship, currently occupied by Professor Leila Talani, which brings academics and specialists on Europe here every year to teach. One of our other ambitions is to develop more programming on Russia, its economy, and foreign and defense policy. I would very much like to get more Russian students to come here. We're actively trying to promote more programs on Ukraine here too.

The research will focus on four core areas, which will include security policy, diplomacy, economics and trade, and strengthening Western democracies. A program on economic diplomacy and a new research project on the future of NATO [led by Burns and Douglas Lute, also a former U.S. ambassador to NATO] have already been launched.

Q: It’s a sign of the times that strengthening democracy is one of the project’s areas of focus.

There is a great concern, on both sides of the Atlantic and other parts of the world where democracies are intact, with threats to democracy. Threats from authoritarian countries—the Chinese and Russian models—but also threats from inside Europe, like Marine Le Pen, or those people in the United States who belittle enlightenment values, reason, fact, science, and empiricism.

When I first thought about this project a couple of years ago, I didn't know that was going to be a priority because it didn't seem to me that democracies were under threat. But I think they are now. There's a major focus on this now, a concern that there are all sorts of pressure points undermining our democracies. And what is a university but fundamentally a democratic—small "d"—institution. The search for knowledge, for wisdom, for experiential learning, for tolerance of different viewpoints … in some democracies that spirit is ebbing.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:The Importance of the Transatlantic Relationship.” Harvard Kennedy School, May 24, 2018.