Reaffirming Transatlantic Unity

By Volker, Kurt | Policy Review, April-May 2012 | Go to article overview

Reaffirming Transatlantic Unity


Volker, Kurt, Policy Review


BOB KAGAN'S ESSAY, "Power and Weakness," was and remains brilliant. Funny and illuminating, it crystallized a set of thinking at a critical moment in history. And it stands the test of time: It still illuminates fundamental impulses in Europe and America.

The world has changed substantially since 2002. And the reflection of these fundamental impulses has changed as well. Europe's post-modern self-absorption was an indulgence in 2002; now in 2012 Europe's self-absorption is fully warranted and indeed a vital U.S. interest. We cheer on as Europe seeks to save itself, lest it bring down the entire "old world" global economy.

Meanwhile, the United States' muscular assertions of 2002 have been replaced by retrenchment on the left and near neo-isolationism on the far right-- causing justified worry among European allies. The description of a muscular, assertive U.S. foreign policy still attracts many in the U.S. foreign policy elite-- but in an era of deficits, recession, and war fatigue, they lack broad voter support and the ability to assert their worldview.

Neither situation is better.

Yet despite the changes, Kagan's fundamental conclusion also remains the right one for today. The United States and Europe share common values, and need to work together to protect and advance those values in the world. We need to understand our differences, which do exist, but we must also get beyond them to make the world a better and safer place.

Leaders matter

THE PRINCIPAL OBJECTION I had to Kagan's article in 2002 was m that it provided a static snapshot. While the analysis was spot-on, there was no reason to assume that things would stay the way they were. I believed that with good leadership it wouldn't take much for Europeans to combine hard and soft power more effectively, and to be strong allies with the United States. They had done it before. And it wouldn't take much for the United States to work together with Europe, as it had before, convincing others and building support, rather than plowing ahead alone, and with a heavy reliance on military might.

Things did indeed change: But little did I know that instead of good leadership righting the course, we would see bad leadership making things worse. As Europe grapples with its all-encompassing debt crisis and the U.S. ratchets down in Europe and pivots toward Asia, the transatlantic alliance is arguably in substantially worse shape today than it was when Kagan first wrote his article.

It still remains the task of good leadership, on both sides of the Atlantic, to return the relationship from one of cooperation as necessary to one of strategic alliance out of shared values and purpose.

9/11 and Afghanistan

JREMEMBER FIRST READING Kagan's essay as a penultimate draft circulating around the National Security Council in the late Spring of 2002. It created quite a buzz: a combination of locker room giddiness for some, and an acknowledgement of the substance, combined with uneasy foreboding, among others.

Before going further, it is important to recreate the context. I was serving as director for nato and Western Europe. The allies were my beat. It was the time after 9/1 r and before the war in Iraq. It was a time when the United States felt extraordinarily vulnerable, having been attacked by terrorists using airplanes as missiles, and now identifying the single greatest threat to the nation's security as terrorists using weapons of mass destruction.

It was a time after the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan, but did so without building on nato's decision to invoke its Article 5 commitment to collective defense for the first time in history. The allies "could not help us"-- or so we reasoned-- because the U.S. had to rely on extraordinary capacities: special forces on horseback integrating seamlessly with satellite communications and precision guided bombs and missiles delivered from tens of thousands of vertical feet and many hundreds of horizontal miles away. …

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