Atlanticism Revisited for the 21st Century?

February 2019

Julie Smith is an American policymaker with specific expertise in Europe and transatlantic relations. She has served as Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and as National Security Advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden in the Obama administration.


The last time I lived in Germany for an extended period of time was over 20 years ago. It was 1996, and I had moved to Germany as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow. At that time, the transatlantic partners were occupied with NATO enlargement, the ongoing conflicts in the Balkans, and transnational challenges like drug trafficking and terrorism. They were also looking for ways to expand trade and investment opportunities for both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the many challenges they faced, the mood in the United States and Europe was relatively optimistic. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transatlantic partners believed in their ability to solve problems and serve as an example for the rest of the world. They believed in the primacy of the West.

Fast forward to the summer of 2018 when I returned to Germany as a Richard Weizsäcker Fellow at the Bosch Academy. The optimism and hope that one felt in those first few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall have since faded. The geopolitical landscape has changed in unexpected ways. Rising powers like China and resurgent powers like Russia are challenging the rules-based order and actively working to undermine transatlantic unity, resolve, and resilience. Perhaps even more surprising, the two sides of the Atlantic face unprecedented challenges from within. From the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union to illiberal leaders bucking democratic norms and values, to a U.S. president who has labeled the European Union a “foe”, the future of the transatlantic relationship seems less certain.

For committed Atlanticists, especially those that have invested years of their life in the transatlantic relationship, it’s easy to feel discouraged. At a time when the two sides of the Atlantic should be positioning themselves to compete with other global and regional powers; fortifying their defenses against external threats; and preparing their citizens for transformative technological changes, the transatlantic partners find themselves in an existential crisis. Questions about the durability of the relationship abound. Instead of lamenting the current state of their relationship, however, Europe and the United States need to find ways to embrace it.

Not all crises, after all, end in defeat. Sometimes they spur painful but much-needed change. Yes, Europe and the United States are being forced to return to first principles and reexamine age-old assumptions about their relationship. Some interpret that as a proof that the transatlantic bond is weakening. Others take a darker view and consider it as a death sentence for the relationship. But after 70-plus years of transatlantic cooperation, maybe that’s exactly what the two sides need. Maybe by redefining their shared values and debating how far they will go to protect and defend those values, Europe and the United States will actually strengthen the transatlantic bond. 

Many Atlanticists are also lamenting the fact that the rules-based order is under attack by external actors, populist parties on both sides of the Atlantic, and some of the West’s own leaders (Trump and Viktor Orban, for example). That certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the institutions that make up the order (i.e., NATO, the EU, the UN, the WTO). Instead of taking a fatalistic view, though, elites have slowly come to understand that they need to engage new audiences. It’s not enough to talk about the future of NATO or the EU with policymakers and academics in national capitals. Those types of conversations also need to take place in cities like Pittsburgh and Padua with students, industry leaders, local media, and local political leaders. Sustaining the transatlantic relationship in this age of disruption requires new voices and fresh thinking.

Similarly, Europeans working on climate change have found new avenues for cooperation with the U.S. in the wake of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. With a U.S. president that simply doesn’t believe in climate change, Europeans have been forced to seek new and innovative partnerships at the state and local levels. Do those same Europeans wish they could convince President Trump to act on global warming? Of course they do. But his refusal to advance new climate initiatives with partners and allies has opened up new and unexpected paths of collaboration between the two sides of the Atlantic.

Make no mistake, though. Europe and the United States are at a pivotal moment for the future of their relationship and the future of liberalism and liberal democracy. No one can say with any certainty what the future of America’s relationship with Europe will look like. The only thing that seems certain is that it will differ from years past. It would be a mistake, however, to jump to the conclusion that “different” automatically means something worse. If the two sides of the Atlantic seize on opportunities to reshape and improve outdated structures and create systems that are even more inclusive and equitable, they could very well end up saving their relationship in unexpected ways. This might be the end of the post-1945 transatlantic relationship but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of Atlanticism.   


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