Rethinking the Transatlantic

The transatlantic relationship has been a central component of the architecture supporting peace after World War II. For over 75 years, the members of the transatlantic alliance have seen peace, democracy, and prosperity develop consistently. With the growing of the alliance over time and its stabilizing effects clearly visible, despite sometimes legitimate frustrations, it saw its greatest triumph in 1990 with the fall of the major contestant in the debate between freedom and democracy on the one side, and dictatorship on the other. The transatlantic alliance was proven more successful on a variety of levels.

This was no mean feat, and certainly not a natural fit. Current transatlantic agreements would have seemed unthinkable before 1945, during two world wars and several wars also of almost global scope. Most European nations and states had been at war with each other, in varying coalitions, and had been at odds with the other side of the Atlantic from time to time. The different military alliances that existed pre-1945 would be situational, and subject to drastic changes throughout history.

The transatlantic relationship is different, as it builds on a diverse set of institutions and values. Core institutions are

  • The OSCE
  • The Council of Europe
  • NATO
  • The European Union
  • The Five Eyes Intelligence Union
  • The European Economic Area
  • Various partnership agreements between the EU and African, South American and Caribbean nations
  • NAFTA/the USMCA-Agreement

Most if not all these supranational institutions have as a basis the support for democracy, freedom, human rights and are thus value-driven, not primarily economic or military. These values are embedded in the framework of all those institutions mentioned. The governmental institutional framework is supplemented by a network of organizations, initiatives, think tanks, and programs that work directly on supporting the alliance itself, and the values underwritten by it.

There are specific challenges to the transatlantic relationship. Some have been embedded in the mission since its beginning, some emerged later in the 1990s (such as the wars in former Yugoslavia), after 2001 (such as the war on terror and the Ukraine/Russia conflict),  and new ones have come to our attention more recently. The current trend is the most challenging: a growing narrative that democracy, human rights, freedom and all connected values and institutions would allegedly not be able to meet the challenges of the future, and that authoritarian systems like those in China and Russia could display a workable model, a new “third way” between democracy and dictatorship, or just a more tech-savvy, less ideological alternative focusing on good governance and the good life without real democracy.

At the same time, the history of the various transatlantic connections and its consequences for today need to be interrogated and, where needed, overcome. This includes taking serious debates about decoloniality, historical responsibility for slavery and the historical dispossession of indigenous tribes, the colonization of the Americas, and parts of Africa, Asia and Oceania. This increases not just the conceptual but also the geographic scope of what is considered “Transatlantic.”

Without this critical interrogation, without any form of rethinking, the transatlantic idea would grow stale and weaken over time. If there is any good coming out of the current challenges to democracy and transatlantic cooperation, it will be that these concepts will have to be filled with new life and a renewed sense of meaning. Every few generations, it seems, some lessons will have to be learnt anew. The transatlantic structures that are in place today are simply meant to prevent this relearning from being as painful as it was in the past.