The Transatlantic Perspective Needs to be Global

Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic focus has been on the northern hemisphere. This is a result primarily influenced by three factors:

  • The inevitable realization that the defense of Europe against any aggressor can only be successful if North America, especially the United States, is included in any European security framework. Any attempt to imagine European defense independently of the US has failed so far.
  • The main problem in Europe is the containment of the European center. This means the maintenance of peace between Germany of France, the containment of Germany, but actually, since the defeat of Napoleon, the securing of a stable balance of power on the continent, for which it ideally needs an outside force not invested too heavily in either side of the equation.
  • The competition between, on the one hand, this Euro-American alliance by necessity, and on the other, another power block like the Soviet Union, Russia, China, or any other system contender. The Cold War has been the guarantor of NATO’s success, and currently, it is Putin’s Russia which, by ostentatiously questioning the strength and purpose of NATO is ironically strengthening its resolve.

If we widen the historical perspective though, two other major factors become visible:

  • The two World Wars in the Twentieth Century have been preceded by other conflicts of a global reach: The Crimean War (1853-1856), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In all these cases, the global dimension of these wars is the result of European colonial empires.
  • The American influence grows in direct correlation with the decline of the power of European colonialism, which declines as result to fights amongst the European powers themselves. This is what some historians call the “European Civil War.”

But even this perspective is not wide enough. European geography determines its security concerns. It is not an island. It has always been at the center of waves of migration, of empires and states fighting for dominance. The only relative period of some form of peace, or rather, predictability, was the time of solidified Roman power that united the Mediterranean. Connected with the fall of Roman power in the West – despite all attempts of reconstituting imperial power by Germanic kingdoms – is the loss of Mediterranean unity, and with it, the loss of the connection between the three continents of Europe (both East and West), Africa and Asia. From the beginning of what we can call Europe – namely the fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire in 476 – till the end of World War II, there have been a succession of military attempts to dominate the continent, none successful for very long, and if so, only partial. If Europe is supposed to have a future, it must, again, see a future in unison with its neighbors. Such a demand translates to the transatlantic sphere for reasons of security and prosperity.

There is another dimension as well. Colonialism and imperialism, conducted mainly but not exclusively by nations located in the Europe and Mediterranean area, has put its inevitable mark upon the entire world. No continent has remained untouched by this. The end of colonialism proper has not necessarily left the world a better place. We need to confront and account for the history of what Paul Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic. The combined impact of the transatlantic slave trade and the destruction of indigenous cultures mainly, but not exclusively, in the Americas dictate a charge for nations that can trace their origin back to the European area. For centuries, it was European colonial powers that shaped the world, for better or worse. It would seem only logical that centuries of domination and profit need to be followed by centuries of partnership, cooperation, aid and alliance. Historical responsibility must translate into present and future accountability.

(originally published on Erratic Attempts)

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.