Politics & Society

The Past, Present, and Future of Transatlanticism

Five transatlanticists tell us what drives their commitment to their work

Friendship and strong relations between the United States and Europe have been a foreign policy mainstay on both sides of the Atlantic for the better part of the last 70 years.

A battered Europe — emerging from World War II — needed the United States’ help to rebuild, and a rebuilt Europe was in the best interest of a United States preparing for intense competition with the Soviet Union. The foundations of transatlanticism were laid, through the Bretton Woods Agreement to dictate how the international monetary system would function in the post-war era, the Marshall Plan to rebuild a devastated Europe, and NATO to provide collective security against the Soviet Union. By 1949, the stage was set for future partnership between the United States and Europe, grounded in a shared vision of how the international order would look in the post-World War years.

In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO’s founding document, defined the ideals underpinning this vision. The treaty pointed to the shared principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law as the values that bind the transatlantic nations. More than half a century later, those same values are still championed by leaders and practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic. In joint statements and op-eds, American and European leaders write of “shared commitments to personal freedom and dignity” and a partnership that is “based on shared values and principles”. Meanwhile, practitioners continue to cite these transatlantic values as central to the success of the relationship. Although this relationship across an ocean has not developed without roadblocks, the values-based, shared identity of transatlanticists — the practitioners who advocate and work towards a continued close relationship between the U.S. and Europe — has continuously allowed the transatlantic relationship to persist.

Throughout the 20th century, as Europe grew stronger both politically and economically, interests began to diverge and relations came under strain. Figures like French President Charles de Gaulle advocated for and pursued early versions of European strategic autonomy. The United States became occupied with an unpopular war in Vietnam and Bretton Woods would collapse, ending the multilateral monetary system that helped guide Europe’s reconstruction. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik”, normalizing relations between West Germany (FRG) and the Soviet Union (USSR), brought fear that the FRG was receding from the West and towards the USSR.

The belief that a robust U.S.-European relationship is necessary has survived each ebb and flow that the relationship has faced since the end of World War II — even as experts have lamented its potential demise.

With 1989 came the collapse of communism in Europe and hope for reinvigorated Euro-Atlantic ties entrenched in the Western, liberal values espoused by transatlanticists. This was given further voice by George W. Bush in West Germany as he spoke of a Europe “whole and free”. Over a decade later, 9/11 brought Europe and the United States even closer together and the first evocation of NATO’s Article V symbolized renewed solidarity across the Atlantic. But before long, the mistakes of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Bush’s war on terror caused interests to once again diverge.

Europe, who had eagerly anticipated the Obama presidency, feared that the strategic pivot to Asia was a sign of a United States no longer committed to a future with the Euro-Atlantic at its heart. Later, the Trump administration brought “America First” policies and the deliberate degradation of alliances and partnerships in Europe, exemplified by reports that the president wished to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. This took the transatlantic relationship to new lows and many doubted the possibility of recovery. Doubts about the United States’ commitment to the region were clearly characterized in 2019 by French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that NATO was “brain dead”. Previously, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had warned in 2017 that “the times in which we could completely depend on others are somewhat over.”

Yet, from de Gaulle to the war on terror to Trump, transatlanticism has persisted. The belief that a robust U.S.-European relationship is necessary has survived each ebb and flow that the relationship has faced since the end of World War II — even as experts have lamented its potential demise. In 2003, Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, published an article with the headline “The End of Atlanticism” in which he pondered whether the U.S.-European marriage was coming to an end in the wake of the Iraq War. David Whineray, then of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote a 2020 piece titled “Trump has irrevocably changed American relations with Europe — and Biden probably can't fix it.”

And yet, post-Trump, transatlantic synergy is as strong as ever. Russia’s war in Ukraine has mobilized the Euro-Atlantic community around Europe’s defense in a cohesive rejection of Moscow’s attempts to alter the international norms by invading a sovereign Ukraine. Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy highlights his belief in the transatlantic relationship, displayed by his words in his 2022 State of the Union address and in his consistent and robust action in supporting Ukraine’s defense. Even so, transatlantic experts have warned that this latest era of transatlantic harmony should not be taken for granted. Some refer to Biden as the last of the Atlanticists, given a shift in American politics to younger generations who did not experience the ardent transatlanticism of the Cold War, while others fear the return of isolationism to the White House — if a Republican wins the 2024 presidential election. Despite transatlanticism being at peak levels of unity and its habit of surviving challenges, its potential downfall remains a cause for concern.

To understand why transatlanticism has persisted and what U.S.-Europe relations may look like in the future, it is necessary to understand what underpins, supports, and allows the transatlantic partnership to routinely rebound from challenges. To get to the root of it, I asked the transatlanticists themselves what drives their commitment to transatlanticism.

What makes you an advocate for transatlanticism?

Sam Denney

Senior Research Analyst, American Statecraft Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

My belief in the importance of strong transatlantic relations ultimately stems from the shared liberal democratic values which underpin the relationship. These shared values form the basis of our common ambition to create more just, prosperous, and democratic societies — an ambition born out of bitter experience of the consequences of nationalism and totalitarianism in World War II and the years preceding it. The reemergence of anti-democratic extremism on both sides of the Atlantic and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine provide an important lesson for a new era in transatlantic relations. Liberal democracy is not a self-fulfilling end state but rather a precious achievement to be maintained and defended.

Courtney Flynn Martino

Senior Manager of Transatlantic Relations, Bertelsmann Foundation North America

To me, the transatlantic relationship is a partnership forged by shared values, complimented by aspects of history and culture, and driven forward by a common global outlook. Transatlantic teamwork — although hard-won at times — creates space to try new things, develop solutions to problems, and build a foundation to withstand crises. The reliability of our closest ally, along with the accountability this offers, makes us both better. This is why I am committed to transatlanticism.

Noah Gordon

Acting Co-Director Sustainability, Climate, and Geopolitics Program; Fellow, Europe Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

While it’s easy to focus on the many differences between the U.S. and Europe, there is more that unites the regions than divides them — to name a few, democracy, federalism, and the relatively unbiased application of the law. That’s why I’m an advocate for transatlanticism.

Carisa Nietsche

Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security

I advocate for a strong transatlantic relationship because of the United States' and Europe's commitment to democratic values. Shared democratic values are the lifeblood of the transatlantic relationship. As new global challenges emerge, our democratic values provide the guiding principles to address them. The shared commitment to democracy is even more important as authoritarian actors seek to advance their own vision of the world underpinned by techno-authoritarianism. In this world, technology enables dictators to tighten their grip on power, seize control of supply chains, and advance a surveillance state. The transatlantic partnership is critical in order to reclaim the narrative for democracies and advance a different vision for the world. The United States and Europe must work hand-in-hand to move from words to action. The United States and Europe can chart a democratic future for technology, but they must do so together.

James Sallembien

Research Assistant, German Marshall Fund of the United States, Paris office

North America and Europe are intertwined in every aspect of life. As a French American binational, I am myself a product of that history. In fact, it is my dual identity that first drew me to the transatlantic field. But this dual upbringing has also enabled me to identify, understand, and appreciate the differences within the Atlantic region. To me, being an advocate of transatlanticism does not only entail enabling cooperation, but it also means creating the space required to have difficult conversations when necessary and finding common ground to ensure healthy competition.

These views shed light on the guiding principles of transatlanticism, and why the ideology persists through each challenge it faces. A common thread present in each response is a commitment to shared democratic values — just as NATO Secretary General George Robertson asserted in a 2000 speech to the NATO Defense College, “Atlanticism has never been a concept based on geography, but on shared values.” The values underpinning the transatlantic relationship — a commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights — form the foundation of the transatlantic community. This strong foundation allows translatlanticism to persist through differences in policy or incompatible leadership, tackle intractable problems together, and evolve to meet rising challenges.

Today, the transatlantic relationship has rebounded from the tumult of the Trump era to thrive during the Biden presidency due to this common global outlook. While the war in Ukraine has necessitated a quick recovery from the transatlantic tensions of the Trump era, the values-based foundation of the relationship allowed for a return to tightknit relations post-Trump. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine doubles as an assault on transatlantic norms of state sovereignty and freedom. In an April 2022 speech to the New School in New York, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock advocated for transatlantic leadership to strengthen these values, saying that “Freedom, democracy and human rights are under attack.”

Collective security and responding to Russia’s war in Ukraine now dominates transatlantic channels. Even so, several challenges loom on the horizon — coordinating policy responses to China’s geopolitical rise, integrating technology and climate policies, managing trade tensions, and growing anti-democratic extremism on both sides of the Atlantic — which will require a common transatlantic approach. The outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2024 may pose another challenge to the relationship, if isolationism were to return to the White House. Yet, as long as transatlanticists remain committed to this relationship forged by a shared mission and common values, transatlantic cooperation will persist and the relationship between the United States and Europe will remain strong.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue 4: Identity
Jun 20, 2023

Noah DeMichele