Let’s be traditional first: The main purpose of the transatlantic relationship in the 21st century will look familiar to those who have studied its history since 1949: To prevent a situation from emerging in which Europeans feel they need to call Moscow first, instead of Washington, in questions of international politics. Add Beijing to the equation, and you get an idea of how daunting the task will be.
Transatlantic relations are the permanent suspension of conventional geopolitics for the purpose of limiting other powers’ influence over a Europe they could otherwise own. Look at the map, and you understand that, based on size, wealth, population and location, it is Russia that should dominate Western and Central Europe. It does not do so because America’s presence and promise of security to Europe creates an artificial barrier that Moscow has been unable to overcome since the end of World War II. With NATO and EU expansion, this barrier has moved eastward by a few hundred kilometers, and this is where, if all goes well, it will remain for some time to come.
So the classic purpose of transatlantic relations remains valid. Not only is it about protecting Western and Central Europe, an area that is — and will remain — incapable of fully replacing the U.S. security security guarantee and keeping itself safe, whole and free. It is also about stabilizing Europe, a structurally unstable political market, from within: With America, a non-European power, being the dominant power in Europe, the ages-old rivalries and conflicts of Europeans amongst each other matter a whole lot less. This enables Europeans to cooperate and even integrate in ways previously impossible in more than 2,000 years of history.
Classic transatlantic relations are also about America’s status in the world. The whole world assesses how reliable America’s security guarantee is in Europe and draws its conclusions from what they see for their own neighborhoods. If America gets wobbly on Europe, not only do the Europeans notice. Moscow does, too. And so do Tehran, Ankara, Delhi, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul and Canberra. And Pyongyang, for that matter. If Washington wants to make its European security guarantee more transactional, or feel that it can otherwise tamper with them, it does so at the risk of undermining its superpower status across the globe. If the U.S. gives Europeans the feeling that calling Moscow first instead of Washington could be a good idea, its strategic costs will be higher than anything they could gain from “a better deal” on its defense relations.
But classic transatlantic relations are not just about abstract games of credibility. From a Washington perspective, they are also quite concrete and tangible. In strictly geopolitical terms, it is in America’s interest to protect the counter-coast across the ocean. For a great power seeking to maintain its dominance of the seas, it can’t afford to let its horizon across the Atlantic slip into turmoil or be dominated by a rival power. Finally, in sheer economic terms, the U.S. will have an interest in protecting its enormous investments in the European market, a market that is its most important trading partner and the only part of the world that is largely on the same page on how globalization should basically work.
And this is where things get a little less traditional. In our still new century, transatlantic relations will be about all of the above – and on top will be the question of whether globalization can unfold in a way that remains conducive to American and European interests – interests that are largely one and the same.
Globalization puts the Western model of liberal, participatory, open political governance based on human rights, the rule of law and the protection of minorities in question. It does so in several fundamental ways: Globalization creates interconnected, international problems that Western-styled political systems and institutions seem unable to tackle very well: International rogue finance, migratory movements, information warfare, climate change, organized crime and political extremism (often cloaked in religious or nationalistic lore). Open systems seem to be too slow, too complex and too stymied to act and react fast and decisively. Other, non-Western systems start to look attractive again.
Secondly, globalization has given rise to China as a potential global superpower, but one whose social and political model is deliberately designed not to mirror the West. As a consequence, it is a rapidly growing power permanently at war with its own people, and the question arises as to when this internal warfare will start to require external warfare to sustain itself. But so far, China has successfully managed to exploit economic globalization to the max without succumbing to an equal amount of political liberalization. The Chinese leadership has a bold plan for China’s role in the world, ranging from territorial claims in its surrounding blue waters to the Belt and Road Initiative, the purpose of which is establishing a land-based chain of tributary states and regions across Central Asia and Europe that feed into China’s rise and might. Already, China is buying itself into Europe and the EU with the goal of forcing European capitals to call Beijing first instead of Washington on questions of global politics. Transatlantic relations in the 21st century will be about finding a response to the rise of China – no matter whether China’s ascent can last or not. If it lasts, it will be the formidable challenge everyone expects it to be. If it fails, the fallout from an imploding China will be as dramatic as the one triggered by its rise.
Finally, transatlantic relations in the 21st century will be about crafting a completely new way of governance based on the fairy-tale possibilities created by the ever faster, all-encompassing IT revolution that will change the way humans live in more profound ways than even the industrial revolution did. In this field, China is a rival as well, but this is about more than classic power rivalries.
This is about what will constitute humanity in the not-so-distant future. The combination of Artificial Intelligence, quantum computing, big data, block-chain technologies, Virtual Reality and all-penetrating and connecting networks will not only change the way we generate, store and process information, run government, steer production processes, create knowledge and wealth, keep citizens and countries safe, fight (and commit) crime or school and train people. It will very soon pose the question of what makes a human being, what we want a human to be and how humans will relate to a technical world endowed with computing power that will be much, much larger than that of the human brain, and potentially more “performant,” too – perceptive, productive, reliable, and even creative.
From the classic to the ultra-advanced, transatlantic relations in the 21st century will essentially be about questions of whether the “normative project of the West,” its ideas of humanity and human dignity and rights, as defined by the French and American revolutions, will still have decisive influence on the way mankind organizes its affairs. It is in our interest that they do. Let’s keep transatlantic relations strong to ensure they will.
Jan Techau is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.