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It certainly was no accident that President Biden delivered his first major foreign policy address to an international conference in Germany.   He seems to have been thinking a lot about Europe. 

The President wisely used the opportunity presented by the Munich Security Conference on February 19th to offer an antidote to Trump’s divisive zero-sum strategy.  But he clearly did not offer an apology.

Boldly announcing that “America is back” as the leader of the Western world, Biden seemed also to have understood that Trump was not the only cause of transatlantic friction in recent years.

His positive message was accompanied by a pointed challenge.  “We must demonstrate that our democracies can still deliver for our people in this changed world.   That, in my view, is our galvanizing mission.” 

“Delivering for our people” This was a thinly veiled sea change in the recent Democratic party approach to Europe. Certainly not Trump.  But less toleration of Europe’s flight from responsibility than most Democratic progressives seem willing to criticize.   

Politely but firmly, President Biden implied that too much harmony with Europe would not serve his need both to rein in China and grab hold of the devastation caused by globalization at home. He seems already to have signaled a readiness to block the Nordstream II pipeline, for example. 

Europe’s 500 million prosperous and well-educated inhabitants were put on notice.  They needed to start pulling their weight.

Appearing to be speaking directly to Merkel and Macron, Biden presented Europe with a challenge: stop the pipe dreams about “strategic sovereignty” from America, tighten up your increasingly dysfunctional diplomacy and get to work helping strengthen the West under American leadership. My Administration will do its part, but you must also do yours.    


Something Happened 

So far so good. But the speeches by the German Chancellor and the French President which followed Biden’s address suggested that he will wait some time for an answer.   

So, what comes next?  It is no secret that transatlantic relations have been rocky for most of the last 20 years. Perhaps because of the repeated disruption emanating from the U.S., our European allies had begun to dig in against change long before Donald Trump arrived. 

How does Biden fulfill his “galvanizing mission” at a time when both Europe and America are divided and confused?  And when Europeans in particular, still seem to lack the strength to overcome the traumas of their past? 

First step would be better to understand the origins of behavior. Blaming Bush or Trump or increasingly, Germany is not enough. Better we start with the 20th century. For Europe, the last century started as a disaster and ended with a last-minute, fragile reprieve.

For Americans, the 20th century fulfilled most of our sacred visions. We had made the world safe for democracy, and almost as an afterthought, become history’s most powerful nation. For Europeans, the real work has only begun.    

Two decades later, both sides of the Atlantic are in the midst of a severe identity crisis. The certainties of the Cold War and the industrial age have long ago disappeared.   

All of a sudden, Western democracies appear to be fragile. America’s tribulations are played out in public 24/7. Europe is more discrete, but no less worrisome. The West is rapidly losing its sense of direction.

Ironically, each side measures itself against China.  America sees global high tech and military competition, while Europeans seek Chinese help to extend the life span of their outmoded export-oriented manufacturing model.

It is almost a Mars and Venus moment.  Europeans and Americans are talking past each other.  Americans have concluded that Europe, defined as a problem, was “solved” by victory over the Soviet Union.  

The Atlantic Community has increasingly been treated as a series of marketing transactions. As far as Alliance management was concerned, Trump’s MAGA and Obama’s soft sell were really not that different from each other.        

This lack of “tending the garden,” as George Schultz used to call it, has made Europeans, especially the Germans, increasingly fearful of America’s unpredictability.  “Building Europe” has evolved into “strategic sovereignty.”  In other words, protection against America’s perfidious behavior.  

I am trying to avoid value judgments here. Europe did face a major rebuilding task, and its citizens were exhausted from nearly a century of warfare. And the U.S. has been anything but  steady over the past 20 years.  Europeans can perhaps be forgiven for dreaming of Switzerland as their model for the future.  

But the result is the same. Atlantic drift just at the point where a strong West is essential if modern democracy is going to survive.    


Healthy Disagreement and a Dose of Reality

Paradoxically, offering too much understanding of Europe’s confusion would at this moment not be good either for the Atlantic Alliance or for Biden’s political health. If he has decided once again to lead, the President should not forget that successful leaders never allow the debate to be about their weaknesses.

More beneficial for both sides would be a continued strong dose of high level straight talk, similar to that delivered to Munich.     

For example, the flurry of new agendas being drawn up by governments and think tanks, topped recently by German Foreign Ministers Maas’ “New Deal,” risks certifying Europe’s fumbling as the standard for trans-Atlantic debate.  This would do more harm than good. 


Biden’s Munich message was an unmistakable notice that America’s traditional role of coaxing the Europeans into action remained essential. And he left no doubt that the transactional diplomacy of the President’s three predecessors had been the wrong way to lead. But delivering results will be harder than it looks.

Unfortunately, Europeans tend to live off of dialogues and processes. They expect American strategies to take account of the psychological importance of Europe’s slow and often toothless “peace project.” Whether it produces results or not, just promising to be democratic and avoid war with each other should suffice.


We Have No Choice

But we don’t. And it isn’t. Not any more at least. I would agree with Robert Kagan when he suggests that Americans no longer see themselves as the “primary defender of a certain kind of world order.”

Refereeing among rich Europeans does not win votes at home.  What we need most are confident partners, committed to the West, who help define a new era, as Willy Brandt did with Henry Kissinger 50 years ago.   

And that is why the West so urgently needs an updated narrative which more accurately defines the realities which emerged from the Cold War. Europe’s cherished multilateral world order has run out of steam.  And we are far from writing a workable version of its successor. 

A good start would be for both Europe and the U.S. to accept the Atlantic world as it is. If they wish to remain prosperous, secure and free, Europeans should learn how better to define their role in the Atlantic system, based on American power since 1945 at the latest. There is no Russian, Chinese, or above all European alternative.   

For its part, America might stop being frustrated that after 75 years of trying, Europe has not become a copy of the United States. We should push for more action, but not disdain Europe for its complexity and difficult history.   

Fortunately, we have no choice. The existing order is collapsing anyway. Everyone, even the Chinese, will be forced to change. 

Here is the reason. As early as 2004, the U.S. National Intelligence Council Global Trends Report 2004 concluded:

We see globalization—growing interconnectedness reflected in the expanded flows of information, technology, capital, goods, services, and people throughout the world—as an overarching “mega-trend,” a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially shape all the other major trends in the world of 2020.


In other words, the strict, hierarchical treaty structure built after World War II is steadily being eroded by digital tools and networks. Bio-engineering and artificial intelligence are close behind.    New patterns of influence and definitions of power are rapidly emerging. The results are not always comforting. Radical democratization is threatening traditional benign monopolies such as the press, libraries and even universities. 

Fortunately, Western leaders can call on new forms of Western unity which are already in place.  During the past thirty years, America and Europe have quietly transformed their original defense alliance into a community of democratic peoples which stretches from the Russian border in Europe to the border between the United States and Russia in the Bering Straits. 

This community is home to nearly one billion prosperous, well-educated and productive citizens who share much national heritage. It is organic rather than bureaucratic in nature. And has been amazingly resilient.  It is it already being networked by values tied together by modern Western technology.    

Just as the West has endured for more than 400 years, this new community can outlast most any sort of political and social upheaval.  Two world wars, for example. 

As President Biden suggested, the problem is not the absence of dialogue. It is delivery. Our current platforms have become dysfunctional. We need urgently to learn how to operate a new platform upon which Western democracies can build the infrastructure of the 21st century. 


Values Create Value

None of this will be automatic. Some real thinking needs to take place. Philosophers are becoming as important as engineers. We need a new vocabulary which helps define how to imbed Western values and concepts of individual human rights more directly into our new narrative -- not only because we believe in them, but because they work.  Western nations create value because of the values we project. Civil society will be more practical than idealistic.  Human rights offer a formula for a functioning society. 

But there is another problem. New technologies are steadily spinning out of control. Social networks, for example. The disruption they create could soon overwhelm even our most hallowed institutions.

It will not be possible to control every new process or to convince the Chinese and Russians of the world to follow our lead. Only by embedding values and goals into the brains of these new devices, and programming them to operate on newly energized global Atlantic values, can we hope to protect the way of life which we share primarily with Europe.

Thus, the fundamental lesson: Atlantic nations cannot escape each other any more than a tree can escape the soil in which it is planted.  We are constituent parts of one another in ways that we are not with any other part of the world.

These choices were described by Richard Koch and Lord Chris Smith in the May 17, 2006 edition of the Financial Times:

Western civilization has reached a fork in the road. Down one road lies cynicism, aggression, indifference, neo-conservatism and ultra-liberalism. Down the other lies a recovery of nerve, confidence in ourselves and cultural unity within and between America and Europe…. The road chosen will determine whether our civilization collapses or reaches its destiny.

About the Author

John Kornblum

John Kornblum

Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. It does this through scholars-in-residence, seminars, policy study groups, media commentary, international conferences and publications. Activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The program investigates European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including globalization, digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance, and relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa.  Read more