US-EUROPE: Transatlantic relations in the new geopolitical context
Karsten D. Voigt

Excerpts from a speech by Karsten D. Voigt, Coordinator of German-American Cooperation, on June 7, 2005 on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the German School in New York.

November 9, 1989, and September 11, 2001, changed Germany, Europe, the U.S., transatlantic relations and – ultimately – the world as a whole. The peaceful revolution of 1989 which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 transformed Europe and reunited Germany. The second key date is September 11, 2001. The acts of terrorism committed on that day changed and accelerated international developments. New threats were recognized. A new view of the world emerged – a new `Weltanschauung` – first in the U.S., and subsequently in Europe. At first, many Europeans underestimated the extent to which the events of September 11 galvanized and altered public opinion in the U.S.

After the end of the Cold War, Europe was forced to realize that neither the traditional postwar involvement of the U.S. in Europe, nor an automatic convergence of interests on both sides of the Atlantic, could be taken for granted. Today, the European Union and its member states perform a constant balancing act, trying to complete European integration while at the same time seeking to maintain close transatlantic ties.

As we all are well aware, the end of the Cold War inevitably brought with it a sea change in the transatlantic relationship and Europe’s post-1989 geostrategic environment. I would urge everyone to not have a negative preconception of change – it also offers new opportunities. Moreover, if we were to ignore the new geostrategic environment by clinging to the modes of conduct and ideas that reflected the situation of Western Europe during the Cold War, this would undermine rather than strengthen the Atlantic partnership. Germany wants transatlantic relations to be more relevant for the future and thus is eager to start reforming them today. I would like to see a new Atlanticism emerge through a reform of transatlantic policies and institutions, in particular within NATO, and a deepening of the relationship between NATO and the EU. President Bush`s meetings with both NATO and EU leaders on the same day a few months ago was significant in this regard. What characterizes the new geostrategic situation?

In the U.S. consciousness, the central issues over which conflicts may arise have changed. In geographic terms, the focus has shifted to the Middle East and to certain parts of Asia.

In a stable European order of peace, the centuries-old `German question` was resolved by united Germany`s membership in the EU and NATO. Both sides of the Atlantic can and should rejoice that Germany no longer poses a threat. The end of the East-West confrontation, in which Germany occupied a key position, also brought about a shift in Germany`s strategic importance for the U.S. Today, Germany`s main relevance arises from its role as an important country situated at the center of Europe, and from its willingness and ability to help resolve future crises that may develop in neighboring regions and outside of Europe. For fifty years, Germany was a consumer of security. We are now called upon to become an exporter of security by contributing to peace and stability beyond our own borders. German politicians must consider whether they want their guiding policy principle to be U.S. relevance or – just like their counterparts in America – the fact that they believe their security and interests are at stake.

Mind you, this is about the U.S.`s strategic orientation away from a former global confrontation in which Europe stood at the epicenter. During the Cold War, we Germans tended to perceive this conflict as a regional or a European one, or even as a local German crisis. The U.S. focus is now on other regions (for example the Middle East or Asia) and other issues (for example, the fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction). At the same time, we must seek to forge a new security policy consensus on whether, where, and under what conditions we are prepared to use military means to protect our security, our interests and our values.

In the past, the European Union, even less so Germany, was never a major actor in security policy. The current deployment of German troops to Afghanistan and the previous deployment of German troops to East Timor does not change the fact that NATO`s main area of action remains Europe and its neighboring regions. But the rise of international terrorism has slightly altered that picture: some problems are of a global nature and therefore require a global response. We must increasingly be prepared to think and – on a very selective basis – also to act globally.

There is another factor. In contrast to the situation in Europe during the Cold War, the U.S. no longer depends on the support of its European allies and on Germany in order to prevail in purely military terms in regional conflicts such as the one in Iraq. In the final analysis, winning the war in Iraq did not hinge on gaining the support of other European partners. This decrease in military dependency has not only military but also political consequences. A country that no longer requires military support, but that does seek support for political reasons, will begin to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of partnerships. This change of attitude will influence the extent to which a country is prepared to consider the interests and viewpoints of potential partners.

During the Cold War, certain political and military decisions in the U.S. would not have been made against the expressed wishes of key European partners in NATO. Although we Germans were completely dependent on the U.S. for our security at that time, we nevertheless wielded much influence. In the run-up to the Iraq war, there was a debate in Washington over whether, on political grounds, the U.S. should still show deference to those who doubted not only U.S. tactics, but also the goals of, and the strategy behind, its policy. Or whether, for the sake of maintaining the autonomy of U.S. military action and the clarity of its own objective, it would not be better – if need be – for the U.S. to pursue its course alone and do without critical and excessively self-confident partners. After all, the U.S. had other allies who, although they did not support every tactical detail of Washington`s decisions, did endorse its strategic orientation.

This change in thinking in some Washington circles abandoned the premise that solidarity among all NATO partners was the key prerequisite for military action. Therefore, it was no coincidence that the NATO offer to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty following 9/11 was not taken up by Washington. One result of the current difficult situation in post-war Iraq is that those in Washington who are in favor of seeking partners and forging alliances have again gained ground. In view of this ongoing debate, we Europeans are seizing the opportunity and, jointly with our American partners, developing concepts and strategies to renew and intensify transatlantic relations.

Clearly identifying our own interests, and knowing exactly where our partners stand on important issues, are essential prerequisites for developing common ground in the future. In order to establish a new transatlantic perspective, we must rationally assess the common ground and the differences between American and European political cultures. In my view, it is important to note that – although their hierarchy may vary slightly on either side of the Atlantic – we do share the same fundamental values. We all live in stable democracies that are based on the rule of law and the respect for human rights. Therefore, one can perfectly well speak of a transatlantic community of values.

During the Cold War, the U.S. was in favor of a strong European pillar of NATO. The European pillar was desirable to the U.S. on the assumption that it would help counterbalance the Soviet threat, mitigate the danger of the U.S. being drawn into regional armed conflicts, and that it would not represent a competing entity. In view of Europe`s development in recent years and decades, it is understandable that there was growing concern, particularly in the U.S., that this stronger Europe is transforming into a second rival pole in the West. In the final analysis, I do not believe there is any likelihood that Europe will seek to define itself in opposition to America. This certainly would not be in Germany`s best interest. However, we also contradict those in the U.S. who believe that Europe`s increased strength in the sphere of foreign and security policy is a negative development. Quite the opposite is true! Europe still has to improve its effectiveness – European deficiencies in this regard represent a central problem in transatlantic relations. A Europe incapable of taking effective action would have little global influence and would be of minor significance to the U.S. as a partner. The U.S. would quickly lose interest in a weaker Europe. By the same token, a weak Europe would also weaken transatlantic ties: if Europe saw no hope of exerting influence on the U.S., it would, out of frustration, either turn away from – or even against – the U.S.

No single country is powerful enough to shape the ideal world that corresponds to its own interests, values and dreams. The EU also clearly needs the U.S. – and vice versa – be it in the war on terror, the fight against weapons of mass destruction, or for facing any of previously-mentioned or still lurking threats. No problem in the world can be solved faster and better if either transatlantic partner chooses to approach it on its own. In my view, it is not desirable that Europe and the U.S. develop a negative relationship towards one another. On the contrary, the EU and the U.S. – if need be, independently, but hopefully ever more frequently in a concerted effort – should work to constructively engage important nations like China; the aim should be to enlist more and more countries and regions in the cause of improving peace, stability and development on our planet.

The U.S. rightly regards itself as an `indispensable nation`. By the same right, Europe should see itself as an `indispensable partner`. Incidentally, this holds true not only for military and economic issues but, ultimately, also for issues related to our democratic culture and even environmental protection. If Europe and the U.S. were to oppose each other, this would jeopardize the prospects for security and democracy in many parts of the world.

Looking to the future, we will have to address the serious and far-reaching questions that have arisen in the transatlantic debate. Hopefully, we will be able to reach a consensus on these with all important UN member states. Many issues may be resolved together with the Americans, almost all together with our European neighbors, and some at a national level. Ultimately, this is about what role Germany should assume in both a European and a global context, what risks we are prepared to take, what influence and power we are striving to gain, and what financial means and instruments we are prepared to employ to achieve our aims. The conclusions drawn from this debate will be influenced not only by discussions in Germany, but also to a large extent by arguments put forward by our European partners, our partners in North America, and increasingly also our partners in other parts of the world.

Karsten D. Voigt is the Coordinator of German-American Cooperation. Courtesy of Federal Foreign Office,