The Transatlantic Relationship - Why it Still Matters Today

Ivan Vejvoda is Senior Vice President for Programs of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. You may follow him on Twitter @IVejvoda

THE aftermath of World War II produced a global order defined at Yalta and Potsdam, ushering in the Cold War period—a nearly five decade-long standoff between ideological rivals, who stood for opposing world views: liberal-democratic versus communist.

As international, multilateral institutions like the United Nations were being forged, the community of nations in North America and the Western part of Europe went about building and institutionalizing a liberal international order based on democracy, rule of law, and individual freedoms. The ideas and principles that underpinned the latter emerged from the philosophy and political theory of the Enlightenment in Europe, as well as from the modern democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century in England, the United States, France, and the Netherlands.

The answer that Immanuel Kant gave to the question posed in his famous 1784 essay What is Enlightenment? epitomizes the path the Western alliance took toward both individual and societal freedoms: the Enlightenment, Kant said, was the “exit from self-incurred immaturity.” He considered that the paternalism of Church and State had to be abolished so that people could be given the freedom to more fully use their intellect. That shift required courage, Kant underscored. Societies and polities emancipated themselves, creating institutions that enshrined democratic norms, rules and procedures, the rule of law, and human rights. A liberal democratic order could also be summarized as being based on legality, pluralism, and an open and free public sphere. Basic freedoms of speech and association are fundamental to upholding democracy and the liberal international order.

The transatlantic relationship, together with the countries that compose it, stands today—as it did in the post-World War II period—for those very same ideals and values.

Twenty-five Years On
The world has certainly changed since 1945. The quarter of a century since the Cold War ended represents a remarkable period. The Iron Curtain—which divided Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and impeded countries and societies that were left in the East from fulfilling their democratic aspirations—disappeared. During this time there was a “return to Europe”, and democratic institutions emerged in the swath of countries bordering the then-Soviet Union. Most of them have since joined the European Union and NATO, which taken together represent the Euroatlantic community.

There was an expectation, if not of the “end of history,” then of at least an alignment and a commitment to peace in the Western hemisphere—and in Europe writ large. The EU’s 2003 European Security Strategy, entitled “A Secure Europe in a Better World,” began with the sentence: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure or so free. The violence of the first half of the twentieth century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history.”

This so cherished stability ended in Europe with the onset of the global economic, financial, and sovereign debt crisis. The Eurozone entered a protracted period of turmoil and uncertainty, culminating with the Greek crisis that began in 2010 and found temporary resolution in July 2015. Let us also not forget that the 1990s saw a violent conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with peace being reestablished there only in 2000.

The end of this quarter-century period is also marked by the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Accords, which in 1975 reiterated and reinforced the principle of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states. The countries of the Western Hemisphere came together with the Soviet Union to sign this historic accord. Still, in the year preceding this anniversary, to the surprise of many but not all, Russia violated this principle by annexing the Crimean peninsula—a part of sovereign Ukrainian territory—and then supporting separatists in the eastern region of the Donbas. These events upset both Europe’s security framework and what seemed to be a road to EU and NATO partnership with Russia.

The September 2014 and February 2015 Minsk Accords concerning the situation in Ukraine seem—at the moment of this writing—to be offering some modest hope for at least the cessation of hostilities. However, the most likely outcome in the mid-term seems to be the creation of another frozen conflict.

On a more positive note: after more than 40 years of frozen conflict in Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators seem to be inching towards a possible resolution of their longstanding divides. Cyprus became an EU member state in 2004 with an unresolved territorial dispute—an anomalous state of affairs that could now perhaps be overcome.

Another positive dynamic related to Europe and the liberal democratic order is the issue of Kosovo. The war, self-destruction, and disappearance of Yugoslavia in the 1990s left, among much else, an unresolved issue in Serbia. The European Union clearly indicated, based on the negative Cyprus experience, that it would not be taking in member states that had not resolved existing disputes. Thus, the negotiations that began in 2011 between Belgrade and Priština—and later between Prime Ministers Aleksandar Vučić and Isa Mustafa—led to an April 2013 agreement that has produced a significant initial degree of normalization of relations. This serves as a further demonstration that the Euroatlantic environment—the joint determination of both sides to join the European Union and its democratic institutional framework—are conducive to achieving a peaceful resolution of what once seemed intractable challenges. The soft power of the European Union seems to be working in this unintegrated part of Europe.

Finally, Europe today is confronted by what could possibly turn out to be its biggest challenge ever: the refugee crisis. A human wave of hundreds of thousands fleeing war, violence, and destruction are arriving on Europe’s shores and seeking refuge, mainly in Germany and northern European countries. This is an unprecedented, comprehensive crisis that will affect the political, security, economic, and social dynamics of the Old Continent for years to come.

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