ATLANTIC ALLIANCE : A Post-NATO Western Organization Must First Create a New Vocabulary

<i> G. John Ikenberry is associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is writing a book about postwar settlements and the creation of international order</i>

A debate is raging in Europe and the United States over the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This is an important and historic debate, but it would be a pity if the future of relations between Europe and America turned only on the future of NATO. What is missing is a more general debate about the future of the West--the social, economic and political relations that tie the Western democracies together. It is these broader relations--within which NATO is embedded--that will ultimately determine the fate of the Atlantic Alliance.

For almost 50 years, what united the Western democracies was the Cold War. It was easy to see that the countries of Europe and North America formed a political community--defined in terms of an external threat and manifest primarily as a security alliance.

Today, it is not that easy. The end of the Cold War has thrown open basic assumptions about the character and future of the West. Other regional and global groupings--the North American Free Trade Agreement, the European Union, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation--compete for primacy. If the Western democracies are to remain the most dynamic and secure grouping of states, it will have to be accomplished by more than preserving or reforming an aging alliance.


But the Cold War obscured, and current NATO debate neglects, a powerful historical reality: In the last 50 years, a genuine political community has been defined in terms of steadily rising interdependence. Trade and investment across the West has consistently grown faster than national production, and with the inexorable globalization of production and finance, Europe and the United States are increasingly part of a single economic entity.

The social and cultural lives within the Western countries are also increasingly of a piece. While languages and political traditions differ, the Western democracies have grown into mature civic polities--whose hallmarks are social pluralism, limited government, the rule of law and muted nationalism.

Out of the Depression and the war, the West remade itself into a distinctive political community--a transformation best described as a silent political revolution. Yet, it is remarkable how seldom Western leaders have acknowledged and celebrated this accomplishment.

But perhaps it is not surprising. The Cold War impoverished our political vocabulary; its operative terms were balanced , conflict and alliance . U.S. leaders have tried to articulate what is special about the West in the last few years. President George Bush talked about a “Euro-Atlantic Community” and President Bill Clinton has called for a “global alliance for democracy.”

But these efforts have been sporadic and halfhearted. It is a language that does not come easily to our lips or sound natural to our ears. Atlantic relations are not built on words, but those relations will only be strengthened when our language, images and expectations catch up with reality.

Western leaders should not only champion the West as a political community, they should also explore ways to ensure its survival and expansion. The possibilities are numerous and varied.


One small step would simply be to act on the variety of new and emerging trade and investment obstacles and opportunities that confront Atlantic economic relations. The United States and the EU could launch new efforts to harmonize industrial and competitive policies--in research, education, environment and social policy--culminating in an Atlantic “compact” that might serve as a basis for wider global talks. The two sides could also negotiate a “protocol” for foreign investment that could smooth and standardize tax, antitrust and “national treatment” rules.

A bolder proposal is to negotiate a free trade area between NAFTA and the EU. This idea has been advanced recently by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and raised by U.S. Commerce Undersecretary Jeffrey E. Garten.

Such a massive free-trade area would put to rest the fears of competing trade blocs. It would also reinforce the underlying stability of Atlantic economic relationships--where trade and investment are more balanced and reciprocal than they are with Japan and East Asia. An Atlantic free-trade region would “lock in” the current high tide of trade and investment flows and reinforce intercontinental political loyalties.

Atlantic leaders should also explore a strengthening of Western political architecture. The Transatlantic Declaration signed by the Atlantic partners in 1990, mandating a wide array of intergovernmental consultations, could be expanded into a formal treaty between the United States and the European Union. More formal institutional bodies for policy discussion are possible. These steps toward greater integration of policy-making institutions might also be pursued by the G-7, a process ripe for review.

U.S. and EU officials will soon meet in an effort to bolster Atlantic cooperation. This summer in Halifax, the G-7 leaders are also scheduled to discuss the mechanisms of global and regional cooperation. At the very least, this summit should call for the creation of a high-level intergovernmental commission to study and propose specific steps.

For most of the postwar era, Atlantic relations seemed secure because they were anchored in NATO. The end of the Cold War and the maturing of relations between Europe and the United States have turned this situation on its head. Today, the challenge is to make NATO and the Atlantic Alliance secure by anchoring them in a dense and multifaceted Western political order.*