How the West Can Build Better Transatlantic Cooperation

COMMENTARY Global Politics

How the West Can Build Better Transatlantic Cooperation

Apr 17, 2023 5 min read

Commentary By

James Jay Carafano @JJCarafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow

Marton Ugrosdy

Head of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Political Director, Hungary

Participants wave the NATO flag at Senate Square in Helsinki, Finland, on April 4, 2023, after the country became the 31st member of NATO. MARKKU ULANDER / Lehtikuva / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Strong honest relations between members, as well as mutual interests and understanding of differences, will strengthen institutions like NATO and the European Union.

The West has failed to overcome these obstacles to cooperation by wasting its energy beating what are often portrayed as recalcitrant allies into submission.

When you can’t beat down an obstacle, it is time to try something else: building bridges through better bilateral cooperation.

Bilateral cooperation remains the coin of the Western world. But cooperation cannot be achieved by berating countries to fall into line. Nations seeking to grow and prosper must find ways to work together. U.S.-Hungarian relations, for example, are no exception.

Surely America wants a Europe that is free, prosperous, and at peace. As a global power with global interests and responsibilities, the United States needs friends at its back.

And surely every European nation would like to be unshackled from the threat of being terrorized and squeezed between competing great powers and empires.

That said, a European superstate is not the answer. While there is undeniable value in the European Union, it is an institution with limits and not immune from political influence where some try to dominate and dictate to others.

Nations participate in the EU primarily because they recognize that it can advance their national interests. But, in the end, each member state bears the real risks and responsibilities of delivering peace, prosperity, and freedom to its own people.

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The transatlantic community is another grouping of like-minded countries bound by common interests and geography, reflecting the history, tradition, religions, and culture of Western civilization. It, too, has the capacity to serve the mission of governments to serve their people.

Within Europe and among the transatlantic community, bilateral relations are as important as ever. Indeed, strong honest relations between members—built on trust and confidence—as well as mutual interests and understanding of differences, will strengthen institutions like NATO and the European Union. That, in turn, empowers these organizations to deliver better outcomes for their members.

Obstacles to Bilateral Cooperation

But all is not well in transatlantic relations. Today there are pathologies that, if left untreated, will make it harder to meet the challenges of the modern world through joint action.

Mirror-Imaging Politics. The old truism “politics stops at the water’s edge,” no longer holds true. Domestic political battles are widely reported throughout the world, often through the filter of reporters’ political biases. Audiences reflexively absorb partisan content from foreign pundits, politicians, and media, just as they do domestic news. Too often, people assume that the political Right and Left in other countries are pretty much the same as in theirs. It is not. In Europe, for instance, center-right governments and political parties have a wide diversity of views on domestic and foreign issues. Yet, the impulse to pigeonhole can lead to labeling Giorgia Meloni’s election in Italy a victory for right-wing extremism, when the reality is it is anything but.

Political Infighting. Political fights will exist. That is foundational to a community of free nations. We disagree on things. That is why we have elections. But democracy is for the people and by the people: We should let them decide. And, even if they do not vote the way we wish, we must work together with the elected governments as friends and allies should do.

Ossifying Orthodoxies. One way to stifle political competition is to declare the debate settled. Yet many issues that are fundamental to the freedoms and prosperity of our citizens—climate, energy, family, education, migration, gender, and economic freedom to name a few—remain unsettled.  We can’t build a strong base for common action by declaring a willing partner who challenges political orthodoxies to be a radical extremist and a danger to democracy.

Threats to Free Markets. No orthodoxy must be challenged more than that our economies should be wholly centrally managed by transnational bureaucrats. Doing business should mean doing business. Investors will have to make profits, but they also provide jobs and tax revenues for the host country. We should acknowledge that and not shy away from admitting it. Healthy market competition between countries that respect free market competition creates space for win-win situations.

Uneven Development Initiatives. There are problems the EU has been habitually and consistently unable or unwilling to solve. Topping the list is developing North-South infrastructure in Central Europe. The Three Seas Initiative can be a great solution, addressing needs that have gone unanswered for thirty-plus years, but the entire leadership of the transatlantic community needs to get behind the initiative.

Energy Insecurity. The community needs to get more serious about energy security. That means establishing stable and alternative supply sources (including gas, oil, and nuclear) and routes to deliver fuels and electricity. There must be more cooperation—and a commitment to proceed on a businesslike basis not tainted by favoritism or politics—to develop real plans to open up new markets, where profits can be made, and new enterprises established, with partners like the Abraham Accord countries and the nations of the Middle Corridor (Caucuses and Central Asia).    

The West has failed to overcome these obstacles to cooperation by wasting its energy beating what are often portrayed as recalcitrant allies into submission.

Solutions, Not Slander

When you can’t beat down an obstacle, it is time to try something else: building bridges through better bilateral cooperation. How do we know cooperation can work in these troubled times? We see evidence of it every day.

Many governments in Europe have proven extremely stable despite high energy prices, inflation, migration issues, and the uncertainty of the war over Ukraine. Why? In part because they have made taking care of their citizens their top priority and then worked with other countries to make it happen. One example is the quick action to build the gas corridor from Azerbaijan. Another is the NATO consensus to let Finland join the alliance. How can we build on these examples?

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Honest assessments on empirical data. When different countries tackle challenges differently, the outcomes can be measured, debated, and compared, yielding lessons that can inform public policies. Rather than impose orthodoxies, let’s encourage objective, collaborative research on family policy, education, monetary policy (like the Eurozone), and energy and the environment.

Building free and open spaces. We spend too much time arguing over who are and aren’t our competitors and enemies, and too little time working to build partnerships and create new opportunities that will allow nations to work together and make their own choices rather than just have to submit to one sphere of influence or other.

New Forms and Platforms of Dialogue. Decades after the end of the Cold War, the discourse and debate within NATO and the EU is dominated by the same platforms and players as they were decades ago. They are not diverse. They do not make more space for debate on the “orthodoxies.” They include many of the same people who always say and advocate for the same things. We need new instruments of connectivity. Not just more forums that parrot views, but real exchange. Civil society in the West needs to get back in the game. It should become the font of innovation and creativity, not the twenty-first-century version of the Spanish Inquisition.

Defense Cooperation. Nations often most berated by the EU are also among those most committed to NATO, deterrence, and building up their own self-defense capabilities. Defense cooperation, industrial partnerships, and joint efforts focused on advancing collective security in the transatlantic community are a pathway for greater collaborative efforts.

This piece originally appeared in The National Interest