It was only eight years ago that Barack Obama, then Senator from Illinois and candidate for president of the United States, spoke before a crowd of 200,000 at the foot of the Victory Column in Berlin.
Mr. Obama reminded his audience of the strong partnership between the United States and Germany that began with the airlift in 1948, uniting two countries that only three years earlier had faced each other on opposite sides of the battlefield.
He spoke of the hope that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall, called NATO “the greatest alliance ever formed to defend our common security,” and described a Europe at peace.
His speech reaffirmed a liberal world order, based on the rule of law, a preference for democracy, and strong alliances, that has served us well.
Across Europe, economic prosperity has steadily risen in the post-World War II era. This is especially true of Central Europe, which saw a dramatic rise in living standards in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While the European Union has had its economic challenges of late, it is also fair to say that the continent is in a much stronger position thanks to the cooperation it has fostered.
Much has changed in eight years. Today the liberal world order may be under threat. Europe faces internal and external threats ranging from terrorism and the migrant crisis, to a revanchist Russia and the possibility that the United Kingdom could leave the European Union.
While globalization has created opportunities for millions of people around the world, others, many in industrialized nations across Europe and in the United States feel left behind by a fast-changing global economy.
Middle- and working-class wages have stagnated, dramatically widening the income gap with those at the top. Voter anger and frustration has boiled over into greater support for far-right and nationalist political parties across Europe.
The United States is not immune to this phenomenon, as is evident from this year’s presidential election cycle.
The challenges that Europe faces today are different than those faced by the leaders of the post-World War II era more than a half century ago, but perhaps no less difficult.
President Truman and Chancellor Adenauer understood that enduring peace and prosperity would require new institutions. The question for Europe’s leaders today is whether they can identify the opportunities in the challenges they face to reshape and revitalize those institutions and give renewed impetus to the liberal world order. The price of failure could be high.
For example, the steady stream of migrants arriving at Europe’s doorstep has created one of the most important tests for the continent since World War II, but it has also created an opportunity.
The question for Europe’s leaders is whether they can identify the opportunities in the challenges they face to reshape and revitalize those institutions and give renewed impetus to the liberal world order. The price of failure could be high. Fred Kempe and David Ensor, The Atlantic Council
For several decades now, population growth rates have declined in more than half of the European Union’s member states, with fertility below replacement levels.
The influx of migrants could present an opportunity to offset Europe’s growing demographic challenge. In response to the exodus from Syria and elsewhere, the European Union struck a deal with Turkey that will prevent many migrants from ever reaching Europe.
The arrangement was an understandable effort to bring order to a chaotic, often tragic situation, but going forward, Europe’s leaders may be well advised to look for more effective ways to communicate to their people the economic advantages for their countries of embracing more of the migrants.
They also need to reject what President Obama in his April speech in Hannover called “a creeping emergence of the kind of politics that the European project was founded to reject—an “us” versus “them” mentality that tries to blame our problems on the other, somebody who doesn’t look like us or doesn’t pray like us.”
Further economic choices for Europe abound.
On June 23, British voters will take part in a referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Multiple studies have detailed the serious potential economic consequences of a Brexit, from a general slowdown of the economy to higher government borrowing and lower tax receipts.
World leaders have overwhelmingly come out in favor of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union, but with polls still showing a narrow margin, a convincing case based upon Britain’s national interest in staying part of the European Union must be made to British voters.
Similarly, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) offers expanded economic opportunities for many across the transatlantic alliance, and includes needed protections for labor that were lacking in past treaties, but it will need to be sold to what are now skeptical publics, both in Europe and the United States.
Since President Obama’s Berlin speech eight years ago, Russia has turned from a mostly collaborative power to a confrontational one.
NATO’s Warsaw Summit in July provides an important opportunity for the United States and Europe to show that the Alliance is still relevant. There will be a spotlight on the summit this year, in part because of some of the rhetoric on the US presidential election campaign trail.
Business as usual will not do this time. Leaders convening in Warsaw need to do more than at past summits, to modernize the Alliance and redeploy forces to better address today’s threats, but without slipping into another Cold War.
It is a delicate balancing act. NATO must not only confront head on those who challenge its relevance, it must also rethink how it can best engage in a rapidly changing world.
What is striking is how many of these challenges Europe must now face simultaneously. Americans have a major stake in the outcome.
Europe is our biggest trading partner, and European nations our closest allies. We share more history and values with you than with anyone else. The United States must help, but it is Europe’s national leaders who must make the case to their peoples that a unified Europe is worth defending.
As President Obama said in Hanover, this is “a defining moment”. The vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace faces a critical test.
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