The Building Blocks of a Progressive Transatlantic Vision


The old transatlantic paradigm with its focus on NATO and security is losing traction. A new transatlantic agenda should focus on three issues of common concern on both sides of the Atlantic: human rights, climate change and the containment of the rising power China.

Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, New York

As the US presidential elections in November 2020 quickly approach, transatlanticists in the United States and Europe are trying to decipher what the next four years may bring for the US-European partnership. A second term for Donald Trump means that the difficulties that have plagued the relationship for the last three years will almost certainly continue. A Democrat entering office, on the other hand, could provide an opportunity for a clean slate. No matter who ultimately claims victory at the polls, one thing is certain: The US-European relationship needs a makeover; a progressive vision that places new priorities at the forefront of transatlantic cooperation; one that lays the foundation for the two sides to jointly tackle the most important issues of our time. But what exactly, would this vision look like?

First and foremost, a progressive vision means elevating the status of the US-European Union (EU) relationship. For decades, the foundation of the US-European partnership has been the NATO alliance, which has over-militarized transatlantic relations and prioritized a narrow vision of security and defense. The two sides often get sidetracked debating issues like European defense spending and how to counter Russia. While these issues are important, they are by no means the most important. There other aspects of today’s geopolitical landscape that will prove to be more consequential in the years to come; issues that NATO does not exist to tackle, and which, instead, will require deeper and more meaningful cooperation between the US and the EU. At the top of the list are climate change, a rising China, and a recommitment to human rights.

Urgency: Addressing Climate Change

The first and perhaps most pressing issue that the United States and Europe must jointly address is that of climate change. While there is a long history of transatlantic cooperation on this issue, the degree to which the United States government will view this as a priority going forward depends almost entirely on who enters office this November. The Trump administration has proven unwilling to face the urgency of the climate crisis and on November 4, 2019, offered official notification to the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Instead, the administration has ‘sought to revive the coal industry to fulfill pledges to voters in coal mining states like West Virginia and Wyoming, mainly by rolling back Obama-era environmental protections.’ Further, Republicans have vilified the Green New Deal, a Resolution sponsored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, which calls for a 10-year national mobilization to address climate change and economic inequality. Because of inaction on the federal level, some of the United States’ most meaningful progress in the area of climate change has been made at the state and local levels. This is a good sign, and could be a starting point for deeper US-EU cooperation. However, if a Democrat is elected in November, one of their first orders of business should be supporting the Green New Deal, rejoining the Paris Agreement, and reestablishing America’s role as a global leader on the issue of climate change. As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses worldwide, a top-down US commitment to tackling this issue is critical.

Alternatively, the European Union has proven to be a leader in this arena. This could be due to the fact that a whopping 93 percent of Europeans view climate change as a serious problem, and 92 percent support making the EU climate neutral by 2050. It is hard to imagine those kinds of numbers in the United States. The EU is ‘the first major economy to put in place a legally binding framework to deliver on its pledges under the Paris Agreement’ with a goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050. The European Commission has also presented the European Green Deal, which (beyond the goals of climate neutrality) aims to: protect human life, animals and plants by cutting pollution; help companies become world leaders in clean products and technologies; and help ensure a just and inclusive transition.’

Despite differing approaches between the United States and Europe, there are areas where the two sides must continue to work together to make sufficient progress. First, the leaders from the European Union, both in national governments and in Brussels, should double down on their efforts to cooperate with the US Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors from 25 U.S. states and territories committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. More state-level programs like former California Governor Jerry Brown’s climate partnership with EU leaders are urgently necessary, as is the need for the transatlantic partners to eliminate trade barriers on green goods and services. Finally, grant-making apparatuses within the EU and US governments (regardless of which party is in power) should place a priority on funding organizations that bring increased public awareness to the issue of climate change, and which coordinate directly with cities and industry to align climate goals and share best practices.

Strategic Importance: A Rising China

Second, the Transatlantic partners must work together to address the geostrategic challenges posed by China’s economic and technological ambitions. Although historically, the United States and Europe have tried to build a closer Transatlantic approach toward China, the two have been somewhat at odds; Europe views the US approach as overly aggressive and zero-sum, while the United States views Europe’s approach as naive and ineffective. Luckily, Europe has recently made some important strides, including naming China as a ‘systemic rival’ in a March 2019 EU-China Strategic Outlook paper. But the inability of Europe to establish a cohesive continent-wide vision for how to deal with issues like 5G and the Belt and Road Initiative, combined with China’s efforts to make economic in-roads with some key European countries through the 17+1 format, has been problematic. Simultaneously, the United States and China have been locked in a bitter trade war since mid-2018, with the two sides imposing tit-for-tat tariffs on both American and Chinese goods. While the United States and China signed a comprehensive trade deal in January, some of the major issues remain unsolved and the issue is unlikely to be completely resolved any time soon.

It would be unrealistic and unwise for either side to completely ostracize China economically: The country is, after all, the top trading partner for the EU and accounted for 20% of EU imports in 2018. Similarly, China was the United States’ third largest export market in 2018, with U.S. goods and services trade totaling an estimated $737.1 billion in 2018. Still, there are steps that the US and Europe should take together to make sure they are presenting a united front against China’s economic strategy. First, the EU and the United States could work toward more effectively utilizing and ultimately reforming the World Trade Organization (WTO). In January 2020, for example, the United States, the EU, and Japan ramped up their pressure on China ‘over its model of state-sponsored capitalism,’ calling on the WTO to be tougher on government subsidies and offering a joint statement proposing ‘more stringent global rules to prevent Chinese companies relying on state support to gain advantage over foreign rivals.’  Although this is only a small piece of a much larger geo-economic puzzle, it is a good first step toward addressing China’s unfair trade practices and closing WTO loopholes that Beijing deftly exploits to create imbalances in the global market.

The United States and Europe should also work together to address Chinese investments and 5G technology. In terms of investments, Noah Barkin highlighted a few steps toward a joint approach in a June 2019 article for the Atlantic: first, in responding to ‘Belt and Road, the U.S. and Europe could work together to develop common transparency, environmental, and social standards for infrastructure projects, while pooling their financial resource.’ Although this could be difficult given the lack of cohesiveness amongst European countries regarding how to deal with Chinese investments, it is important to try to find common ground. On the US side, this also means working to improve economic and diplomatic ties with European countries which have signed on to BRI projects, and which may view China as a viable economic alternative to the United States. In terms of 5G, top US officials such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, consistently warn European countries against allowing China’s Huawei to build their 5G networks. Rightly so, but today, there is a lack of viable alternatives. This would be a good opportunity for leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as business leaders from Nokia, Ericsson, and US firms to create a consortium and work toward a joint approach to the 5G challenge. Further, the two sides could create a set of ‘common rules for data privacy and artificial intelligence, alongside joint efforts to make telecommunications infrastructure and supply chains bulletproof against Chinese espionage and sabotage.‘ Above all, it´s important for Washington and Brussels to understand that working together to present a united front will create a far more effective long-term strategy in managing China’s rise than either side could create on its own.

Values: Reaffirming Transatlantic Commitments to Human Rights

Alongside interests, a progressive vision must also be based in values, principles, and norms. The United States and Europe must therefore reaffirm their commitment to the protection of human rights. China’s mass detention of Xinjiang’s Uighur population in so-called “re-education camps,” for example, would be a good opportunity for the United States and Europe to release a joint statement taking a stand against China’s inhumane actions. While both sides are late to the game, a high-level document signed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, would send a strong message.

The Transatlantic partners should also take a human rights-based approach to the export of dual-use goods, specifically surveillance technology. Dual-use is defined as ‘goods, software and technology that can be used for both civilian and military applications.’ U.S.-based companies such as Seagate Technology PLC, Western Digital Corp., Intel Corp. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. develop and export technologies for legitimate civilian uses, but have also ‘provided components, financing and know-how to China’s multibillion-dollar surveillance industry.’ Similarly, dual-use equipment from European-based tech companies such as Finnish-German Nokia Siemens Networks, Germany-based FinFisher (commonly referred to as FinSpy), Italy-based Hacking Team, and many others has been used ‘for arresting, torturing, and even killing people….in Iran, in Egypt, in Bahrain, Ethiopia, Morocco, especially in the Arab Spring.’ Other countries receiving Western dual-use technology include Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. One thing is clear: Europe and the United States must have strong policies in place to halt the export of surveillance technology to countries that have a proven track record of using it to violate human rights.

More broadly, however, the transatlantic partners should recommit to their support of free and open expression. This is urgent, especially as governments increasingly use new forms of technology to pursue illiberal governance structures, quell democratic movements, and violate human rights. A good start would be creating an independent organization (something that resembles the National Endowment for Democracy) for Euro-Atlantic tech and internet freedom. This organization would support companies “pursuing tech pluralism aligned with open society principles” and would “push independent compliance with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and Privacy Shield. It could also provide outside scrutiny on dual-use technology exports on both sides of the Atlantic. finally, this organization could bring together individuals from government, universities, NGOS, and the private sector to determine ways the transatlantic partners can address the growing issues of digital authoritarianism and techno-nationalism. At the end of the day, the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information are human rights issues. The United States and Europe should stand up for these rights worldwide.


Admittedly, the goals listed above are lofty, and yet at the same time, they only scratch the surface. For example, the transatlantic partners (both together, and on their own) also must seriously rethink what U.S. military posture looks like in Europe, address kleptocracy, corruption, and mass inequality, determine a long-term solution to mass migration, and more. This is no small feat. Even if a new US president takes Trump’s place in the Oval Office this November, he or she will have their hands full simply trying to repair the damage done by this administration to the US-European relationship. At this point, it is unrealistic to think that the transatlantic relationship will simply ‘go back to normal,’ as some like to say. Instead, the United States and Europe should realize that the relationship will look fundamentally different going forward, and that is a good thing. It gives the transatlantic partners a chance to recalibrate; to chart a new course and create a fresh vision that places today’s biggest challenges at the center of the US-European relationship.