If the transatlantic alliance is going to build a brighter future in the decade ahead, Europe will have to regain the ambition to shape international affairs that it demonstrated in decades past.

Since Europeans began to build a single Europe after World War II, their leaders have sought an expanded role on the world stage. In the past, there were divisions between those who wanted to build a strong Europe as a counterweight to American power and those that sought to achieve their ambitions in partnership with Washington. Europe was ambitious and successful. Europeans built the European Union, established the Euro as a powerful global currency, sought to ratify a constitution, and spoke of a ‘European model’ of soft power. The United States watched the growth of Europe with ambivalence, fearing that a Europe too strong and independent could forsake the transatlantic link with the United States and Canada and weaken NATO.

What a difference a decade makes. Europeans today worry more about a weakened America than one that is too influential. Today, European leaders are worried about saving the Euro. European attention is fixated on the urgent need to preserve the common currency and the supranational solidarity that underpins the Euro’s credibility.

Hardening borders to deter migrants has displaced defense against foreign forces as the top security concern. The importance of strong transatlantic ties is no longer contested in major European capitals, even in France, which has resumed its full place in the NATO Alliance. Washington, for its part, has pursued a singular Obama-Bush policy of encouraging a strong Europe capable of acting in concert with the United States on issues of global concern. Multilaterally, the work of creating a comprehensive and effective partnership between NATO and the European Union should continue.

The end of past theological disputes between Washington and its European allies should mark a positive and optimistic era in the transatlantic relationship. Instead, today’s Europe is on the verge of losing the capabilities to be Washington’s primary global partner. But the European crisis is also one of will and ambition. As the economic crisis has spread, Europe’s global political vision and energy has diminished.

The United States cannot afford to lose a vigorous, confident, and outward-looking Europe. From the Arab uprisings to Iran’s nuclear program to climate change and the rise of China, there are too many challenges to Euro-Atlantic interests and values for Europe to turn inward for too long. Europe must maintain its global vision, even as it faces the urgent tasks of saving the Eurozone and designing a more sustainable European Union. NATO is an alliance of sovereign equals, each of which is expected to commit to the Alliance and contribute according to its abilities. But Europe’s fate as a global player and valued strategic partner of the United States will depend by and large on the future development of the Alliance’s most important members: Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and Turkey.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.” 

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