The end of World War II resulted in the establishment of a series of transatlantic institutions aimed at advancing and defending liberal norms and democratic values. Over time, this transatlantic family of institutions has expanded to include parts of East Asia and the South Pacific. Complementing the UN system, these entities have served as the cornerstone of a global liberal order, or rules-based order, that has provided shared rules and channels for free and fair global governance. For more than seventy years, this liberal order has helped ensure relative peace and stability around the world. But today, the rise of revisionist autocracies— from Xi Jinping’s China to Vladimir Putin’s Russia— threaten to disrupt and potentially displace this system.
As the world approaches a new era of strategic competition with revisionist autocracies, the existing transatlantic political, economic, and security entities need to be further expanded. To succeed in this competition, the United States must rally the support of willing allies and partners. This includes not just those in Europe and North America, but also in the Asia-Pacific. By consciously seeking to build a trilateral Atlantic-Pacific community—one that integrates Asia-Pacific allies as deeply as those in the transatlantic—the United States will be better positioned to defend the rules-based order and address the challenges of the twenty-first century.
The transatlantic family of institutions
Following World War II, the United States and its European allies sought to forge a new world order rooted in liberal values of democracy, economic openness, and the rule of law. Over the subsequent decades, they established a series of institutions aimed at fostering cooperation across economic, security, and political fronts. Together, this family of institutions formed the foundation of a US-led international order that has helped bring peace, security, and prosperity for much of the world over the past seventy years.
The United States set a benchmark for the liberal order starting in 1948 with the European Recovery Program, or Marshall Plan. To allocate aid and coordinate a joint recovery following World War II, Western European countries formed the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). This evolved into the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 1961, expanding its membership not only to the United States, but in a few years to the major Pacific allies, and, decades later, to market democracies around the world.1“About the OECD,” OECD Watch, accessed February 6, 2023, https://www.oecdwatch.org/oecd-ncps/about-the-oecd/.
While the Marshall Plan, OEEC, and eventually OECD offered a blueprint for the postwar liberal order, they remained focused on economic challenges. The Marshall Plan’s early ambitions to foster European integration and deter communist expansion in Europe demanded a more intentional, security-focused framework, along with military might. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty formed a legal basis for a new North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, in order to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” and ensure collective defense and peace.2NATO, “The North Atlantic Treaty,” last updated April 10, 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_17120.htm. Since its inception, NATO has expanded to include thirty countries (with two more on the horizon), and has served as a cornerstone of transatlantic security and of the liberal order.
In decades that followed, the United States, Canada, and advanced economies in Europe sought further venues for political cooperation. Beginning in the 1970s, the Group of Seven (G7) served as a political forum for leading democracies to promote shared liberal values and work together to tackle common transnational challenges ranging from economics and trade to global health and climate change. The G7 brought in Japan, formally integrating transatlantic and transpacific allies in an influential common platform for political and economic engagement.
Separately, beginning in the 1950s, the United States formed bilateral security alliances with Japan and South Korea, and a multilateral alliance with Australia and New Zealand.3The ANZUS Treaty initially included Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The United States suspended its treaty obligations toward New Zealand in 1986. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/anzus. The United States also formed an intelligence-sharing agreement among key English-speaking allies in the Atlantic and Pacific; the Five Eyes include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. More recently, the Indo-Pacific Quad has become a forum to draw together the US, Japan, Australia, and India in a multilateral platform for cooperation in specific areas of mutual interest. AUKUS – a trilateral security pact between Australia, Britain, and the United States formed in 2022 with a focus on nuclear-powered submarines – represents the latest US attempt to bridge security coordination across the Atlantic and Pacific.
The need to strengthen Atlantic-Pacific ties
For the first time in more than three decades, the United States and its democratic allies face systemic challenges from revisionist powers that aim to disrupt or displace the existing international order. Russia is engaged in a war of aggression against Ukraine, seeking to redraw the map of Europe by force on a scale not seen since World War II. Under Putin’s leadership, the Kremlin has taken actions to control its neighbors, engage in energy coercion, meddle in foreign elections, and support crackdowns against pro-democracy movements both at home and abroad. As its capabilities expand, China represents a more durable and broad-based challenge to the rules-based order. While escalating its threats against Taiwan, Beijing has claimed control over much of the South China Sea and continues to expand its military footprint across the Pacific and beyond. China’s state-driven economy, built around forced technology transfers and other unfair trade practices, poses an alternative model to market-based international economic relations, as Beijing uses its increasing economic influence to engage in wolf warrior tactics to coerce other nations to accede to its political demands. With their shared interests in challenging the US-led order, Moscow and Beijing recently forged a “no limits” strategic partnership and appear determined to establish a broader axis of autocracy that includes other anti-Western regimes across the world, starting with Iran.4Guy Faulconbridge, “Factbox: How Does the Xi and Putin ‘No Limits’ Partnership Work?” Reuters, September 15, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/how-does-xi-putin-no-limits-partnership-work-2022-09-15/.
The challenges posed by China and Russia are setting the terms for a new era of strategic competition among major global powers.5Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, “From the G7 to a D10: Strengthening Democratic Cooperation for Today’s Challenges,” Atlantic Council, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/from-the-g7-to-a-d-10-strengthening-democratic-cooperation-for-todays-challenges/. To succeed, the United States will need to work closely with likeminded allies and partners. To deal with the Soviet challenge during the Cold War, the United States prioritized coordination with transatlantic allies. Today, America’s most capable allies are located not just in Europe and North America, but also in the Asia-Pacific. With the intensifying challenges posed by China, and a global economy that is more interconnected than ever before, the US needs to find new ways to deepen and strengthen cooperation among its allies across the globe.
Avenues for reinvigorating Atlantic-Pacific engagement
The world’s leading democratic states can have a determinative influence in shaping global outcomes when they pool their collective resources and influence. Collectively, the United States and other leading democracies represent nearly sixty percent of the global gross domestic product and commit more than six times the resources to defense expenditures annually than do Russia and China combined. Together, they can marshal the resources necessary to maintain a favorable balance of power.
Washington should undertake a determined effort to work with allies across the Atlantic and Pacific to align common objectives and cultivate a shared sense of purpose. There are several potential avenues for strengthening the trilateral – North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific – cooperation. They fall into three broad categories.
First, the existing institutions— NATO, OECD, G7— should be strengthened in their own tasks and structures. NATO, for example, has demonstrated remarkable cohesion in standing up to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But as the latest NATO Strategic Concept suggests, China could represent a potentially longer-term challenge to transatlantic security, and the alliance will need to bolster its capabilities and enhance coordination to deal with this challenge.6“NATO 2022 Strategic Concept,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, https://www.nato.int/strategic-concept/.
Second, these existing entities should be better interconnected. The invitation to the leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand to join the NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid this past June should become a regular feature — perhaps a “NATO Plus Four — serving as a means to strengthen NATO engagement with allies in the Asia-Pacific. Similarly, Australia and South Korea could be included as ongoing participants in the G7 leaders’ summit, perhaps as permanent observers, not unlike the status that Spain and the Netherlands have in the G20.. Other primarily transatlantic entities and meetings, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council (TTC), could invite observers from Japan and South Korea to promote a more cohesive approach to dealing with economic issues. More broadly, this existing family of allied institutions could be more directly linked. The heads of NATO and the OECD, for example, could also be included in G7 summit meetings (last year’s G7 invitation to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg may serve as a precedent).
Third, a new series of Atlantic-Pacific entities should be established to promote cooperation across key domains of strategic competition. A “Democracies 10,” or D-10, could formally bind G7 partners with Australia and South Korea, serving as a core group of likeminded and influential democracies to coordinate and strategize on the most significant global challenges.7Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, “Toward a Democratic Technology Alliance: An Innovation Edge that Favors Freedom,” Atlantic Council, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/toward-a-democratic-technology-alliance-an-innovation-edge-that-favors-freedom/. A Democratic Technology Alliance could bring together leading democracies to ensure that the free world prevails in the race for advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genetic engineering, 5G, and robotics.8Ibid. A new Democratic Trade and Economic Partnership, could provide an integrated framework for leading democracies to foster ally shoring, secure supply chains, and counter autocratic coercion.9Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, “A Democratic Trade Partnership: Ally Shoring to Counter Coercion and Secure Supply Chains,” Atlantic Council, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/strategic-decoupling-building-a-democratic-trade-and-economic-partnership-d-tep/. More specialized agencies to promote Atlantic-Pacific integration should also be considered, such as an OECD-area health agency or a revamped Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM).10Ira Straus, “The War in Ukraine Is an Opportunity to Upgrade the Transatlantic Architecture. Here’s How.” New Atlanticist, August 31, 2022, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-war-in-ukraine-is-an-opportunity-to-upgrade-the-transatlantic-architecture-heres-how/.
In his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Joe Biden took note of “the bridges we’re forming between partners in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic.”11“Remarks of President Joe Biden – State of the Union Address as Prepared for Delivery,” White House, February 7, 2023, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/02/07/remarks-of-president-joe-biden-state-of-the-union-address-as-prepared-for-delivery/. Building on this momentum, the administration should charge senior officials at the State Department and the National Security Council with developing new options to advance trilateral cooperation. Policy planning officials from leading allies across Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific could lead this effort by beginning consultations on concrete ways forward.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the increasing challenges posed by China have created an urgency to act. The war in Ukraine has spawned a new spirit of determination among the US and its European allies. Given the momentous challenges of this new era, the time is ripe for Atlantic and Pacific democracies to work more closely together and uphold the rules-based order.
The Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and the world.