Event report: Transatlantic renewal in an era of strategic competition

Portions of this report are based on previous Atlantic Council publications, including Present at the Recreation: A Global Strategy for Revitalizing, Adapting, and Defending a Rules-Based International System.

On July 15, 2021, the Atlantic Council, in partnership with Global Affairs Canada, organized a virtual event entitled, “The Renewal of Transatlantic Relations in an Era of Strategic Competition.” As the world enters a new era of strategic competition, the transatlantic community needs to work together to advance shared values and interests and foster a rules-based international order. China has grown more confident, and Russia has become more aggressive. Authoritarianism is resurgent, while democracies face critical challenges at home and abroad. Given this situation, the purpose of the event was to discuss how the United States, Canada, and Europe could advance a common agenda to address these challenges and revitalize the most powerful democratic community in modern history.1The Renewal of Transatlantic Relations in an Era of Strategic Competition, Atlantic Council, July 15, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/the-renewal-of-transatlantic-relations-in-an-era-of-strategic-competition/.

Event summary

The event featured opening comments from Paula Dobriansky, the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center vice chair and former under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, and Patricia Peña, director general of foreign policy for Global Affairs Canada. Ambassador Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, followed with keynote remarks. The event then proceeded to three sessions, addressing subjects from challenges and opportunities for transatlantic renewal to Canada’s critical role in transatlantic relations.

Ambassador Dobriansky opened the event by observing that renewing transatlantic cooperation between the United States, Europe, and Canada is more important than ever. Amid a world where autocratic rivals are increasingly bold in their efforts to undermine a rules-based order, transatlantic cooperation will be a necessary bulwark in defense of the postwar international system. In her opening remarks, Peña noted that the challenges facing the transatlantic community are nested within a wider series of challenges to the postwar consensus among Western powers, including China’s rise, Russia’s geopolitical influence, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, and the rise of populism within a number of Western powers. She underscored Canada’s support for transatlantic cooperation on democracies’ shared geopolitical, economic, and security priorities, and stressed Canada’s commitment to bilateral and multilateral alliances and organizations. While she acknowledged that the transatlantic community does not necessarily have a consensus on every strategic issue, Peña argued there is an opportunity to advance greater cooperation on the key issues and strengthen the rules-based international order.

Ambassador Reeker emphasized President Joseph Biden’s intentions to repair and revitalize relationships with allies and partners, including Canada. He elaborated on Canada’s long-standing multilateral engagement with transatlantic allies as a founding member of NATO and a valuable Group of Seven (G7) member. In particular, Canada’s contributions to a recent G7 communique helped strengthen members’ commitments to upholding a rules-based international order. Reeker also highlighted the shared values that set the United States and its likeminded allies and partners apart from authoritarian competitors—including both Russia and China—and that the transatlantic community provides a foundation to address these challenges. Reeker contended that the relationship between the transatlantic community and China will be the challenge that will define at least the next decade. The Biden administration believes the relationship with China ought to be a mix of competitive, cooperative, and confrontational, depending on the issue area and circumstances. Reeker noted that the United States and Canada are especially well situated geographically to cooperate on China and Indo-Pacific issues. As for Russia, the Biden administration favors neither escalation nor a reset; instead, it is pursuing a pragmatic, clear-eyed course that is open to engagement where possible. On other autocratic threats, including Alexander Lukashenko’s crackdowns in Belarus, Reeker underscored the need for US, Canadian, and European allies to defend democracy through coordinated sanctions and cooperation. Despite differences on some specific matters, Ambassador Reeker saw a broad convergence in the transatlantic community on the need to proceed together in this new era of great-power competition.

Following Ambassador Reeker’s remarks, the first session considered challenges and opportunities for transatlantic renewal. The session featured Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Joan DeBardeleben, chancellor’s professor in the Institute of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University; and Ambassador Daniel Fried, an Atlantic Council distinguished fellow.2Ibid.

The second panel examined how the transatlantic community could engage democracies in Asia and beyond. This panel included Jonathan Berkshire Miller, director and senior fellow of the Indo-Pacific Program at the MacDonald Laurier Institute; Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group; and Ash Jain, director for democratic order in the Scowcroft Center. To begin, Jonathan Miller discussed Canada’s efforts to balance its resources and interests as an Atlantic and Pacific nation. While Canada recognizes threats posed by China—including detainments of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and China’s fifth-generation (5G) expansion—Canada sees engagement in the Indo-Pacific as more than just strategic competition with China. Miller then outlined the need for a transatlantic strategy in the Indo-Pacific that involves close cooperation between Canada and the United States and allows Canadian contributions to “minilateralism” in the region. Later, speaking from the perspective of the United Kingdom (UK), Gaston observed that its relations with China are not, in essence, bilateral; rather, the United Kingdom approaches that relationship while considering its partnerships with its current allies, as well as the Indo-Pacific democracies with which it is striving to build relationships. Jain argued for greater coordination among democracies, including through bodies such as a revitalized G7 in the form of a D-10 and a new free-trade agreement among democracies. Miller commented that Canada may be supportive of opening the G7 to observers, but said the consensus at the G7 summit was not yet in favor of expanding it into a D-10.

The final panel explored Canada’s unique contributions to transatlantic relations, including its promotion of pluralism, information sharing, reform of international institutions, and global development. This session featured Bruce Jones, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution; David Reed, British deputy high commissioner to Canada; and Ben Rowswell, president and research director at the Canadian International Council. In early remarks, Reed highlighted Canada as a critical and credible convener of democratic stakeholders, praising UK and Canadian efforts to build the Media Freedom Coalition, along with Canada’s leadership against arbitrary detentions. Rowswell then underscored the need for continued Canadian engagement with the Biden administration to reinvigorate democratic cooperation, though he emphasized engagement should be based on shared values, rather than linguistic or ex-imperial ties as a basis for liberal democratic institutions. Reed expressed his view that engagements between the Biden administration and Canada had been positive, particularly in the arena of climate change. He added that the United Kingdom and Canada have worked well together through mechanisms such as the Five Eyes, and he observed that cooperation with Canada on shared challenges has been most effective when it incorporates the broader transatlantic community. When asked about Canada’s engagement with non-Western democracies like India, Jones suggested that Canada is well positioned to engage these countries in habits of diplomatic coordination and cooperation. Jones contended that much of the world is tired of Western leadership, especially due to mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery. This could prove an obstacle to a revitalized leadership role for the transatlantic community.

In concluding remarks, Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Scowcroft Center, said a key takeaway from the discussion was that the ability of the transatlantic community, as well as democracies globally, to cooperate on shared assessments and strategies will be important for successfully navigating a renewed era of great-power competition. Patricia Peña closed the event by reiterating the need for Canada and its transatlantic partners to focus on areas of collaboration, such as climate change, COVID-19, and cybersecurity, rather than areas of policy divergence. She highlighted Canada’s desire to integrate historical context—including its own colonial legacy—in crafting forward-thinking transatlantic policy, and celebrated Canada’s commitment to multilateralism as it works to support democracy and the rule of law with partners and allies.

Overall, the event facilitated a rich and engaging discussion of key global challenges facing the transatlantic community, and served to highlight several cross-cutting themes. First, in an era of emerging strategic competition, the transatlantic alliance remains the bedrock of cooperation among leading democracies to counter authoritarianism and advance shared values. Second, China’s increasing propensity to disrupt—and, at times, directly undermine—the rules-based international order has become a top priority for the transatlantic community and will require strengthening democratic cooperation. Third, the return of the United States to a position of leadership and engagement with allies provides new opportunities to revitalize cooperation across a range of issues. Fourth, Canada has a particularly important role to play in fostering transatlantic cooperation and promoting new forms of multilateral engagement. Finally, while the transatlantic community is key, the scope of global challenges, including that of China, will require enhancing cooperation with other likeminded allies and partners, including in the Asia-Pacific.

Background and context

Note: This section was prepared by the Atlantic Council as a scene setter for participants ahead of the July 15 event. As such, it does not reference global events that have occurred since that time.

The state of transatlantic relations

As the transatlantic community emerges from the devastating impacts of the pandemic, it faces a harrowing array of global challenges. Authoritarianism worldwide is rising. Climate change continues to damage the planet. Ongoing economic uncertainty threatens to derail economic recovery from the COVID pandemic.

More profoundly, the world is entering a new era of strategic competition. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the democracies of North America, Europe, and Asia face a systemic challenge from authoritarian states looking to challenge, or even displace, the rules-based democratic order. China and Russia have become increasingly assertive on the world stage, and have demonstrated a willingness to violate the rules and norms that underpin the global system. As democracies looks to address these issues, they must simultaneously contend with disruptions at home as polarized electorates have created political dysfunction and widespread distrust of key democratic institutions.

In the face of these challenges, leading democracies have begun to position themselves to respond. As reflected by the G7, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and US-EU summits earlier this year, the United States has returned to the multilateral stage. The UK, post-Brexit, has emphasized the need for the transatlantic alliance to remain united. France and Germany, both bilaterally and through the European Union (EU), have sought to strengthen transatlantic efforts to tackle global challenges. And, Canada remains a key player in the transatlantic alliance, highlighting multilateral coordination while serving as a bridge for strategic cooperation with democratic partners in the Indo-Pacific.

The transatlantic community appears increasingly aligned in its assessment of common challenges. But, with differing views on specific priorities and policies, the path to transatlantic renewal remains uncertain. With the rules-based democratic order under threat, the United States, Europe, and Canada—in concert with other leading democracies in Asia and beyond—will need to act with determination and resolve to develop common approaches that pool their collective influence to successfully confront today’s challenges.

Fifth, Russia has aided and abetted a range of human rights abuses and has sought to prevent Western-led efforts to hold accountable those involved in war crimes. Moscow has blocked UN actions to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court following the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians, assisted Assad in his scorched-earth campaign to regain control of Aleppo, and used bunker-busting and incendiary bombs against the population in Aleppo. Furthermore Moscow prevented the establishment of an international tribunal to hold accountable those involved in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 in eastern Ukraine, an atrocity that killed 298 innocent civilians.

Strategic context

Following the allied victory in World War II, leading democracies across North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific constructed a rules-based order that has advanced economic and political stability through the promotion of collective security, a free-trade environment, and democratic norms. This order has proven highly successful, presiding over an unprecedented period of peace, prosperity, and freedom that has enabled hundreds of millions of people around the word to attain a better life. The central pillars that uphold this free and democratic order include the following.

  • A set of rules and norms that facilitate peaceful, predictable, and cooperative behavior among states. These include limits on the use of force, a respect for individual state sovereignty, mutual interest in a free and open trading system, and concern for human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.
  • Formal and informal entities that serve to propagate and enforce these norms. The United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO) function as all-inclusive entities for dialogue and dispute resolution. These are supplemented by more exclusive formal groupings such as NATO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), alongside informal bodies such as the G7 and Group of 20 (G20), which allow for closer coordination among likeminded states.
  • Powerful democratic states help preserve and defend the system. Democracies across North America, Europe, and Asia comprise core security alliances and are the leading members of the global economic institutions that underpin international stability. In this role, leading democracies have been able to champion and uphold democratic values all over the world.

While leading powers have not always consistently applied the rules of the global order—and, at times, violated the rules themselves—the global order has served as the basis for international institutions that advance cooperation around economics, governance, and global security.

An era of strategic competition

At the end of the Cold War, it appeared that the world was headed toward convergence around a liberal, democratic world order. But, in recent years, it has become clear that such a convergence remains a distant prospect. China and Russia have both taken increasingly assertive measures to push back against the principles founding the rules-based order. Both countries’ leaders see the rules-based democratic order as a potential threat to the legitimacy of their regimes and their desired spheres of influence—regionally and globally.3Matthew Kroenig, The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy versus Autocracy from the Ancient World to the U.S. and China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Russia has reemerged on the global stage as a serious challenger to the rule-based order. Putin sees Russia as a bulwark against liberal democracy, and has been willing to use deadly force to secure Russian interests in its near abroad. In 2008 and 2014, Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine, representing the largest territorial conquests in Europe since the end of World War II. Likewise, Russia has extended military and financial support to autocratic governments around the world, including Syria, Belarus, and Venezuela. In addition to overt state actions, Russian hackers have targeted governments and corporations across the free world, Russian oil companies have disrupted crucial energy supplies, and Russian mercenary groups have appeared in conflict zones around the globe, all seemingly at the behest of Moscow.

If Russia seeks to disrupt the order, China may be seeking to displace it. As China becomes more powerful, it appears increasingly willing to violate the liberal norms that underpin the rules-based system. Beijing has asserted its sovereignty across the whole of the South China Sea, marked by the “nine-dash line,” and appears ready to use military power to enforce this claim in a bid for regional hegemony.

On the economic front, China’s economic practices are contrary to established liberal economic norms. Chinese companies routinely steal intellectual property, and major Western companies are shut out of the Chinese market if they do not sufficiently appease Beijing. China’s model has admittedly achieved success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, and the Chinese Communist Party seems intent on promoting its system of authoritarian capitalism abroad.

Most distressingly, Beijing has violated human rights time and again. In Xinjiang, the Communist Party is orchestrating what many now consider to be a genocide against Uyghur Muslims in an attempt to forcibly assimilate them to Han culture. In Hong Kong, Beijing continues to erode democratic processes and freedoms, despite a clear treaty commitment under international law.

The challenges posed by China and Russia are setting the stage for a new period of strategic competition between free and unfree nations. These illiberal states, and others, like Iran, employ coercion, both economic and military, to pressure states within their spheres of influence to accept their prescribed policies—and, where that fails, often turn to military force outright. They also employ disinformation operations that look to subvert democratic elections and poison public discourse to further stoke polarization and sow chaos.

Despite often-competing interests, China and Russia are becoming increasingly aligned. They are conducting joint military exercises, working together on cyber capabilities, and coordinating their positions in international forums.4Stephen J. Hadley and Paula J. Dobriansky, Navigating the Growing Russia-China Strategic Alignment, Atlantic Council, June 29, 2020, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/content-series/strategic-insights-memos/navigating-the-growing-russia-china-strategic-alignment/. While it is unlikely that they form a deep and trusting alliance anytime soon, the ties between the two powers are growing, and “in virtually every dimension of their relationship—from the diplomatic to defense and economic to informational realms—cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has increased.”5Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership,” Center for New American Security, January 14, 2021, https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/navigating-the-deepening-russia-china-partnership.

Global challenges

In this context, a wide range of global challenges are threatening the stability and success of the rules-based democratic order. Among the most salient are the following.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has claimed millions of lives across the world and seriously disrupted the economic, social, and psychological wellbeing of people all over the globe. As many transatlantic nations look to rebound from the pandemic, the disease still ravages large parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific. Having vaccinated much of their own populations, leading democracies are also now turning to address the global fallout from the pandemic, and should expect ongoing disruptions to the international system until the disease has been contained worldwide.
  • Disruptive technologies. Emerging technology domains, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genetic engineering, 5G, and robotics, have the potential to dramatically reshape the global balance of power. If China and other authoritarian nations win the race to develop these technologies, they will be able shape the standards and norms around these technologies to their own benefit, in a manner that is incompatible with liberal values.
  • Nuclear proliferation and terrorism. North Korea continues to bolster its nuclear-weapons capabilities and poses a clear threat to South Korean and Japan, among others in the region. Meanwhile, Iran remains intent on developing a nuclear weapon, and maintains a ballistic-missile arsenal that is already among the most advanced in the Middle East. In addition, Iran continues to fund and support a network of militias and terrorist groups across the region.
  • The rise of authoritarianism. Last year, Freedom House recorded a fifteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom.6 Sarah Repucci, “Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” Freedom House, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy. Autocratic leaders in Belarus, Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere are strengthening control over their citizens in the face of popular unrest. Ruling regimes are banning opposition groups or imprisoning opposition leaders, while also cracking down on free media outlets. Technology is empowering a new form of authoritarian government. Modern surveillance capabilities allow authoritarian regimes unprecedented access and control over the personal lives of their citizens. China is at the leading edge of this technological authoritarianism, and looks to empower fellow autocrats with these technologies. Autocrats who rule by force and coercion have become “more adept—and daring—at building a parallel universe to the liberal democratic order.“7Before a New Iron Curtain Falls,” Washington Post, June 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/before-a-new-iron-curtain-falls/2016/06/07/1ada7386-2847-11e6-b989-4e5479715b54_story.html.
  • Global economic challenges. Authoritarian regimes, most notably China, are engaging in unfair trade practices that flout the rules of the global economy and present a critical challenge to the international system. Among these are protectionist measures, unfair subsidies, and the theft of intellectual property. At the same time, many in the democratic world have started to question the benefits of a free and open trading system. Wage stagnation, economic inequity, and the disruptive effects of trade have left many disenchanted with the current state of global engagement.
  • Climate change. Climate change is on the verge of becoming irreversible, and could result in lasting damage to the planet. Despite the Paris Climate agreement and other multilateral efforts to lower carbon emissions, the world is not on track to meet reduced emissions targets that will keep global warming below two degrees Celsius. The effects of a warmer climate are already clear as the frequency of violent storms increases, sea levels rise, and droughts become more common. If present trends continue, a growing number of refugees will flee areas that are no longer hospitable, and conflicts over natural resources will intensify.

Internal challenges

The rules-based system is also beset by significant internal challenges as societies polarize along economic and political lines. Globalization has produced tremendous wealth, which has been unevenly distributed between and within countries. Lower-skilled workers in developed countries have been particularly hard hit and have, by and large, revolted against the international system that has seen well-paying jobs shipped overseas. The divide between college-educated professionals and less educated workers has been exacerbated by immigration. Lower-skilled workers tend to see immigrants as possible competitors for jobs and a threat to traditional values and culture. By contrast, white-collar workers are more likely to accept immigrants as welcome additions who diversify society. In particular, migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war have disrupted politics in Europe and shifted European public opinion in a more anti-immigration direction.8Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, Present at the Recreation, Atlantic Council, October 30, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Present-at-the-Re-Creation.pdf.

Democracy itself is also under pressure. In recent years, the political support for populist politicians has soared in most major Western democracies, leading to democratic backsliding in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, and India. In the United States, more extreme political polarization is threatening to undermine faith in democratic elections and institutions, which, in turn, erodes trust in US leadership as a stable and consistent force for democratic norms and values. The rise of populist parties in Europe similarly casts doubt on Europe’s role as a staunch defender of democracy. While nations such as Canada, Australia, and Japan remain strong democratic societies, many in the developing world and elsewhere now have a tarnished view of the model of open market democracy that has proven so effective and inspiring throughout history.

Shared values and interests

Increasing transatlantic convergence

In the face of these challenges, the transatlantic community—including the United States, the UK, Canada, and nations across the European Union—appears to be increasingly aligned in its assessment of threats and determination to act. Shared concerns over Russia and China’s increasing authoritarianism are beginning to translate into a consensus among transatlantic allies on the need to prepare for an era of strategic competition. That is evident on several fronts.

First, leading democracies are increasingly on the same page in viewing the current state of affairs as a global competition between democratic and authoritarian systems of government. President Biden, in remarks at the 2021 Munich Security Conference, described the world as at an inflection point between “those who argue that autocracy is the best way forward” and “those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting [today’s] challenges.”9“Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference,” White House, February 19, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/02/19/remarks-by-president-biden-at-the-2021-virtual-munich-security-conference/. President Biden’s remarks on the autocratic challenge liberal democracies are facing were echoed by many European leaders speaking at the MSC Special Edition. See: Tobias Bunde, “Beyond Westlessness: A Readout from the Munich Security Conference Special Edition 2021,” Munich: Munich Security Conference, February 2021, https://doi.org/10.47342/NLUJ4791. Also at the Munich Security Conference, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a common agenda on China and Russia, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed “a coalition for openness and innovation” that would harness “the genius of open societies to flourish in an era of renewed competition.” Others, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron, signed onto a NATO communique that highlighted the “systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers” and the challenges to the rules-based system posed by China and Russia.10“Brussels Summit Communique,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 14, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm

Second, the transatlantic community appears relatively united in its concerns over Russian aggression. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, transatlantic allies have maintained a strong consensus on the need to punish Russia with economic sanctions, and to defend Ukraine from further Russian aggression. The United States, Canada, the UK, and the EU have continued to punish Russia with additional sanctions in response to cyberattacks, and have imposed fresh sanctions on Russian officials involved with the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader of Alexei Navalny. G7 leaders in June jointly called on Russia to “stop its destabilizing behavior and malign activities, including its interference in other countries’ democratic systems.”11“Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communique,” The White House, June 13, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/13/carbis-bay-g7-summit-communique/

Third, the transatlantic community is largely aligned on human-rights concerns in its dealings with China. Canada, the UK, the EU, and the United States have joined together in levying sanctions against Chinese officials involved with the internment and ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region. China has responded with sanctions of its own against US, Canadian, and EU politicians, prompting the European Union to stall the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). This marks a profound shift in EU policy toward China, which was previously more accommodating in order to secure economic benefit. Europe’s decision to sanction and stall the CAI brings it more in line with the United States and Canada, which have also enacted sanctions against Chinese officials involved with human-rights abuses in Hong Kong, and the imposition of the National Security Law. Furthermore, democratic governments have staked out a unified position against China’s practice of arbitrary detention. Canada, Germany, Sweden, the United States, and the UK were among fifty-seven nations to sign a declaration denouncing China’s arbitrary detention of foreign nationals. Notably, China had been detaining two Canadian citizens, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were arrested in 2018 in what Canada says is an act of retaliation for its imprisonment of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer (CFO) of Huawei and daughter of its founder, on charges of fraud. Spavor had been working for the International Crisis Group in Hong Kong, and Kovrig for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that organizes exchange programs in North Korea.12Both were released by China in September 2021, immediately following the release of Meng and after the US Department of Justice agreed to defer her prosecution.

Fourth, the transatlantic community has been working together to address the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, the G7 recently pledged one billion COVID-19 vaccines for developing nations. The nations of North America and Western Europe have, by and large, contained the pandemic and are increasingly resuming normal life. In sharp contrast to Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy, the G7 will not look to extract concessions from recipient countries in exchange for vaccines. The G7 effort to vaccinate the rest of the world is guided by humanitarian principles and a desire to see normal global trade flows rebound.

Fifth, transatlantic allies are increasingly concerned with the technological threats, and have expressed a greater willingness to work together to construct and defend critical technologies.“13EU-US launch Trade and Technology Council to Lead Values-Based Global Digital Transformation,” European Commission, June 15, 2021, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_21_2990. After much debate, many nations within the EU bloc now recognize the risks associated with Huawei, and a common stance is emerging. While many European nations were initially reticent to ban or remove Huawei technology from their network infrastructure, the UK and France are now closely monitoring Huawei and plan to completely remove the company’s technology from their wireless networks in the coming years. Germany, a notable holdout on Huawei among European powers, also recently signed a new national security law that allows the government to veto deals with untrustworthy technology suppliers. European nations have not gone so far as to join the United States in sanctioning Huawei, but they are increasingly alert to the dangers. The same can be said for Canada, which has not officially banned Huawei from its networks but is not including any Huawei equipment in the construction of its 5G network.14David Ljunggren, “Canada Has Effectively Moved to Block China’s Huawei from 5G, but Can’t Say So,” Reuters,August 25, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-canada-huawei-analysis-idUSKBN25L26S.

In a further sign of strategic alignment around technology, new institutions are being set up to facilitate multilateral cooperation. Recently, the United States and the EU launched a Trade and Technology Council with the goal of cooperating around technology policy and regulation, investment guidelines, and standards for emerging technologies. The council will involve multiple bilateral working groups to address these issues, and will work in parallel with the new Joint Technology Competition Policy Dialogue that seeks to regulate competition and enforcement policies in the technology sector. Separately, the G7’s artificial-intelligence (AI) working group, jointly launched by Canada and France, aims to create norms and standards for AI that accord with longstanding democratic principles.

Sixth, global infrastructure development is becoming an emerging area of transatlantic alignment. At the most recent UK Summit, G7 leaders announced the Build Back Better World Initiative, which will seek to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by providing developing nations with another source of funding for critical infrastructure projects. The plan will direct investment from the private sector toward projects in developing nations. The specifics of the plan are still not yet clear, but the G7’s willingness to develop what could eventually become an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative is indicative of shared concern over China’s intentions in the developing world.

Finally, a consensus is developing among transatlantic allies on the need to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific. For many years, the United States has conducted freedom-of-navigation operations through the South China Sea as a part of defending the global commons. Canada and leading democracies in Europe are also redoubling their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The French Navy routinely patrols in the Indo-Pacific, and the UK, Canada, and Germany likewise intend to increase operations in the region.

The Royal Navy’s newest carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, has been dispatched to the region and will sail through the contested waters of the South China Sea. Similarly, Germany plans to sail a warship through the South China Sea in August. The growing importance of these operations among other democratic powers signals to China that the democratic nations are converging over a commitment to free and open travel.

But continuing areas of divergence.

Still, there are significant cleavages among transatlantic allies on important issues. The most significant are on China. Although transatlantic policy toward China has begun to converge, there are still major fault lines. Germany, in particular, remains committed to extensive economic engagement with China, while the United States and China continue to have economic disputes. The Chinese crackdown on the ride-hailing app DIDI, just days after it went public on the New York Stock Exchange, is the latest in a clear trend of disengagement. Some European leaders have also expressed an interest in reviving the CAI, and may be persuaded to do so despite US objections.

Another area of potential divergence relates to the notion of European “strategic autonomy.” French President Emmanuel Macron has been a strong proponent of the concept, which has the potential to seriously complicate close coordination across the Atlantic. While greater strategic autonomy for Europe may reduce European dependence on US military might and make the EU a more equal partner, it may also prompt the EU to chart its own course, separate from the rest of the Western world. Some European nations have identified digital autonomy from the United States and China as an important policy goal, which could imperil prospects for deeper collaboration around technology. The EU is specifically looking to assert itself as a global regulator for technology, despite lacking major homegrown technology firms. While the Biden administration has ended some Donald Trump-era tariffs on European exports to the United States, and even resolved a long-standing trade dispute between Boeing and Airbus, digital regulation may remain a large stumbling block.15Jennifer Hillman and Alex Tippett, “Biden’s Trade Policy for the Middle Class Takes Shape—And it Begins in Europe,” Council On Foreign Relations, June 18, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/bidens-trade-policy-middle-class-takes-shape-and-it-begins-europe.

Internal divergences within the EU offer another layer of complexity in reaching agreement on strategic direction. As previously noted, EU nations have maintained a remarkably strong consensus on deterring Russian aggression through sanctions, but Germany and France have begun to advocate for greater engagement with Russia, despite the objections of Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and the Baltics. These disagreements recently became clear as Eastern European EU member states—supported by others, including the Netherlands—blocked a proposal by Germany and France for an early summit meeting with President Putin. This dispute coincides with the upcoming completion of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, which Germany has again supported over fierce opposition from Eastern Europe, and many in Western Europe as well.

A broader concern about the sustainability of transatlantic cooperation relates to the role of the United States itself. While the Biden administration is avowedly internationalist and multilateral, a change in US leadership could again alter the stance of US foreign policy in a unilateral direction. European allies are no doubt reassured by the Biden administration’s outreach, but still harbor doubts about the United States’ long-term commitment to international obligations and the international system.

Opportunities for transatlantic renewal

Key priorities on the transatlantic agenda

Given the challenges facing the democratic world, there are several areas ripe for transatlantic cooperation. A top priority is the continuing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leading democracies should follow through swiftly on their commitments at the G7 to provide vaccines to the developing world, while continuing to coordinate on economic measures to rebuild the global economy in light of the fallout from the pandemic.

The second is more coordinated resistance to aggression from autocratic nations. In response to China and Russia’s growing assertiveness, Western democracies have relied primarily on sanctions and other measures that are imposed through multilateral frameworks like the G7 or coordinated bilaterally. However, up until this point, there has not been a strategy that incorporates the “whole of the free world” to push back against authoritarian powers. The transatlantic community, together with the G7 or a potential D-10, should devise a holistic framework that bolsters the capabilities of democracies to confront authoritarian nations that violate the tenants of the global order, while also seeking areas of cooperation with authoritarian regimes on issues of common concern, with the ultimate goal of achieving a more stable and predictable relationship.16Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, From the G7 to a D-10: Strengthening Democratic Cooperation for Today’s Challenges, Atlantic Council, June 8, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/From-the-G7-to-a-D10-Strengthening-Democratic-Cooperation-for-Todays-Challenges.pdf.

Technology cooperation is another issue where the transatlantic community should prioritize deeper coordination. Leading democracies should develop a common strategic agenda on technology governance, to develop and enforce norms and standards consistent with liberal values. A core group of leading democracies can spearhead the effort to ensure that democracies avoid strategic dependence on autocratic rivals for sensitive technologies, and that they succeed in the innovation race around critical technologies.

Fourth, the transatlantic community, in coordination with other leading democracies from around the world, should attempt to develop a revised global economic architecture—a new Bretton Woods—that is more capable of producing and enforcing mutually beneficial global trade agreements. This framework should emphasize free and fair trade that directly improves the wellbeing of the poor and middle class in the democratic world, as well as the world as a whole.

Finally, the transatlantic community should look to prioritize cooperative solutions to the climate crisis. Sustainable progress on climate change will require agreement among all major emitters, including China. But, democracies can play a proactive role in galvanizing climate coordination by working together to shape the rules of trade governing carbon-intensive goods.17James A. Baker III, George P. Shultz, and Ted Halstead, “The Strategic Case for US Climate Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-13/strategic-case-us-climate-leadership. The transatlantic community can help coordinate climate strategy to align policies among leading democracies and drive ambition to combat climate change and collectively advance green technologies.

Engaging democracies in Asia and beyond

Historically, institutions such as NATO, the G7, and other bilateral and multilateral forums have facilitated transatlantic cooperation. However, today’s global security challenges will require closer coordination among democracies around the world, and especially between leading democracies across the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific.

The free world retains a preponderance of global power, and it will be essential that these nations collectively mobilize resources to reinforce the rules, norms, and institutions of the global system.18Jain and Kroenig, Present at the Re-Creation. The United States retains the world’s largest military and economy, and its role in the world will be central in upholding the rule-based order. Other leading democracies, such as Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy are also among the ten largest world economies and serve as complementary anchors in maintaining a stable global order. Likewise, Japan, Australia, and South Korea are the linchpins of democratic support in the Asia-Pacific, and look set to play a greater role in defending the system from China’s authoritarian challenge.

The existing multilateral structures on their own are not sufficient to address the full scope of global challenges facing democracies across North America, Europe, and Asia. To succeed in this new era, the United States, Canada, and Europe will have to work with Indo-Pacific allies and partners to produce new formal and informal institutions that reflect the evolving distribution of global power. This could include
an expanded G7, a new D-10 as proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and other entities aimed at improving strategic alignment and coordination among likeminded democracies that share an interest in a strong and stable rules-based democratic order.


Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic community has been the bedrock upon which the rules-based international order has flourished and was essential in defending the free world from the threat of Soviet communism. While the balance of power has shifted dramatically since the end of the Cold War, the transatlantic alliance still has an important role to play. Despite major policy differences in recent years, the transatlantic alliance has proven so durable because of a shared commitment to democratic values, freedom, and human rights. In the new global competition between autocracy and democracy, the transatlantic community should once again look to coalesce around shared principles, reach out to the democratic nations of Asia, and assert itself as a defender of the rules-based international order.

This report was compiled by Ash Jain and Joel Kesselbrenner.