Home The Washington Diplomat June 2008 Council President: Atlantic Alliance Key to Confronting Global Problems

Council President: Atlantic Alliance Key to Confronting Global Problems


Frederick Kempe, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council of the United States, is not a travel agent but he does have a few suggestions on the itinerary for the first overseas trip of the next U.S. president.

Kempe thinks that after settling into the White House and getting the new administration up and running, the next president should board Air Force One and fly to Brussels, the political capital of Europe. After some serious talks there, the American leader should then travel to Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and London.

Kempe told The Washington Diplomat that the purpose of these visits should not be courtesy calls or photo opportunities, but substantive talks with our most important allies to assess the world’s main challenges and develop a bold American-European plan to tackle them.

“It’s hard to name an issue in which the Atlantic community’s greater cooperation and consensus is not a precondition for solving the issue. Closer U.S.-European coordination won’t save the world, but it’s a precondition for saving the world,” Kempe said. “When the new American president meets with Europe’s leaders, the attitude should be: Let’s take on the great global issues of our time and let’s do it together.”

Kempe heads up the Atlantic Council of the United States, a nearly 50-year-old organization devoted to improving transatlantic relations. A reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal for a quarter century before assuming the presidency of the Atlantic Council at the end of 2006, Kempe brings to his work a deep interest in U.S. and European foreign policy as well as a flair for running the prestigious think tank.

Reporting and writing in the heart of Europe during the final phase of the Cold War convinced Kempe that together, Europe and America can be a powerful force for good. “I saw what happened when the United States was purposeful and when the United States was determined to assist democratic forces against Soviet repression,” he said. “I saw the power of the U.S. to change history when combined with other members of the free world, in this case our European allies. I learned as a journalist the power of America to change the world for the better with its allies.”

And today, American power is being tested more than ever by a host of thorny international problems — among them, the unabated violence in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Pakistan’s instability, Afghanistan’s fragility, the rise of China and India, Russia’s assertiveness, climate change and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

To confront these pressing issues, Kempe said the next administration must bolster relations with Europe and renew the Atlantic alliance, recognizing that Europe is not a stodgy, backward-looking region, but the locus of one of history’s most innovative experiments in governance — which is still unfolding.

“The most exciting thing about Europe is that it’s in a critical moment of self-definition,” Kempe said. “It is the largest economic area in the world and it’s going through a dramatic period of self-definition. Is it going to be more free market or not? How democratic is it going to be? How federal? Where are its borders? Where does Europe begin and end — Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus?”

Kempe suggested that U.S. policymakers have a tendency to get frustrated with Europe because they are confused by the many different levers of power and various institutions that make up the European Union.

“But historically the U.S. has done the best when it has realized that while working with Europe is not the easiest thing in the world, not working together with Europe has far greater costs. We should engage with Europe on every critical issue. Whether the 21st century goes well or badly will be determined in a lot of ways by Europe.”

Kempe outlined three ways in which the next president could strengthen transatlantic political ties. First, he or she should take advantage of new leadership in key European nations, specifically France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Britain’s Gordon Brown, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. “All of these leaders have strong Atlanticist orientations,” Kempe noted. “Bilaterally, there is a new moment for the next American president.”

Kempe believes the next U.S. president should also engage more effectively — and willingly — with the EU. “This town still doesn’t understand the importance of the EU,” he lamented. “Some people in Washington just wish it would go away. But it won’t. It’s getting more strategic and more involved in security issues. We should be engaging more with the EU on security issues. We have to form a strategic relationship with the EU.”

Finally, on the security front, the U.S. president should pay careful attention to NATO, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. “NATO is the U.S.’s institutional link to Europe. For all of its downsides, it’s the most successful security alliance in the world. We need a new strategic concept with NATO for the 21st century. We now have an outmoded strategic concept,” Kempe said.

The continuing war in Afghanistan is, and will remain, a serious burden for both the United States and NATO. Despite some progress under President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan still accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium production, and the illicit drug industry in that nation makes up some 40 percent of Afghanistan’s billion economy.

Kempe conceded that the relief and reconstruction work now under way in Afghanistan is confused and disjointed. About 60 countries are working inside Afghanistan, including 37 that are providing troops, but progress has stalled and the security situation has deteriorated.

“Afghanistan is going wrong and we’re standing by and watching it. The trend lines are not positive. And it’s not NATO’s fault, but NATO will get blamed. There are senior military leaders who believe that at this time next year, Afghanistan will be a larger problem than Iraq,” Kempe said.

“I don’t think Afghanistan is an existential test for NATO, but it is an existential test for the Western community. NATO is responsible for the military part of this, but the military part will not solve the problems of Afghanistan,” he added.

Most experts agree that the transatlantic alliance went through a difficult period during the final years of the Clinton administration, and it has been in a state of near crisis during the last seven years under President George W. Bush.

Kempe cited deep skepticism among Europeans of President Bush after his breezy dismissal of the Kyoto Protocol, his rejection of multilateral diplomacy on Iraq, and his Texas swagger that’s often dismissive about the virtues of diplomacy in general.

But Kempe contends that the Bush criticism has served, in part, as a distraction from Europe’s own foreign policy failings and the lack of progress in reaching unified EU positions over the past seven years. Kempe argues that Europeans continue to spend too little to defend themselves or project security elsewhere, and they haven’t addressed their most serious challenges, which range from Islamist extremism to Russia’s combative and assertive energy policy.

Europeans, however, are clearly hopeful that the next U.S. president will launch a new conversation with European leaders on how to renew and reshape the Atlantic alliance. Kempe believes this optimism for the future is mostly positive, but he fears that European expectations could become too high and that long-standing tensions could easily resurface between the United States and Europe.

“The new administration will face the same Europe that has difficulty reaching decisions and the same Europe that can’t spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense,” he charged. “There is a possibility of a short honeymoon period and then new difficulty because we tend to see the world differently.”

To that end, Kempe wants the Atlantic Council to help bridge the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean and play a role in revitalizing this historic alliance. Created nearly half a century ago and newly energized under Kempe’s leadership, the Atlantic Council promotes U.S. leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community in meeting the global challenges of the 21st century.

The council boasts an impressive roster of world leaders and experts who participate in nonpartisan and cross-national discussions and studies. These programs range from public events and off-the-record briefings to working groups and research reports with international political, military and business leaders, as well as educational and exchange programs for future leaders. (See April 28, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch to read about the 2008 Atlantic Council Awards Dinner featuring honorees such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch.)

The message behind all of the council’s work is that the transatlantic alliance is no longer as simple as U.S.-Western European relations. Rather, the U.S.-European partnership has a central part to play in conflicts from Iraq and Afghanistan to issues such as climate change and global financial markets.

That worldview has resulted in significant policy expansions at the council, including an Asia program to focus on issues such as North Korea and Cross-Straits dialogue between China and Taiwan, as well as an energy and environment program to examine energy security and global warming — all with an eye on how Europe and the United States can overcome differences and address these challenges together.

“We’re trying to create the ideas around the most critical issues and we’re trying to create the networks that can deal with these ideas and issues,” Kempe said. “If you want a more engaged U.S. working multilaterally, it has to start with Europe. If you don’t get that alliance right, other things won’t work.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.