The West has cause to rejoice as this century draws to a close. The fundamental ideological and geopolitical cleavages of past decades are no more. Democracy and capitalism have triumphed over fascism and communism, and this ERA’s three revanchist powers—Germany, Japan, and Russia—are quiescent. Regional disputes that festered for years, such as those in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, are moving toward resolution. And the world economy is growing more liberal and vibrant as old markets expand and new ones come on line.

But the West is not celebrating. Without the Cold War to induce unity, politics among and within the liberal democracies are fragmented and disoriented. In the Bosnian conflict, the West remained paralyzed until the United States wrested control of the diplomatic process. Voters across Western Europe and North America are in a foul temper, profoundly weakening their governments. Politicians and analysts alike bemoan the West’s identity crisis and the breakdown of civic democracy; last September even President Bill Clinton admitted that America had descended into a ‘funk.’

To reverse this trend and breathe new life into the established democracies of the West, its leaders are seeking to broaden and deepen the collaborative institutions that served the Atlantic community so well during the Cold War. The European Union (EU) is persisting in its quest for a federal Europe while at the same time opening its doors to the continent’s new democracies. The borders of NATO are expected gradually to stretch eastward, ensuring America’s engagement in Europe and defending an enlarged democratic community.

Despite their good intentions, these leaders have embarked on a course that will lead to the demise, not the renewal, of the West. They are trying to broaden the community of peaceful, democratic nations even as they deepen it. But if enlargement is to be both politically feasible and strategically desirable, they must first loosen the West’s structures. Were the Soviet Union still around to fuel integration, a federal EU might make sense, but plans for monetary union, a common foreign and security policy, and centralized governance of Europe are Cold War legacies that will founder as states resist further attempts to whittle away their sovereignty. Worse still, the futile push toward federalism will distract the EU from its most urgent mission: enlargement to the east. Meanwhile, NATO is misdirecting its energies into a heated debate over when and how to admit new members from Central Europe, failing to recognize that the problem lies in the very nature of the alliance, not its membership. NATO’s formality and the rigor of its territorial guarantees are no longer necessary or politically sustainable.

Unless the EU and NATO undertake fundamental reform, they risk coming apart just as they draw within reach of their historic mission to unite Europe under the banner of democracy and peace. The excessive ambition of the current policies will undermine the transatlantic community as member states attempt to escape unwanted responsibilities. To preserve and enlarge the West, leaders must scale back their vision and match institutional commitments to political realities.

The solution to the West’s troubles is an Atlantic Union (AU) that would subsume both organizations. The EU would abandon its federal aspirations and concentrate on the extension of its single market east to Central Europe and west to North America. NATO would become the new group’s defense arm, but its binding commitments to the collective defense of state borders would give way to more relaxed commitments to uphold collective security through peace enforcement, peacekeeping, and preventive diplomacy. The au could then open its doors to the new democracies of Central Europe in a manner acceptable to both Russia and the commitment-weary electorates of the current NATO countries. Once democracy takes root in Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union, the AU would include them in its security structures and single market. A looser but more comprehensive transatlantic union would ensure that the bridge between North America and an enlarged Europe rests on solid economic and political trestles, not just increasingly weak strategic ones.

An AU would sacrifice depth for breadth, but it would lock in, and eventually extend, perhaps the most profound transformation of this century: the creation of a community of democratic nation-states among which war is unthinkable. The Western democracies have built much more than an alliance of convenience among countries each out for individual gain. They enjoy unprecedented levels of trust and reciprocity and share a political order based on capitalist economies and liberal societies.ffi The consolidation and expansion of this democratic core holds the greatest promise for a stable peace in the Atlantic region and beyond, and it is a sensible and prudent starting point as the United States casts about for a new grand strategy.


Deeper European integration has lost not only its popular appeal, but its strategic purpose. A Europe-only single market, even if good for its member states in the short run, will likely harm the global economy. Although the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum also aim to promote regional integration, they differ from the EU in one crucial respect: the United States links the two regions through its membership in APEC and its participation in NAFTA. As trade within North America and among the Pacific Rim countries increases and becomes more liberal, so will trade between the two regions. In contrast, if the EU forges ahead with a single market, single currency, and central bank, it jeopardizes Europe’s integration into the global economy. The enlargement of the union would make this drift all the more likely as the influx of goods from Central Europe threatened producers in Western Europe, generating new pressures for protection from non-EU imports.

That the current plans for a deeper Europe are unraveling is, therefore, not all bad. Meeting the 1992 Maastricht Treaty’s economic criteria for monetary union—particularly the requirement that each nation maintain a budget deficit not greater than three percent of GDP—before the end of the century is becoming increasingly unrealistic for key EU members, including France and Germany. President Jacques Chirac has committed France to increased monetary and fiscal discipline, but his vow to reduce unemployment and bolster stagnant wages will likely take precedence, especially after the paralyzing strikes of late 1995. Even in Germany, the engine behind integration, the budget deficit may remain above the Maastricht ceiling. Moreover, less than 40 percent of the German electorate favors currency union, largely because the deutsche mark remains a powerful symbol of national identity.

Even if France and Germany somehow clear Maastricht’s hurdles, the costs of formally dividing the EU into the haves and the have-nots outweigh the gains. Proponents argue that monetary union will guarantee the integrity of the Paris-Bonn axis. But France and Germany are mature democracies, and their relationship is just fine despite separate currencies. Monetary union may even lead to new strains as the austerity measures it requires dampen sorely needed economic growth. As for the rest of Europe, a multitiered EU will create new fault lines and undermine the member states’ sense of common destiny. Wealthier EU members will not bring along their poorer neighbors as they did in the past. The pie for aid is shrinking even as claims on it promise to balloon. Germany, for one, is unlikely to continue chipping in almost one-third of the EU budget as it absorbs the costs of reunification, seeks to remain competitive in the global economy, and accommodates an aging population. Despite the talk of concentric circles and widening cores, monetary union promises to leave Europe’s poorer periphery just where it is.

Political integration has lagged considerably behind progress on the economic front, ensuring that the Maastricht agenda will be more a mantra than a map. Europeans are not, and may never be, ready to move from a fundamentally intergovernmental union to one that smacks of federalism. The hallmark of a federal system is a legitimate, representative political arena that operates above individual states. The European Parliament, however, is still without real legislative authority and remains a forum for speechmaking, not decision-making. The European Commission continues to churn out proposals for greater political integration, but most have to be approved at the national level. Opinion polls reveal that Europeans are at best ambivalent about further encroachments on national sovereignty, with less than half supporting a single currency.

The Maastricht Treaty envisioned a common foreign and security policy, but the outlook is bleak. The Western European Union (WEU), the Europe-only defense organization that has effectively lain dormant since its inception in 1948, is supposed to develop the capability to operate independently of NATO and intends ultimately to extend collective defense guarantees to states that have recently joined the EU or expect to in the future. But absent a unifying Soviet threat, the security interests of European states are drifting apart, not coming together. The failure of Europe’s security institutions to take effective and timely steps to stop the slaughter in Bosnia made clear that the continent’s security is now divisible. Which EU members, for example, would today defend the Finnish border against a Russian attack, a task to which all should be committed in principle since Finland entered the EU last year?

The EU’s plans for simultaneous widening make these obstacles only more formidable. Integrating the economies of the new democracies into the EU would bloat the organization’s budget and pit Central and Southern Europe against each other in a competition for regional development funds. Because of Central Europe’s sizable farming sector, the eastward enlargement of the union would, thanks to the Common Agricultural Policy’s price supports and export subsidies, burden the EU with enormous outlays. Swelling the EU to twice its present membership would also, by complicating decision-making, put an end to Maastricht’s already unrealistic political agenda. A common foreign and security policy that would reconcile the interests of some 30 states, for example, would be out of the question.

By so overreaching, the EU risks two missteps of geopolitical consequence. Its pursuit of a federal Europe will come at the expense of the far more important task of eastward expansion. The tighter the internal structures, the higher the hurdles for entry. The more energy and resources expended in deepening, the less left over for widening. Enlargement would require reform of the EU’s cumbersome decision-making procedures, expensive agricultural subsidies, and regional development program. But delaying the inclusion of the new democracies in Europe’s markets and councils while the EU pursues an illusory dream of federalism would miss a historic opportunity to widen the continent’s zone of democracy and peace. States undergoing transition to democracy are particularly prone to instability and conflict, and the allure of acceptance into the West would provide East European leaders with a powerful incentive to keep political and economic reform on track. Though less urgent, the westward expansion of the single market to include North America would serve as a bulwark against Europe’s drift from the global economy.

The EU’s unrealistic objectives could also jeopardize Western Europe’s significant progress toward an integrated community of democracies. Trying to do more risks overburdening institutions and triggering a backlash among nation-states bristling at what electorates will view as unjustified and unwanted infringements on national sovereignty. If it continues to cling to a vision its member states will summarily reject, the organization will suffer irreparable damage. The EU should consolidate its achievements rather than gamble for more and risk Europe’s undoing in the process.


Current schemes for NATO enlargement are equally fanciful and dangerous. Because NATO is a traditional military alliance—a concentration of power against a common external threat—its extension would impel Russia to marshal a countervailing coalition. NATO enlargement would resurrect, not erase, the dividing line between Europe’s east and west. It would also erode NATO from within as current members balked at assuming new responsibilities in the face of shrinking strategic threats. As for the argument that NATO assures American engagement in Europe, the declining importance of defense policy means that if the transatlantic partnership is to remain intact, America’s primary institutional tie to Europe cannot be merely an outmoded military alliance.

NATO must take the lead in consolidating a democratic peace in Central Europe and incorporating the region into a meaningful security structure. But this initiative need not and should not entail its eastward expansion as a Cold War military alliance. The formal extension of the mutual defense provisions of Article V of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty would irk Russia and leave in limbo those states to the east of NATO’s new boundary. An America that is increasingly turning inward will also take exception to the formality and potential cost of extending NATO’s territorial guarantees to the new democracies of Central Europe.

The risks of enlarging NATO as a traditional military alliance might be justified were a major external threat to the Central European states to arise. But Russia is neither interested in nor capable of mounting such a threat. Moscow does not protest NATO’s increasing engagement with Europe’s east. It has joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace—the 1994 initiative that promoted military cooperation with the former Warsaw Pact nations but stopped short of offering them formal membership—watched passively as NATO troops conducted exercises with local forces in Poland and the Czech Republic, sent its troops to the United States to train with American forces, and agreed to put its soldiers under NATO command in all but name to enforce the Dayton accord in Bosnia. But Russia justifiably objects to the formal enlargement of a Western military bloc from which it would be excluded.

Electorates in the NATO countries are happy to see their militaries collaborate with former adversaries. However, in light of the rancorous debate that followed President Clinton’s decision to send U.S. troops to Bosnia, the American people and their representatives are not likely to respond favorably when asked to extend ironclad defense guarantees to countries they could not locate on a map. If it stakes its future on moving east, only to have its plans shot down by the public, NATO would be dealt a crippling blow.


America belongs in Europe, and Central Europe belongs in the West. But if Western leaders are to achieve these aims, they must first strike a balance between an institutional structure that demands too much and falls prey to overextension and one that delivers too little and atrophies from irrelevance. They must also make sure that strategic matters are no longer divorced from economic considerations. The strategic link between America and Europe will wither if it is not embedded in a broader political and economic framework.

An Atlantic Union that would incorporate the EU, the WEU, and NATO fulfills these criteria. The initial members of the AU would be the current members of these three organizations. The AU would then expand at a steady pace not just to Central Europe, but also to Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union. The infrastructure of the EU and NATO would serve as a ready foundation for the AU. States joining the AU would take on three basic commitments: to introduce a single market, to uphold collective security, and to expand political engagement at the transnational level.

Calls for the negotiation of a free trade area encompassing North America and Western Europe have already surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic. Part of the impetus comes from economic prospects; the removal of today’s barriers would, by 2000, increase transatlantic trade by at least 20 percent. The introduction of a single market would likely be accompanied by an investment protocol and more convergence on regulations and standards, increasing the flow of capital and prompting industrial restructuring in Europe and North America. It would also prevent both areas from drifting toward protectionism and emerging as regional trade blocs. The United States would then serve as the pivot of an integrated global economy, connecting the transatlantic free trade zone with that of the Pacific Rim.

The most potent appeal of the Atlantic Union’s single market is, however, its political significance. The conclusion of the Uruguay Round of negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade reduced trade barriers in most sectors to minimum levels, and the EU and the United States agreed at their summit in Madrid last November to pursue a host of follow-up measures. The elimination of all impediments would threaten powerful sectors such as agriculture and textiles and thus would call for heavy lifting. But just as the introduction of a single market in Europe made borders more porous, facilitated political integration, and promoted a sense of common identity, so would the creation of a single Atlantic market strengthen the underpinnings of the community of North American and European democracies. Winning congressional approval of a transatlantic free trade zone would not be easy, but a high-profile debate that connected America’s prosperity to Europe’s fate would drive home to Americans that they share a unique political space with Europeans.

The Atlantic Union’s commitments to collective security would be looser and less automatic than NATO’s assurances, removing the key stumbling block to a broader Western security community. The organization would replace NATO’s emphasis on collective territorial defense with a focus on peacekeeping and peace enforcement; confronting external threats as well as those that might arise from within, it would coordinate multilateral operations across Europe. Members would affirm their intention to solve conflicts peacefully whenever possible and, when necessary, to use military force to defend against common threats. Case-by-case decision-making and a broad mandate to preserve peace in the Atlantic area would be the organizing principles of a new U.S.-European security bargain and a revamped NATO. The elimination of NATO’s Article V guarantee would weaken the alliance’s deterrent power, but as long as Russia continues to pose no danger to Central or Western Europe, the tradeoff makes sense.

Under the guise of the AU, a transformed NATO could soon take in the new democracies of Central Europe without appearing anti-Russian. Limited collective security commitments would provide Central Europeans with some, but not all, of the assurance they seek. American troops would stay in Europe. NATO’s existing infrastructure would be preserved. Militaries in the new democracies would continue the planning and exercising already begun through the Partnership for Peace, furthering their integration into the Western security community and their ability to cooperate with the forces of current NATO members. But this steady integration would occur quietly, avoiding the political histrionics that would make the admission of new members to today’s NATO so problematic. To be sure, the new arrangements would involve a sleight of hand. Central Europe, via AU membership, would secure a place under the West’s protective umbrella. But couching new commitments in a broader political context and making them contingent on strategic circumstances and less formal would render Central Europe’s early inclusion in the West far more palatable to Russia as well as to electorates in the NATO countries. Central European states would get to join the club, even if that club proves to be less exclusive and selective than the new entrants would like.

Merging NATO and the EU also permits a broader definition of Europe’s boundaries. Because NATO is still a formal military alliance, only countries deemed of sufficient strategic value will ultimately be eligible for membership. Therefore, some argue that NATO expansion should not extend beyond Poland and the Czech Republic, the two countries that occupy the main corridor between Russia and Western Europe. But this approach would leave much of Central Europe out in the cold. In contrast, states would join the AU as they demonstrate a commitment to democracy, markets, and international norms of behavior, offering the prospect of inclusion to all of Central Europe as well as the former Soviet Union. A pan-European collective security system could become a reality, not just rhetoric to placate Russia as Poland enters a NATO everyone knows will never go farther east. At the same time, should Russian democracy falter, the AU’s military infrastructure could serve as the foundation for a new, enlarged anti-Russian alliance.

Finally, merging NATO with the EU and the WEU avoids a looming crisis over the responsibilities of these institutions. The three already have incongruent memberships that will grow only more inconsistent should they pursue their respective enlargement plans. If, as in the most likely scenario, the EU and the WEU incorporate ten or more Central European countries while NATO stops after accepting only three or four, the United States and its main European partners would no longer share parallel strategic commitments on the continent. The AU, on the other hand, would keep American and European commitments in step, preserving the sense of common purpose that undergirds the Atlantic community.

Regardless of how far east the AU ultimately reaches, its major powers should form a directorate that will prevent the body from becoming unwieldy. A small, flexible forum in which the major powers could forge a consensus, this directorate would guide the AU on both military and economic matters. The absence of a formal mechanism for great power leadership has prevented the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from fulfilling its potential. Moreover, an informal concert of major states already calls the shots on the continent. The Contact Group formed to seek a settlement in Bosnia comprised the United States, Germany, France, Britain, and Russia. In practice, both NATO and the EU function through the fashioning of agreement among their leading members. A major power directorate at the core of the AU would only formalize present realities, while making possible effective decision-making and timely collective action.

The final pillar of an Atlantic Union is deepened civic engagement on the transnational level. Civic society among nation-states emerges from political participation and community association, just as it does within nation-states. If the Atlantic community is to survive and prosper, its citizens must share a sense of belonging not only to their national states, but also to a transnational political space that the Western democracies inhabit. The legitimacy that the institutions of the EU enjoy in member states, for instance, is not just a function of the services they provide. It is also a reflection of the degree to which Europe has come to compete with the nation-state as a defining element of individual identity and allegiance.

The Cold War bequeathed to the West a rich network of public institutions and associations as well as private enterprises and groups that transcend national boundaries. Thickening this network so that it becomes the enduring social and political fabric of an Atlantic Union entails several tasks. The European Parliament should be enlarged into an Atlantic Parliament and charged with providing legislative oversight of the union. National parliaments would retain the lion’s share of legislative authority, but handing a substantive portfolio of responsibilities to a transatlantic parliament would nurture a Western political identity that would complement national loyalties. The Atlantic Parliament’s duties would include designing the AU’s budget, aligning American and European social policies, and developing union-wide laws and regulations.

Public and private groups should encourage the flowering of the many forms of transatlantic association—business contacts, religious and cultural activities, social causes, and leisure activities. These associations will intensify citizens’ engagement in and identification with a transatlantic polity. Educational and vocational exchanges and scientific and industrial cooperation should also be promoted. Finally, Western governments should launch ambitious education campaigns to inform their electorates of the importance of public engagement in preserving and widening the transatlantic community. The West is unraveling in part because it lacks the defining images and projects that galvanize domestic polities. Constructing an Atlantic Union of democracies will not call up the same sense of collective commitment and sacrifice as the struggle against communism. Yet it need not. Bold leadership in laying out a vision of a peaceful, prosperous union of Atlantic democracies and proceeding with the necessary institutional innovations will suffice to wean citizens away from domestic preoccupations and inspire them to construct a new West.


To make the renovation of the West a priority of U.S. foreign policy is not to demote other regions or indicate that the Western democracies should prepare to do battle against them. On the contrary, consolidating the transformation of the Atlantic area into a zone of peace will free the Western powers to address challenges and promote stability elsewhere. As they work to build an Atlantic Union, the United States and the EU members should endeavor to augment cooperation with powers outside the Atlantic area. Although its results were less substantive than symbolic, the EU-Asia summit in Bangkok earlier this year was an important step in the right direction. As long as the Western powers make clear that their partnership will not come at the expense of their relations with others, a strong Atlantic coalition will lead to greater cooperation with other areas.

While strengthening its ties to other regions, the AU should also foster regional integration elsewhere. Linked by global trade and coordination among the great powers, regional unions along the AU model in Asia and Africa could eventually consolidate new zones of peace and provide the foundation for a more stable international order. The main reason for not inviting Japan, one of Asia’s most democratic and prosperous nations, to join the AU is that a focus on the Atlantic community would distract Japan from facilitating further integration in its own neighborhood. The AU is the first step toward the creation of a global concert of democratic great powers that would coordinate relations among and within regional organizations.

The AU would also serve as the driving force behind the liberalization of global trade. Through successive accessions to NAFTA, a transatlantic free trade zone would gradually extend throughout Central and South America. Because the EU is already looking south as well as east, an Atlantic single market might eventually include the Middle East and North Africa. Fearful of being excluded from the AU’s widening trade zone, other areas would feel pressure to open their markets in return for access. The geoeconomic move toward globalization would balance the geopolitical move toward regionalization.

Constructing an Atlantic Union is a conservative enterprise. Plans that call for further sacrifices and increased responsibilities, like monetary union and NATO expansion, have little public appeal in this era of waning internationalism. A more modest set of objectives is needed to fashion a new consensus. Rather than deepen existing institutions, the au would merely extend their reach, reasonably asking electorates on both sides of the Atlantic to form a single market, uphold collective security, and send representatives to a common parliament. By solidifying a transatlantic community of peace, an Atlantic Union would do much more for the West and the rest of the world than monetary union for Germany, France, and Luxembourg or tank traps on the Poland-Belarus border. If the AU successfully consolidates the democratic peace, what appears mundane today will, in the longer course of history, prove revolutionary.

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  • Charles A. Kupchan is Senior Fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations and Associate Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Nationalism and Nationalities in the New Europe.
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