MUNICH – The United States has traditionally reassured doubtful allies of its security commitment through such measures as troop reinforcements and military exercises.
However, disruptive times call for unconventional measures.
This weekend, the U.S. will forward deploy more than 40 members of Congress – including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – to the Munich Security Conference, the biggest such U.S. delegation in the 55-year history of the group, the most significant transatlantic powwow of its kind.
At a watershed moment for Western cohesion, the suggested subtext is unmistakable:
Don't be misled by media reports or Trumpian tweets that suggest the U.S. will weaken or even withdraw from NATO, history's most enduring and effective alliance. We as representatives of American voters will ensure that we safeguard the transatlantic bonds that have helped produce one of the most prosperous and secure periods of human history.
That's reassuring, of course, but only for the short term. U.S. legislators have already done much to legislatively ring-fence the president on NATO on the alliance's 70th anniversary. And President Trump's comparatively positive statement on the alliance in his State of the Union suggests he may have decided to back off threats and instead take credit for many NATO members' recent increases in military spending.
After all, he's got bigger fish to fry: his summit in Vietnam with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on February 27-28 and a possible meeting soon as well with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also faces growing concerns at home with the Mueller probe reportedly winding down and Democratic investigations ramping up. NATO may be the beneficiary of limited presidential bandwidth.
So, the greater peril in Munich is that the U.S. and its allies, by focusing so much on preventing worst-case outcomes over the past couple of years, haven't prepared for the future. At a time that requires a renewed sense of cohesion and purpose on both sides of the Atlantic, they're hamstrung by ongoing Brexit dramas, transatlantic trade tensions, disagreements on issues ranging from Iran to Russian gas, and a rising tide of nationalist and populist forces.
If transatlantic leaders don't begin now to remind themselves of their common interests and again join in common cause, they'll find that the construct of "the West" – that did so much to shape the last century of history – will lose its ability to shape the future.
The transatlantic future is as much an economic as a security question. The North American-European economy still is the largest and most prosperous economic bloc in the world, accounting for a more than third of global GDP (India and China combined account for just 25 percent). The U.S. and Europe account for 64 percent of global outbound foreign direct investment and 51 percent of global personal consumption. Transatlantic coherence also means more combined weight to counteract authoritarian state-owned enterprises and the ability to counter rules that less democratic countries might set on a whole host of global economic rules and practices.