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NATO Summit After Brexit an Opportunity for Unity

Viewpoint by Karen Donfried *

WASHINGTON (IDN | GMF) - The implications of the Brexit vote are stark, not only for the United Kingdom and for the European Union, but also for the United States. Since the end of World War II, successive U.S. administrations have strongly supported the project of European economic and political integration – initially, to ensure peace among the continent’s great powers; more recently, to enlarge the area of democratic stability and economic prosperity across the continent. 

For seven decades, the U.S. security umbrella, represented by the NATO Alliance, helped defend our European allies and gave them the opportunity to concentrate on building the European Community and later the European Union (EU). With the U.K. poised to leave the EU, leadership from the United States is needed to keep the U.K. and its continental partners working closely together in NATO and beyond in the aftermath of last week’s referendum.

Britain, the EU’s second largest economy and one of only two EU member states with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, has brought global heft, economic liberalism, military prowess, and its special relationship with the United States to the European Union. President Obama even visited London in April to express his full-throated support for Britain’s EU membership directly to the British people, arguing that the European Union magnifies British influence. Now that 52 percent of British voters have expressed their desire for Britain to leave the EU, what should U.S. policy be?

President Obama has reaffirmed that the special relationship between the U.S. and the U.K. will endure. He also underscored that the U.K. and the EU will remain “indispensable partners of the United States.” 

How can the Obama Administration advance both of those goals, at a moment when the rift between the U.K. and the EU is so wide and emotionally charged?

The rapidly approaching NATO Summit provides an opening to highlight unity and reignite cooperation. On July 8 and 9, the 28 NATO leaders will meet in Warsaw, Poland. The propitious timing of the summit – so close to the June 23 U.K. referendum – provides three opportunities for the U.K., the EU, and the United States. 

First, Britain can demonstrate that it will continue to play a critical role on the global stage. Rather than turning its gaze squarely inward, as it negotiates what is sure to be a messy exit from the EU, Prime Minister Cameron can demonstrate through energetic engagement in Warsaw that the U.K. is committed to remaining a player in standing up to an aggressive Russia and meeting the set of difficult security challenges emanating from Europe’s southern border. Robust British engagement at the NATO Summit will reassure Britain’s own citizens and its allies.

Second, there has long been talk of deeper NATO-EU cooperation on security and defense issues, but little real action. NATO’s July summit would be an auspicious moment to make a substantial leap forward. The U.K. is one of Europe’s most militarily capable actors. NATO and the EU share a majority of European members (22 in fact). 

NATO has always been the critical platform for connecting North American and European security; it will now play an even larger role in coordinating action among European countries as the U.K. leaves the EU. There has never been a better moment to seize the initiative to deepen the NATO-EU security connection.

Third, U.S. engagement on the European continent has been a critical factor in Europe’s peaceful development over these past seven decades. It is not by chance that the North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, DC. In establishing NATO, Americans, Canadians, and Europeans demonstrated their shared interest in deterring Soviet expansionism, ensuring a strong U.S. military presence on the continent, and encouraging European political integration. 

There are countless other examples of U.S. commitment to Europe, from the Marshall Plan, which was critical to Europe’s post-war economic recovery, to U.S. support for Germany’s unification in 1990.

In this spirit, the Obama Administration should enlarge the already announced meeting with EU leaders (European Commission President Juncker and European Council President Tusk) on the margins of the NATO Summit to include four national leaders – Prime Minister Cameron, German Chancellor Merkel, French President Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Renzi. 

Rather than discussing specific issues like terrorism, refugees, trade, and growth – all critical – these leaders collectively need to recommit themselves to buttressing the liberal international order and the values that undergird it. They need to address head on the downsides of globalization and build a positive narrative about the purpose of and possibilities for transatlantic cooperation.

These leaders, once they have reaffirmed a strong foundation for joint action, can then move on, in their individual political contexts, to offer concrete policy solutions to legitimate concerns citizens across Europe and the U.S. are raising about issues ranging from income inequality to migration. 

But, in Warsaw, President Obama and his European counterparts need to inspire their citizens to understand that, at its core, transatlantic unity transcends the EU and NATO. Those organizations are key pillars of the liberal international order that North America and Europe built together after the end of World War II, and we need them to be strong and effective. 

But we can also manage change – both positive and negative – to these institutions, learn and improve. The EU and NATO are not ends in and of themselves. They serve a much larger mission in support of democratic governance, open societies, rule of law, and free-market economies.

Brexit seems to be upon us. President Obama can now work to harness the energy of the younger generation of Britons that voted overwhelmingly for the U.K. to remain an EU member. That is the opportunity the United States should now grasp. Transatlantic unity is ours to nourish and fortify. We’ve already started with the statements of the President and the travels of Secretary Kerry. Let’s step it up in Warsaw.

* Dr. Karen Donfried is president of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, vice chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the United States, and a member of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Advisory Board. This article was originally published on June 29, 2016 with the headline NATO Summit an Opportunity for Unity and Leadership after Brexit. The views expressed in GMF publications and commentaries are the views of the authors alone. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 June 2016]

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Photo: NATO Summit in Washington 1999. | Credit: GMF