Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan
As the European economy continues to tank, I'm often asked what the United States can do to help its friends across the Atlantic aside from the financial advice and moral support offered by our leaders in recent years. This week, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, one of the foremost thinkers on U.S. foreign policy, penned a column about the idea of an economic NATO that provides at least one concrete answer. Now is absolutely the time to begin discussion of renewing the transatlantic relationship with a greater focus on strengthening economies in both Europe and here at home. After all, the United States and Europe account for nearly half of the entire world's GDP, 40 percent of the world's trade, and together are still responsible for the security architecture that keeps the global economy moving.
"One of the ideas I'm quite taken with is the notion of an economic NATO, or a NATO that looks at more economic elements because if there is a euro zone crisis, it's a NATO crisis, if there is a debt crisis it's going to affect our security," Fred Kempe of the Atlantic Council told me in an interview on NATO in the 21st century for the upcoming season of Great Decisions in Foreign Policy on PBS. "So I think that you just have to look at the challenges coming at us much more through an economic and a security prism."
The idea has been bouncing around for some time and is a foreign policy goal that both Democrats and Republicans could easily rally support for. Indeed, writing on the Atlantic Council web site, former Obama National Security Adviser General James Jones argues that an enhanced trade pact between the United States and its European allies could stimulate job growth and create, Jones and his colleague Tom Donohue reckon, about $170 billion in the next five years through the elimination of tariffs alone. According to Ignatius, the Obama administration is serious about its pursuit of this goal.
Notable figures within the Republican establishment, which has called for the creation of more free trade agreements, are also likely to be on board. An economic NATO also bolsters their case for a widening of the NATO umbrella to the allies of the Asia Pacific that are so critical to the world economy. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Great Decisions that the alliance should partner "with other free thinking countries, other free political systems, and other free economic systems—countries like Australia and New Zealand and Singapore and the Republic of Korea and Japan, and some other nations outside of NATO's orbit at the present," to foster greater global security and economic growth.
Support for engagement with Asia is also championed by noted risk analyst Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group. "What we need is not just NATO on the conventional defense side. We need a NATO alliance for economic state craft that's actually led by the Americans and Japanese," he said. "It's critical, and no one is focusing on that yet."
Whether the pursuit of a strengthened economic relationship will take place under the NATO umbrella, through the mechanisms of the European Union, or will include the free economies of Asia are questions that will take some time to flesh out. That the conversation about an achievable, bipartisan and transatlantic initiative that can address the real economic challenges of the 21st century is now taking place, though, is a step in the right direction.