The degree to which Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s brave resistance, is scrambling the global order is hard to exaggerate. It has reenergized the NATO alliance, drawn Pacific Rim democracies like Japan and Australia into the fight, and deepened Russia’s dependence on China. At home, it has boosted Joe Biden’s poll numbers and forced Putin apologists like J. D. Vance to backpedal. It has also caused citizens around the world to cheer for an embattled liberal democracy fighting dictatorial aggression while giving younger Americans reason to rethink their deep distrust of U.S. global power.
Nowhere has the change been more profound than in Germany. For a decade and a half under then Chancellor Angela Merkel, Berlin deliberately increased its dependence on Russian fossil fuels to support its profitable exports while underinvesting in its military. In late February, Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, reversed those policies. He announced that he would halt a new gas pipeline from Russia, send antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Ukraine, and increase the German defense budget by a staggering €100 billion—which by some estimates would make Germany the third-largest military spender in the world (probably not what chess master Vladimir Putin had in mind when he launched the invasion). Astonishingly, the German public overwhelmingly rallied to the new chancellor’s about-face strategy.
Biden is now positioned to make a similarly bold move. His administration has ably, even brilliantly, quarterbacked the U.S. and allied response to Russia’s aggression, including sending weapons to Ukraine, using intel to expose Putin’s next moves, and organizing sanctions that are crushing the Russian economy. Whether these actions will be enough to save Ukraine while avoiding a broader war remains to be seen. But a confluence of world events and shifts in public opinion gives Biden an opportunity to turn the energy behind the allied efforts into a more permanent set of economic arrangements—as ambitious as those the United States established after World War II.
As retired General Wesley Clark and others have argued in these pages, Biden should call for the creation of an “Atlantic Alliance” beyond NATO: a new, structured trade relationship between the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom. While they have their differences, all three boast advanced economies and a shared commitment to liberal values—like representative democracy, equal opportunity, privacy, environmental stewardship, and the rule of law. All three increasingly recognize that those values are threatened by Russia and China and by practices they themselves have condoned, including overreliance on vulnerable supply chains and corporate monopolization that boxes out entrepreneurs and weakens wages.
What’s needed are binding agreements between the U.S., the EU, and the U.K. over antitrust policy, labor rights, climate change, technology transfer, and other pressing matters. These agreements would be designed with two aims in mind. First, raise middle- and working-class wages on both sides of the Atlantic, the better to undercut domestic support for illiberal politics. Second, create a trading bloc—together, the U.S., EU, and U.K. make up 45 percent of global GDP—that could challenge China and other authoritarian regimes. If those countries want access to Atlantic Alliance markets, they must change their ways. If not, we will have protected ourselves from their economic predations and broadened our sourcing of vital supplies.
An Atlantic Alliance could take the form of a comprehensive treaty or trade pact. But with time of the essence, a better route would be a series of agreements on discrete issues. An example is the deal the administration struck with the EU in October. Both sides agreed to lower tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and, tellingly, to develop standards to measure the carbon emissions involved in their production. “Dirty” steel from China would be excluded from the U.S. and EU markets. Countries that clean up their act could gain access, as the U.K. is now negotiating to do.
Biden has yet to articulate a vision for something as big as an Atlantic Alliance. But there are signs that his administration is moving in that direction. Last September, it created a new organization, the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council, for American and European officials to hash out agreements on everything from artificial intelligence to export controls with “a particular focus on inclusive growth for middle class and lower income people on both sides of the Atlantic.” The TTC would be a fine venue for the two sides to negotiate an Atlantic Alliance. And its next scheduled meeting, in May, would be an ideal time for Biden to announce the effort.
If he did, I suspect he would receive the kind of broad public support that Olaf Scholz has received. American politics might be radioactively partisan right now. But look beneath the surface, as Gabby Birenbaum and Phillip Longman do in their cover story for this issue, and you’ll see that there is substantial desire in both parties to break from the free trade and lax antitrust enforcement policies of recent decades—policies that have decimated heartland towns and shrunk the middle class. Add to that the extraordinary bipartisan consensus for Ukraine’s struggle, and you have a moment where big things can happen.