Article by Matteo Brizzi

Shaping a pan-Atlantic community: an opportunity for the European Union

America's retreat from Afghanistan and the Ukrainian crisis put the spotlight on NATO and the overall Euro-American relationship. They are also raising the question of the role that Europe should play in the task of restructuring the international system, in the most appropriate combination of the American 'hard' power and the 'soft' power inherent to the European integration process.

Given the transnational and comprehensive nature of the new challenges as well as the present limits of its foreign policy, the European Union could prove useful in enlisting the cooperation of the other actors bordering theèp6 Atlantic Ocean. Setting up a broader, 'pan-Atlantic’ community, associating the northern with the southern hemisphere, that has so far been side-lined in the evolution of international relations.

While renewing its partnership with the US, the objective of the European Union should be to open up the trans-Atlantic community to Latin America and Western Africa, promoting a strategic relationship with regional, sub-regional and national partners of the two sub-continents.

The broad features of such a novel community should be based on participatory multilateralism and connectivity, laid out in a horizontal, networked - rather than vertical and legally institutionalised - framework. The ultimate goal being to (re)establish the principles of liberal internationalism1 enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

Time for reform

Given the emerging challenges of the 21st century, all the great powers would – and should – therefore be incentivized to embrace an open, rules-based international order: with the global economic system becoming more interdependent, all states - even the large, powerful ones - will find it harder to ensure prosperity and security on their own. That is why a liberal, multilateral, order should be promoted, keeping in mind that international liberalism is not the same as neoliberalism. Indeed, it remains an attempt to construct an open world economy based on multilateral rules and institutions, enshrining democratic methods as the only effective form of political governance nowadays. Reinstating a comprehensive international order does not imply an attempt to preserve the status quo, but rather a dynamic reform of the system of international relations. The ultimate objective, in the words of Hans Kundani, “should be to identify a set of changes that need to be made to the liberal international order in order to save it”2.

Similarly, Anne-Marie Slaughter claims that “the institutions built after World War II remain important repositories of legitimacy and authority. But they need to become the hubs of ą flatter, faster, more flexible system, one that operates at the level of citizens as well as states”3. Even though the former US Director of Policy Planning has already introduced the idea of a collaborative network as an effective mechanism for strategizing among liberal-democratic states, her proposal is not centred on the Atlantic area. Let’s try to understand the reasons behind the importance of such a – broad- geographical delimitation.

Why the Atlantic and…who?

The Atlantic space comprising the four regions of North America; Central and South America; Europe and Africa, is not divided by natural borders. It can therefore be conceptualized as a large geo-strategic space in which countries and populations have interacted according to security, economic, social, and environmental dynamics that have historically affected the entire basin4.

The North Atlantic partnership, while still indispensable, is now insufficient to influence a world of more diffuse power, greater interdependence and intensified global competition5. Countries in the South Atlantic are already being lured by China and Russia, even though they are well placed to fit the North Atlantic value-chains and economic networks6.

The EU could reposition effectively as a global actor by engaging with the US in enlisting the other Atlantic actors as responsible stakeholders in multilateral ‘horizontal’ networks. Besides Canada and Japan, the most promising new partners of an enlarged Atlantic community reside in Latin America7. The main platform to elaborate a common agenda is the relationship established between the European Union and the Latin American and Caribbean countries, called EULAC8, as well as the partnerships with the other sub-regional organizations, such as the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and the Central American Integration System (SICA), supplementing the dialogues with the main Latin American countries, Brazil and Mexico9.

Afterwards, we should shift our attention to the African continent: “Africa is Europe’s closest neighbour” is the first sentence of the new comprehensive strategy with Africa (EU Commission, 2020), the most recent document boosting the alliance between the “old” and the “black” continents. 

Although the African Union (AU) is without doubt the biggest and safest partner for the European Union to further strengthen the relationship with the African region, we cannot downplay the role of other sub-regional or national actors. Looking West, at the borders of the Atlantic Ocean, ECOWAS and Nigeria are at the hearth of this region’s stability and development.

Southward, South Africa, one of the ten EU's strategic partners, would project the Atlantic community to the Indian Ocean. Finally, in Northern Africa, the involvement of Morocco into the pan-Atlantic community could establish a connection with the Arab world.To conclude, the European Union, United States, and the new partners could promote a substantial pan-Atlantic agenda, a grand design encompassing all or most of the countries and organizations abutting on the common Ocean.

The main features of an enlarged Atlantic community

Such an extended Atlantic community would reconcile the integrity of international liberalism with the promotion of multilateralism and the creation of connectivity networks, to the benefit of the whole global system. It must be based on horizontal partnerships among states, rather than on institutionalized membership. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is a pertinent model, defining itself as “a forum for political dialogue on a wide range of security issues and a platform for joint action to improve the lives of individuals and communities”11.

Similarly, a new and enlarged Atlantic community should take the form of a flexible network of partner countries, united by shared interests and values, connecting trade routes and global goals.

The fundamental feature of this pan-Atlantic network must be ‘openness’. Open in the sense of participatory: the community must accommodate the participation of as many countries as possible and derive effectiveness from the same participation. Open in the sense of transparent behaviour: inhibiting attempts to control and limit information, as ‘connectivity’ is an essential ingredient not only between states, but also between people. So, for instance, a concrete objective to pursue should be free access to Internet, as a fundamental universal right in the new digitalized era.

Finally, open in the sense of autonomy: unlike a vertical rule-governed hierarchy, a horizontal network encourages self-organization in a framework of shared principles. A grand strategy of open border means standing for and supporting those principles in the international system itself.

A new Atlantic community could contribute to global governance, the key concept being ‘participatory multilateralism’: since the 21st century global order can no longer be dictated or controlled from the top down, global society would otherwise risk finding itself without a leading reference.

All the participant countries of a pan-Atlantic community would have a fundamental role by providing trade linkages, data and diplomatic nodes, in order to increase both the security and the effectiveness of such a macro-regional network. In a multilateral and participatory approach, the more countries join the community, the more it will have achieved its goal. Of course, the applicants will have to commit themselves to the values of international liberalism and to strengthening the multilateral order.

A European leadership

The world is clearly no longer Eurocentric. That notwithstanding, as argued by Florence Graub, “not only does Europe need Europe, but the whole world needs Europe as an inspiration for a better future, a sound balance between economic, social and environmental objectives; a beacon of democracy, diversity and freedom; and a true champion of multilateral solutions and collaborative approaches in a world increasingly dominated by nationalism and zero-sum politics”12. Europe, thanks to her unrivalled quantity of economic, commercial and diplomatic connections, could thereby become the leading element also of the envisioned enlarged Atlantic community.

Indeed, while in hierarchies power flows from the ability to command others - which constitutes hard power-, in networks power derives from connectedness, that is the number, type and location of connections a node has at its disposal. In a ‘hub network’, like the new Atlantic community would be, the most central nodes have the most connections13.

The growing connectivity, interdependence and the pluralistic nature of the system implies that the power of every international actor will be determined by their relational influence. In such a networked system, more than the power over, it’s the power with that will prove decisive. The European Union having ‘something to say’ about it.

Since the power of networks results from the relevance of their hub, the European soft power’14 would make EU the most suited leader in the aforementioned mega-region15.


The time has come for the EU to move from words to actions. The EU’s ‘Global Strategy’ already contains such a vision for its intended role as a relevant world player16. It can already do this as leader in the fight against climate change, a committed defender of democracy and human rights, a persistent supporter of international liberalism, a reliable contributor to multilateral organisations and, last but not least, the soft-connecting centre of a new pan-Atlantic community.

Its projects of “connectivity by consent”17 should validate the argument I tried to promote: the “Strategy on connecting Europe and Asia” and the most recent Global Gateway should not be interpreted only as a reaction to the Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative”, since they provide to all the partners of the EU - Asians, Latin Americans and Africans - a multilateral, comprehensive and rules-based strategic framework18.

Establishing a broader Atlantic community, however ambitious, could result in a demonstration that the European Union can resume its role of a relevant global player in the promotion of a liberal international order.


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