Crisis is the time for a radical and drastic creativity in governance

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Europeans have started to realise what it means to have an absence of American leadership on the international stage. The “opportunity” that this crisis brings is the emergence of different kinds of leaders, Harvard Kennedy School’s Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook is founding Executive Director of the Future of Diplomacy Project and Executive Director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In your recent short essay, you suggest that this pandemic can ultimately offer opportunity to reimagine the transatlantic community. What type of leadership will be needed in order to achieve a positive type of re-invention?

The timeline is going to be critical. Right now, we are looking at an immediate response by leaders, evaluating them in a very short time delay. Yet in crisis evaluation, the long arch is what is going to make the difference. the idea of maintenance and the creation of public trust is critical. Within this short time, we are seeing, that EU and its leadership is doing largely better role comparing to the US. But in the important, longer term scale, we will see a new class and a different kind of leadership emerging.

What you suggest would predict a slightly larger definition of the transatlantic relationship as well.

We think about the transatlantic relationship often packed into its fundamental institution, which is NATO. And we think of transatlantic leaders just as a head of state and government. In the times of crisis, it is the immediacy of the executive that is important. But nonetheless, this public health crisis has also a very localized dimension. Therefore, the crisis is emerging a different set of leaders, including local and subnational leadership. We are also seeing an emergence of different connectivity among different layers, yet in areas such as coordinated push on global vaccine effort or economic outlines, we have seen an absence of American leadership on the international and transatlantic level.

So, it seems, Europeans will need to look beyond the White House for partners. Can a cooperation with governors, mayors and congressional representatives be the way?

What you are seeing is an expansion of already existing levels of cooperation and coordination. For instance, at Harvard, we support the initiative called the Bloomberg Mayor Role Leadership Initiative which is a course for new mayors. What had been a traditional course, has in times of crisis changed into an active network, having former executive level representatives such Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton engaging with mayoral level.

These mayors are very self-interested now, they have a crisis and they are reaching out to people who have similar management issues, therefore such connections get more functional.

How does such engagement transform the governance?

Every great crisis is also a time of opportunity if people understand it that way. People have understood it to be a completely symmetric crisis, as it hits almost all sectors all around the world approximately at the same time. Its many dimensions have created almost a toxic layer cake. And because we have to address them cumulatively, technically it should lead to more creativity in leadership. Therefore, this is the time of radical and drastic creativity in governance, in which we shall pay greater attention to see what kind of things you can scale, develop, change and bring into the national context where it could work.

Ultimately, transatlantic relations will be shaped by the November election in the U.S., where we basically have two scenarios ahead: either continuation with Trump or a type of rewind to the Obama era with Biden. Are Europeans prepared for the possible changes?

I think they already are. The idea that “adults in the room” would mitigate President´s Trump policies and that the institutions would frame the president´s executive power took Europeans probably about two years to wake up from. It is because they didn’t do a smart scenario plan.

Having the Global Strategy as well as so called Geopolitical Commission, one would wish that there is some planning going on. Through the number of initiatives that the Member States have kicked on, whether it is a German-Franco alliance for multilateralism, NATO-EU interoperability and over 11 projects there, or a pushing forward of a debate on strategic autonomy, European have started to realize what it means to have an absence of American leadership on the international stage. And it was a very harsh realization, as the EU hasn´t really conceptualized itself as an integral global player and that self-image is changing and will have to continue to change.

So in a sense, has European leadership matured over this process?

Even if you have Joe Biden taking over the presidency the following year, that will show a maturity, the capacity to work at eye-level on number of critical issues in the transatlantic relationship. The rest of the world isn’t sleeping. China has moved strategically to fill vacuum areas that the United States has left. We are also seeing so-called COVID Diplomacy by Russia and China, trying to break apart the EU in many different ways. As there are those exogenous pressures on the transatlantic relationship, it should work to forge it closer together.

However, that does not rid the transatlantic relationship of the deep trust issues that it now has. Anti-Americanism is on the rise across the EU, particularly in countries that have been especially aligned with the U.S. because of their post-World War II history, which I consider a real tragedy. Even in Germany and Poland, the public feel that Donald Trump is not an aberration but rather a revelation of the true face of America.

There are some necessary policy discussions being held in the Member States, including a big discussion in Germany, whether the country should retain American nuclear weapons on its territories. The fact that these discussions are happening on the op-ed pages in the EU indicates that there is a maturation process and that the Europeans are willing to do the work of that civil debate and responsibility.

Could Joe Biden improve trust among the transatlantic partners?

People could hope that there will be an immediate shift back to the transatlantic relationship we knew under Obama, but I will caution a few things. Obama administration was also transatlanticly blind, that was the time of a reset with Russia, of a pivot to Asia, when transatlantic relations were taken for granted. It is not until the second term when the geopolitical quicksands began to really shift for the U.S. that Europe comes back to focus.

I do think that President Biden, given how the world has changed, will intend to bring America back. But it is going to have to be more than a reaching out to allies again, in sort of an apology. We now have the very changed institutional landscape in the U.S., including a rejigged Supreme Court where things could still happen, or a State Department that has been voided and bringing the senior and middle experts back as well as changing the Department’s functionality is going to take time. Flipping the lever back is not going to be as easy. We usually predict that after the election it takes four to five months but given how atrophied the bureaucracy has become around foreign policy issues that matter most to the transatlantic relationship, it could take longer. It will be a rockier start because of how much Donald Trump and his administration have managed to destroy by design.

How should NATO reflect those changes in the post-COVID era?

NATO has already been undergoing rather a drastic shift, including the investment in its cyber capacities or trying to figure out, with the EU, what kind of coordination mechanisms can there be. That is exactly the direction in which things need to be moving.

NATO is a bit hemmed in into this COVID response, doing logistical or transport missions, being particularly visible in Balkans, however it is not enough. We will have to discuss about how to address the two percent of GDP commitment, the question which has been raised by  the Germans who argued that part of that two percent should be greater crisis management and bizarrely it seems that this type of an argument could begin to win slightly better ground within the wider NATO membership.

The issues which we have to address are so vastly different that this is exactly how you modernize the institutions from inside. These questions stretch from territories of the defence up to the Article no. 2 of the Washington treaty, which predicates that all member states be democracies. What kind of punitive mechanisms in organization that is based entirely around compromise do we have?

Will the crisis push NATO to be more active in cybersecurity, that is becoming ever more important in regards to jobs, disinformation campaigns or, as many suggest, in the risk management of a potentially new public health crisis of the future?

For the post-COVID times, I would particularly stress an intelligence cooperation on such large issues. For the intelligence cooperation that means to make sure that those systems are protected, integrated, functional. Data, intelligence cooperation and cyber are going to be the sort of issues that will need different governance structures or different collaboration mechanisms, but I think it should be ultimately outside of the NATO, as it is overextending NATO´s governance capacities.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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