Transatlantic Foreign and Security policy

In discussions on transatlantic foreign and security policy, Keeping Channels Open has engaged with dozens of stakeholders on the global challenges erupting daily and the deficits in Western strategy and solidarity.

Against the backdrop of turbulence caused by the Ukraine War, Brexit, Trump, COVID, the Afghan withdrawal and other watershed moments, we are discussing how to shore up vulnerabilities in cross-border cooperation, democratic solidarity, health systems, energy and food supplies and economic inter-dependence.

Topics range across effective ways to end Russia’s aggression and hybrid threats, tackle Covid and climate change, strengthen liberal democracy against authoritarianism and interference, engage effectively with China and shape the global world order.

Our Questions


  • How do we stop Russia’s war on Ukraine and threats to the broader region?
  • How do we capitalise on impressive Western unity and coordination to boost resilience and security in the longer term?
  • Is the war in Ukraine and other recent crises forcing geopolitical realignment?
  • Do we need new security and economic architecture to deal with new challenges?
  • Will positive UK-EU cooperation over sanctions and diplomacy spread to other areas of foreign policy and security?
  • Will the global and transatlantic goals of 2021 summits be lost amidst new crises?
  • Is America truly ‘back’ or is there a need for more European ‘strategic autonomy’?
  • How has the US and Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan changed concepts of intervention?
  • Are red lines on China tough enough, while still leaving room for engagement?
  • How can liberal democracies come together to defend our values and strengthen the rules-based order in the face of technological change, rising authoritarianism, populism and disinformation?

To debate these tough questions, we welcomed the views of analysts, think-tanks, politicians and civil servants, including from the US Administration, EU, NATO and UK Foreign Office.

Renewing the Transatlantic Alliance
& Values-based Multilateralism


russian invasion of ukraine

In 2022, we held group discussions with UK, EU and US politicians and experts on how to address the Russian war and coordinate responses. Many stakeholders agreed that the invasion reflected a culmination of Putin’s hybrid aggressions in the region since 2008 aimed at expanding Russia’s empire, undermining Western democracies and cementing his power and domestic support.

The West had not been not tough enough with sanctions and other measures after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, incursions into Eastern Ukraine, Syrian bombardments, occupation of parts of Georgia, downing of the Malaysian airliner and so on. However, there was no green light given to Putin to invade Ukraine – the aggressor must be the focus of blame.

Despite a highly praised Ukrainian fightback, the Russian army have consolidated positions in the East and South and imposed a blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, wreaking havoc on the world’s wheat supplies.

The crisis marks a defining moment in transatlantic relations and a wake up call for the West. After a period when an American President questioned the purpose of NATO and a French President called the defence alliance ‘brain-dead’, Putin’s actions have perversely brought greater unity to the Euro-Atlantic community than ever before.

Allies across Europe, America and beyond have united strongly to support Ukraine, joining in weapons deliveries and sanctions to impose costs on Russia. U.S. President Joe Biden has provided a good example of how to build a global coalition (despite some serial abstainers) and forge a strategic transatlantic partnership.

Germany has adopted a transformative approach on defence, including a commendable decision to send tanks to Ukraine, though there are frustrations at previous cautious positions and the prevalence of old attitudes and dependencies.

France has provided resolute support to Ukraine playing a leading role in galvanising EU action and providing humanitarian aid, though with some question marks over President Macron’s mediation initiatives with Putin.

The UK has been forward-leaning especially on weapons deliveries to Ukraine, NATO actions and solidarity. Brexit tensions and rhetoric however risk undermining prospects for future UK-EU cooperation and unity.

Eastern European countries including Poland, Czech Republic and Slovenia have launched their own diplomatic initiatives, provided weapons support and taken in millions of refugees. However, Hungarian, Slovakian and Czech leaders have argued for extensions to new EU oil sanctions given their dependence, with Victor Orban seen as a Putin ally.

However, as the war escalates, it is having broader effects on the global economy, supply chains and food and energy supplies, compounding recent crises. It is posing new dilemmas for partners, as EU, NATO, UN, IMF and G20 countries cooperate on sanctions, providing military and financial support to Ukraine, hosting 5 million refugees and debating NATO & EU enlargement. Maintaining unity as costs spiral will be difficult.

NATO also has a clear challenge to refocus on collective defence and work out what that means today with a more aggressive Russia. Big political choices need to be made about how far forward NATO should be and how it deals with China.

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Russia v Ukraine: what’s at stake

This is a turning point. We can be grateful to Putin for having jolted us all out of complacency, but we mustn’t take our eye off the ball. We have to collectively do the hard graft to wean ourselves off oligarch money, not just from Russia but from Central Asia and elsewhere. We must also build up our resilience in all areas including cybersecurity, democracy & disinformation & secure our energy independence.”

“The war in Ukraine is definitely about democracy, particularly at Putin’s borders; this is what he fears. Of course, it’s also about reclaiming a lost Russian Empire and fears of waning global influence. But at its core, it is about the fear of the contagion of democracy. The biggest threat to Putin’s security is democrats within.”

“We need a common vision. This is a transformative moment for Europe and for European security. The old doctrines like Gaullism, Ostpolitik and Global Britain are not going to help find a common approach. There is a need for fresh thinking and a fresh narrative. And for that, we need political leaders who are capable of stepping up to the plate not only in sending arms, but also in explaining to the public what we are doing, and why we need to make those sacrifices.”

“There is a risk that if we do not stand by Ukraine, we will be playing into the message that both Moscow and Beijing are seeking to promote that the West is in decline, decaying and decadent. It is vital for our own security, therefore, that we resist that view taking hold.”

“No-one is in any doubt that we are already in confrontation with Russia. This is a full holistic struggle between value systems and for global security. We are involved and we need to apply the commensurate resources and long-term determination that we applied in the Cold War.”

“Authoritarian countries have been very successful in undermining us from within and until we solve that problem, or at least get on the right track, it will be difficult to act through traditional post-war institutions like NATO & EU. Despite positive events like Macron’s win in France and the marginalisation of AFD in Germany, internal authoritarianism still threatens our way of life. It’s not clear to me whether Russia is a bigger threat to us or the internal authoritarianism in our own democracies.”

“It will be a long war. Russia’s in it for the long haul. And it will take time for parties to agree to any arrangements. Sanctions also need time to bite – they are not going to work within a year. If the experience with Milosevic is any indication, it took ten years for them to become decisive. But they are working nonetheless.”

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Geopolitical Shifts

Most participants in our 2021 discussions agreed that the world has radically changed in recent years through a reapportionment of power and influence.

“This change in the balance of powers has been caused by an increasingly assertive China, growing India and Indonesia, revanchist Russia and deep divisions in the democratic world.”

Experts also noted a re-conceptualisation of international relations hinging around values.

“This means disagreements are no longer just about 5G or maritime security in the South China Sea or arms control with Russia, but a reconfiguration of the international system divided by political ideologies and systems, thereby creating the basis for the transatlantic relationship.” 

In working for a peaceful world, it was important for liberal democracies to reassert support for the rules-based system.

“Countries should not be permitted to change the status quo through the use of force, as China has done in the South China Sea and Russia has done in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. International norms of human rights must mean something.” 

However, there was a danger in framing the world as liberal democracies versus authoritarians, given the scale of the joint challenges ahead.

The West must talk to all systemic rivals, including China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, because of global issues like pandemic management, climate change, migration and internationally-organised crime, and latterly, Afghanistan.”

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Afghanistan

The messy withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 marked a watershed moment in Western interventionism. Based on unilateral US decision-making, the move sent a strong signal about transatlantic disunity and US leadership.

Biden publicly rejected the US role of ‘global policeman engaged in forever wars,’ saying the withdrawal was about “ending an era of major US military operations to remake other countries.” The Europeans, rattled by the unilateral US approach, have seen this as a wake-up call and are now debating how to strengthen Europe’s own security capability. Britain has also come face to face with the limitations of Global Britain and the influence afforded by the ‘special relationship.’ 

Experts agreed there was now an imperative to align stabilisation and counter-terrorism approaches in South Asia in light of new realities and the emerging role of regional powerbrokers such as China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In terms of Western foreign policy, new instruments, tools and formats will be needed to advance values overseas, since comprehensive nation-building missions are no longer in vogue. There will also be a focus on shoring up liberal democracy at home and linking foreign and domestic policies, in order to win over weary and sceptical publics.  

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Forging Common Agendas

Overall, participants have been encouraged that the Western alliance appeared in 2021 to be developing a common agenda.

“We’ve got the big issues on the table of our top institutions, and are having a dialogue on the most important items.”

American leadership was viewed as key to this success, supported by the new institutional alignment with US foreign policy priorities, for example, placing China on NATO’s agenda. 

As the West ramped up for the great fightback of the democracies, a lot of institutional engineering and coordination would be needed to make sure organisations deconflict and clarify roles. But there were also deeper concerns. 

“There’s a worrying lack of impact of the Western alliance on testing political situationsInstruments developed in the ‘good ol’ days’ of the liberal international order like sanctions, are now often ineffective or politically unusable. Other players are also exerting influence. As a result, the Alliance is floundering on how to deal with countries like Russia, Belarus, Hungary and Turkey, but can no longer ignore them in the way it did over the last ten years.”

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recommendations

  • Develop an agenda of democratic resilience and speak with a collective voice on good governance and human rights violations overseas. Tangible commitments can be made through the UN, G20 and Democracy Summit and in cooperation with Indo-Pacific democracies.
  • Build Back Better at home and abroad by advancing a green, digital and equality agenda as we recover from Covid, reassert core values and shore up democratic foundations as well as technological systems to protect against authoritarian influence
  • Reform international systems for cooperation including UN, WTO and NATO, accommodating a “bifurcated world order of two constellations – democratic and authoritarian – deeply interconnected but increasingly separate.” There may be a need for institutional re-engineering and division of labour in approaching shared goals and new security objectives.
  • Strengthen coordinated response to cyber-attacks and explore more effective use of sanctions. New tools, methods and instruments should replace outdated methods to improve impact on democratic back-sliding and rogue behaviour 
  • Coordinate united front towards China and Russia on a range of issues as part of a ‘cooperate, compete, confront’ strategy
  • Coordinate next steps for the stabilisation of Afghanistan with regional players, including countering resurgent terrorism and migration management. Work with Afghan society and stakeholders, as well as Taliban regime, to safeguard gains. Learn lessons from the 20-year engagement through honest analysis. 
  • US Administration must take time to level-set with partners, assessing areas of agreement and looking at how to close gaps.
  • UK & EU need to compromise and reach agreement on outstanding issues and move to a new phase of close cooperation in several areas
  • Expand Partnerships: Engage with ASEAN, the Indo-Pacific region and other partners to build an effective approach to China and other challenges.

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Briefing Papers

A summary of our roundtables (held under the Chatham House Rule), including top comments from European, American, British and Australian politicians, experts and analysts.