The Washington Times

The connections between the United States and the countries of Europe, however strained relations may get from time to time, are nevertheless the most robust the world has ever seen. They range from huge economic interdependency to a commonality of values (not without disagreement) to a persistent desire to work together on many (though not all) security matters from the Balkans to Afghanistan.

A huge institutional apparatus has been built up over the years to serve this relationship. Trans-Atlantic dialogue can become a full-time job even for those whose only business is talking; add also the folks whose common purpose is doing something – from trade, commerce and investment to international policing and soldiering – and you might think that by this point, less is more, or at any rate enough is enough. But it turns out that’s wrong, as I discovered this weekend in Brussels attending what I think will turn out to have been the birth of an institution.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States gathered a couple hundred people from the United States, Canada and Europe (broadly construed to reach as far as the former Soviet republic of Georgia, whose president attended) for a two-day meeting that was, on one hand, the latest installment of a long-running conversation, but on the other, something new under the sun. What was new was simply this: At last, you had a discussion that reflected the full range of preoccupations and concerns not only of Americans but also of Europeans. And it took place in a city, Brussels, that is indisputably the center of Europe, as not just a geographical collection of nation-states but as a collective entity.

Every year in February, defense ministers, generals, politicians, policy-makers and journalists gather in Munich for a big conference on security policy. The venerable NATO-centered annual gathering, now more than 40 years old, reflects the original grounding of postwar trans-Atlantic relations as a venture in collective security arrangements.

Two years ago, then-German chancellor (and now Russian energy mogul) Gerhard Schroeder scandalously declared that NATO was no longer the primary venue for dialogue between the United States and Europe on security matters. He left open the question of what, if anything, was to be construed as the primary venue, implicitly suggesting that no such venue was necessary. If so, that would amount to a European declaration that the United States was no longer welcome in discussions among Europeans about security.

Now, as it happens, his successor, Angela Merkel, in a bravura performance this year, effectively repudiated Mr. Schroeder’s remarks and reiterated Germany’s commitment to strong trans-Atlantic ties and to NATO’s primacy as a security institution. But there was, I reluctantly admit, a sense in which Mr. Schroeder’s provocation the previous year did point to something important.

It wasn’t, however, to a repudiation of trans-Atlantic dialogue through the breaking of its major institution, NATO – less talk between the United States and Europe as each goes its own way. Rather, Mr. Schroeder’s remarks reflected a felt need on the part of many Europeans for a conversation with Americans that was broader than the security agenda predominant in Munich and in NATO’s North Atlantic Council.

Into this inchoate void, barely appreciated as a void even by those closest to the issues, came the Brussels Forum. The program included some of the good old security issues, of course, including such scary new ones as Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But the range of subjects under discussion at the podium also included energy policy, democracy promotion, transnational threats such as pandemics and the question of European identity.

I say this as someone whose concerns over the years have centered on security matters: The breadth of subjects under consideration in Brussels began more accurately to reflect the concerns of our European partners in this conversation. And the fact that two leading contenders for the White House in 2008, John McCain and John Edwards, chose to attend the event is an indications that Americans, too, feel a need for engagement with Europeans across the full spectrum of issues.

The importance of the venue was also evident. Ever since Henry Kissinger famously asked what Europe’s phone number was, even Americans sympathetically inclined toward European integration have found it difficult to get their arms around the project. That’s in no small part because Europeans themselves have had a hard time explaining what they are up to, including to their own people. But the importance of Brussels as the capital of the European Union, however you construe that animal, simply cannot be denied. The Brussels Forum was an overdue acknowledgment of that fact.

There’s a certain paradox to institutions: You ask yourself, what is that we want to do but can’t do because we haven’t got the institutional capacity to do it? And often, you can’t think of anything – until perhaps almost by accident, something comes along that shows you what you’ve been missing. As we try to straighten out priorities ranging from energy and Russia to European integration and identity to Iranian nukes, a Brussels Forum is going to be indispensable.