In 2003, at the height of the debate over whether the United States should head to war in Iraq, an anxious President of the Party of European Socialists, Robin Cook, burst out of a packed meeting hall. Cook had just spent the last few hours listening to his colleagues from across Europe disparage the United States. Previously a long-serving British Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, he had seen the alliance weather many crises. But this time was different. Despite the strong transatlantic agreement between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, the prospect of war in Iraq was threatening to fracture the long and constructive alliance that Europe and the United States had nurtured since World War II.
Both sides of the Atlantic were to blame. With half of the European Union’s citizens saying they saw Washington as a threat to world peace rather than a force for good, some elected leaders in Europe were staking their popularity on anti-Americanism. Meanwhile in Washington, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld set off a firestorm when he referred to France and Germany as "old Europe." Against the precipitating division, Cook saw a leadership vacuum. He knew he would need partners to help soothe the heated rhetoric and bring both sides to face-to-face dialogue. He picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.
In a glass and steel office in downtown Washington, Madeleine Albright answered Cook’s call. The two had gotten to know each other well during the Kosovo war, and their rapport had continued to build ever since. Cook’s SOS call could not have arrived at a better time, as Albright shared his concerns about a possible schism in the transatlantic relationship. Their conversation did not dwell long on the looming troubles; rather, both were eager to find a solution for healing the alliance that had drawn them together a decade before.
Albright and Cook reminisced about the "Quint": a group of five Foreign Ministers—Joschka Fischer of Germany, Hubert Vedrine of France, Lamberto Dini of Italy, Albright, and Cook—who spoke almost daily on a conference call to share information and plan strategy during the Kosovo war. Through their constant communication they had developed deep friendships and trust, and most importantly, a common understanding of the pertinence of the transatlantic partnership. At its apex, the Quint and the other NATO Ministers they called held together the NATO alliance in the 1990s. More than ten years later, even as now former foreign ministers, Albright and Cook believed an iteration of the Quint that also included a broader set of Ministers could be revived to maintain and rebuild the ties between Europe and the United States through dialogue.
The easiest task was figuring out which former foreign ministers would join their envisaged group. In addition to the five ministers from the Quint, it was agreed that the group would be expanded to include former foreign Ministers from NATO member countries and other major powers in the international arena, including Igor Ivanov of Russia. The more challenging task was to find an institution that would support the group and help further its ideas. Albright, a board member of the Institute, reached out to Institute President Walter Isaacson, to see if the Institute might serve as the intellectual home for the group. And thus, in 2003, the "Aspen Atlantic Group" was born under the umbrella of the Institute.
The staff at the Institute immediately began to plan a series of meetings for the former Foreign Ministers. They hoped to depart from the all too familiar model of US-European convenings that focused almost exclusively on diagnosing current problems and not enough on advancing constructive dialogue. Furthering thoughtful conversation and getting America and Europe thinking as partners would be the foundation of the group's work. With shared vulnerabilities, such as international terrorism, and shared challenges, such as the rebuilding of Afghanistan and Iraq and seeking resolution to the Middle East peace crisis, cooperation between the US and Europe was critical to both sides.
Moreover, with this assembly of former foreign ministers from both sides of the Atlantic and across the political spectrum, there was reason to believe an invested and cooperative group could move the conversation forward. Building on a history of constructive negotiations, policy acumen, and continued influence as members of parliament, advisors to governments and political parties, and opinion leaders, these former ministers were uniquely positioned to leverage their credentials to promote a more candid, open, and collaborative transatlantic exchange. Most uniquely, the group no longer spoke from binding national positions, and could speak with greater candor. Although finding effective and lasting solutions to the transatlantic differences of 2003 promised to be difficult, the assembled group was determined to try.
The first meeting of the Aspen Atlantic Group, held in June of 2003 at the Institute's Wye River campus, tackled first the questions that inspired the founding of the group. Entitled Transatlantic Relationship at the Crossroads, the group discussed whether differing views on multilateralism and the use of force would prevent Europe and America from addressing their long list of global challenges together. In addition to the Quint members, the group included Lloyd Axworthy of Canada, Ismail Cem of Turkey, Erik Derycke of Belgium, Jaime Gama of Portugal, Bronislaw Geremek of Poland, Nadezhda Mihaylova of Bulgaria, and Jozias van Aartsen of The Netherlands. Also in attendance were senior members of the administration and Congress, along with experts from academia and think-tanks. The stakes could not have been higher. Jim Steinberg, who would later serve as President Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State, wrote a paper for the group that laid out the stark choice:
"As with most debates, each side brings an element of truth to its argument. Perhaps even more important, which side proves more 'right' in the long-term depends as much on the choices US and European leaders make today, as on the relative force of long-term trends that are both pulling us together and pushing us apart. This is not the first time in our histories that the transatlantic bargain has been stressed. But there is reason to believe the new challenges facing the United States and Europe are qualitatively different from those that have vexed us in the past…"
Looming large over this first debate was a critical concern: Was atlanticism dead, to be replaced by new, ad hoc arrangements? This question was at the heart of the debate on invading Iraq and was especially difficult for this particular group of ministers, whose cooperation in Kosovo had demonstrated how important a united transatlantic front could be in marshaling support for decisive military and diplomatic action. None of the former ministers believed that the alliance between the US and Europe had outlived its strategic purpose, but there was little doubt that Europe and the United States would need new strategies to repair the relationship and return to a shared agenda. Drawing on their reservoirs of experience, the group worked together to develop core principles for a new relationship between the United States and Europe, focusing first on post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq.
Over time, as the group grew, the topics also diverged. Despite being the most widely discussed divide between the US and Europe, action in Iraq was not the only issue complicating the transatlantic relationship. Disagreements over other areas of policy further divided the old allies, including differing views on environmental protections and the Kyoto Protocol, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the International Criminal Court, national missile defense, capital punishment, and regulations on trade.
A further shift in the group's mission came following its 9th meeting in 2009, entitled Turkey: Forging a Common Agenda for a Defining Moment, held in Ankara. In this first ever meeting held outside of North America or western Europe, discussion focused on Turkey’s unique role in the Middle East, European and Turkish perspectives on the accession to European Union membership, and the financial crisis' impact on foreign policy.
Around the table in Ankara, the sixteen former foreign ministers that now comprised the group realized that the challenges that were being discussed exceeded the boundaries of the transatlantic sphere. Moreover, the group wished to include a more global perspective that would be more inclusive of views outside the Atlantic.
"There was a conscious shift," recalled Albright, "that was triggered in part by consensus among members of the group that today's challenges are clearly relevant to and shared by other regions and actors. It points to a broader recognition that many emerging countries have an indispensable role in an increasingly interconnected and multipolar world." The group today includes ministers from countries such as Egypt, Russia, Jordan, Thailand, Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden and India, and bears a new name to reflect its broadened scope: The Aspen Ministers Forum.
Perhaps the most illustrative examples of the group's broadened vision are the two most recent meetings in 2011 and 2012, which centered on the global loss of faith in international institutions. At the 2011 meeting in The Hague, the group gathered nearly 40 ministers, academics, and researchers to assess the fitness of international organizations to address contemporary challenges and identify ways to improve their accountability, transparency, and legitimacy.
In Copenhagen in 2010, the group focused on ways to strengthen these institutions, specifically in the areas of peace and security. Sessions explored United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s vision for his second term at the helm of the United Nations, as well as peacekeeping, collective security, economic stabilization, and the UN’s role in climate change policy.
An important byproduct of the group’s diversification is that it has allowed greater room to devise creative action plans and outputs. At the Hague meeting, the group could not ignore the revolutions under way in North Africa and the Middle East. Of particular concern was the ongoing violence in Syria, and the possibility of using international institutions to stop the bloodshed. The idea of using the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation into the bloodletting in Syria was conceived during discussions on confidence in and the capabilities of international institutions today, and resulted in a joint op-ed piece by the ministers in the Financial Times.
"I was a practitioner of international politics for nearly 20 years where everything is done on the run, you are switching subjects hourly and never getting much time to reflect on, or sustain, a helicopter view," said former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs for New Zealand Don McKinnon. "The great thing about the Aspen Ministers Forum is having the opportunity to spend time discussing a subject and developing strategies with the luxury of time, and, across many of the same or similar areas where all of us were previously intensely involved. The background knowledge, knowing the key players and what, empirically, does and does not work gives our proposals some value."
The group continues to grow, both in number and in scope. Each year, as Ministers leave their official posts and titles around the world, they are considered as potential members. Meanwhile, the group has had the opportunity to twice give back to the Institute by helping to launch Aspen España in 2010 and Aspen Institute Prague in 2012. With 2013 marking the 10th anniversary of the Ministers Forum, now is an appropriate moment to look back and see how the group has evolved to adapt itself to the shifting international landscape. The threats to global security remain unchanged, but "Madeleine and her exes," as the group is affectionately called, reflect a globalized world in which incentive to cooperate has never been higher.