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Four ways the West can rebuild a crumbling international order

As NATO gets a strategic overhaul, Western allies must rebuild an international order that protects and promotes prosperity and security in the 21st century.

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Leaders need to work together to build a common approach that unites our countries. President Obama’s phone calls to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain about the Euro-crisis were important steps, reflecting a recognition that we are all in this together. The next step is to brainstorm together on strategies for the years to come.

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We cannot leave these challenges to bureaucracies, and we cannot tackle these larger trends if we are acting in dozens of piecemeal approaches. Despite the proliferation of summit meetings – from NATO to EU to US-EU to G8/G20 and more – these venues are now so structured that real, purposeful discussion among leaders is nearly impossible.

In the 1940s and 1950s, democratic leaders made time to talk – in detail and at length, not merely at set-piece summits – and in doing so were able to commit to common action. We need that again.

Second, we need to set the right vision. It is not simply to implement the Lisbon Treaty, or reform NATO, or write a new document. We need to do in our generation what a predecessor generation did for us: lay the foundations for an international order that will nurture democratic, market economic development, and global security for decades to come.

Third, with the right vision, we need a strategy.

Here, I would argue that the best strategy is “Allies first.” Certainly, we must deal with the authoritarians, proliferators, human rights abusers, and other troubling regimes in the world. But we should do so as a united community of nations sharing common democratic values.

This means working with Allies first to hammer out common actions, which then strengthen our hand in dealing with the challenges of the world effectively. The election of a new British government, and early visits by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Prime Minister David Cameron, are perfect opportunities for the United States and UK to start fresh in our bilateral relations, and to begin building such a strategy together.

And fourth, it will mean talking candidly to publics and earning their support. This may be the hardest part of all. It is easier to cater to public opinion, to focus on small problems rather than large ones, and to cut resources today, rather than invest for tomorrow. But the bigger challenges we face are so severe that we cannot continue to ignore them.

Leaders need to explain to voters the tough choices we face and be willing to take sometimes unpopular decisions in order to stave off even worse that may yet come.

These steps are only a beginning. But to reach an end, we have to begin.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.