For decades during the Cold War, the United States and Europe had a steadfast alliance with a palpable purpose: We stood shoulder to shoulder to stave off the menace of the Soviet Union. The relationship was seemingly unbreakable because communism represented an existential threat to the very foundations of human freedom.

But now, without that unifying force, the transatlantic alliance has become tattered – like a flag that has weathered one too many hurricanes.

The United States is partly to blame, with our my-way-or-the-highway approach. But the Europeans are also at fault because often they leave us doing the heavy lifting. Young men and women from New York and San Francisco and Ames, Iowa are daily giving their lives in defense of freedom while their counterparts in Bonn and Paris stroll the avenues, admiring Europe’s great prosperity. The wealth and security enjoyed by Europe today is a direct result of the American security umbrella granted Europe after World War II. But instead of doing their part to keep this umbrella upright, Europe continues to rely on our shelter. The military spending of all of its countries combined is dwarfed by U.S. military spending.

And so the transatlantic relationship has gone off course, adrift in competing priorities and missed opportunities.

A case in point: Last week at the close of the G-8 summit, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries strode confidently across a sprawling, bucolic lawn in Germany to hold a press conference, only to deliver the contents of a hollow script.

The G-8’s tentative commitment on global warming had been watered down because the United States refused reasonable pollution targets offered by the Europeans. The G-8’s commitment to renew our efforts to save Afghanistan did not bind European nations to any specific goals. The commitment to stop the horrendous regime in Iran from developing nuclear weapons was diluted beyond recognition. And there simply was no commitment to meaningful action to end the persecution and slaughter in Darfur.

All of these missed opportunities represent more than just items on a list. Between the risk to the environment and the risk to the freedom and security of people across the globe, the very health of the planet is at stake. The Europeans and the United States could not face a more dire and morally fraught agenda.

Americans and Europeans – working together – need to seize the opportunity to revitalize NATO, a revitalization process that begins in Afghanistan. A NATO victory there would be a lifeline for the future of the Alliance, proof of NATO’s continued relevance in the post-Cold War world.

Our friends in Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK have bravely let their troops be placed in harm’s way for the sake of NATO’s all-important mission in Afghanistan. But other European nations must live up to their convictions by following suit rather than ducking the frontlines.

If French and German soldiers aren’t willing to serve on the frontlines, Afghanistan could devolve once again into a state-sponsored launching pad for terror. And so it symbolizes another opportunity for the transatlantic alliance to lead: in wiping out the scourge of global terrorism. Since the September 11th attacks, the United States and the European Union have embarked on a massive effort to crack down on terror groups. But if the collaboration is going to work, it is imperative that the EU and the US solve our significant differences on extradition, information sharing, visa waiver and other things.

If we are serious about cracking down on rogue regimes, the Europeans need to do more on Iran. Ahmadinejad’s abhorrent reign represents the most de-stabilizing existential security threat on the globe today. The European Union and the United States must jointly enact powerful sanctions that prevent anyone from doing business with Iran’s energy sector. But many individual European nations have clearly decided it is more important to make money by doing business with Iran than to recognize its threat to society. Shame on them.

Our joint world leadership with the Europeans should not end with the battle against authoritarian state sponsors of terror. It must extend to regions where freedom itself is suppressed. That is why the EU must exert its influence on Russia not to block a UN Security Council resolution putting Kosova on a path to independence. The people of that war-torn region have lived a nightmare and they deserve their freedom.

Freedoms are being suppressed to an alarming extent in the former Soviet domain under Russian President Putin. I am deeply disturbed by Putin’s pattern of abuse and repression of dissidents, independent journalists, and, in fact, anyone who opposes him.

Europe cannot shrink from this issue. They – and we – must seize the opportunity to confront Putin head-on by condemning his more barbaric practices while working with him on issues like North Korea and Iran.

It is in this spirit that next week our committee will meet with its counterparts in the Russian Duma in a first-ever open session, a groundbreaking opportunity to discuss the most weighty matters of mutual interest in full view of the public – the issues that divide us and the areas of common ground.

Two days ago, I gave a speech at the dedication of a memorial just a few blocks from here to remember victims of communism and the role the west played in bringing the Cold War to an end. We can no more let a society such as Russia slip back into that repressive nightmare than permit others to force on the world their own brand of totalitarianism through terror. In the last century, we bravely wiped out Nazism and communism. The challenges today are no less daunting.

This is a time to right the ship of transatlantic relations and to give it new direction. All the opportunities we have missed in recent years yield new challenges in the years ahead.

In this century we must renew the great transatlantic alliance and more purposefully turn its efforts towards fighting terrorism, opposing oppression, and halting global warming. We cannot afford to miss any more opportunities.