The golden age of transatlantic relations is behind us. It is tempting to reduce the reasons for this change down to the personalities of the leaders involved, and particularly to the peculiarities of U.S. President Donald Trump, but such an approach would ignore the deeper trends that have been affecting both the European and American sides for years. The relationship between the United States and Europe does not have the centrality it once had for policymakers on either side, and matters ever less to their publics. Part of the reason for the diminution of the relationship’s importance should be cause for celebration: the main strategic adversary that justified America’s deep commitment to the European continent—the Soviet Union (USSR)—has collapsed. Despite divisions and setbacks, most of Europe is reunited and the past two decades have seen a tremendous expansion of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to new members. The Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donbas have given new impetus to NATO and underscored the willingness of allies to stand together. Setbacks in the rule of law in Poland, Hungary, and Romania, and divisions over the management of the Eurozone and the refugee crisis, should not obscure the tremendous success the last three decades have seen for the transatlantic alliance and European unity.
Yet there is much that is sobering in the current diminution of ties and cooperation. Other challenges and threats have emerged to demand attention: terrorism, instability in the Middle East, and the rise of China all present new challenges. The financial crisis and failed foreign interventions have fueled skepticism over the role of the United States on the international stage. Internal divisions in Europe and the euro crises have turned European attention inward even as the past two American presidents have pressed Europeans to do more externally and spend more on their own security. Leaders on both sides have pursued different priorities, occasionally differing in their worldviews. The American withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement (JCPOA) on May 8th has sparked yet another “crisis of transatlantic relations,” but focusing on specific decisions obscures the deeper trends. Successive American presidents have paid but lip service to their European allies in making decisions beyond the transatlantic sphere and examples of potential cooperation on crises such as Libya or Syria have ended in failure.
There is no “normal” state of affairs to which both sides will revert, reinstalling the transatlantic relationship as the central foreign policy paradigm for both sides. If anything, countries following their own paths are normal. This statement should be cause for neither celebration, nostalgia, despair, nor plaintive calls for more “leadership” and a better communications strategy. A few more presidential speeches and fewer tweets will not change the current mood.
The widening divide between Europe and the United States is masked, in part, by institutions and experts on both sides of the Atlantic who are deeply invested in celebrating the glorious past and promoting the promising future of the transatlantic alliance. But rising indifference among senior leaders and apathy or opposition among ordinary citizens on both sides of the Atlantic belies the vibrancy of this community.
We believe that as liberal democracies, the United States and Europe are still linked by a community of values and interests. Dismantling the legacy of the post-cold war system would be a catastrophe, as would any embrace of populism and extremism. But this shouldn’t preclude sobering dialogue over the actual—and not simply the historical or perceived—interests and priorities of both sides. We must come to terms with the fact that both sides will and should act increasingly autonomously. Denying this reality could lead to dramatic miscalculation, especially on the European side.
American leaders remain committed to NATO and its collective security system for Europe. Yet guaranteed American protection for Europe creates a moral hazard even as the threat of U.S. disengagement (driven by concerns over “free riding”) risks encouraging European hedging and the appeasement of revisionist powers. How the United States navigates this dilemma will be one of the key challenges of the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, there will be little appetite, whoever is president, to guarantee European security in challenges of lower intensity—that is, under the threshold of NATO Article V’s “armed attack.” The “southern dimension” of European security concerns, largely involving fear of uncontrolled migration as a result of turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, has failed to move either of Presidents Obama and Trump. The United States will remain engaged in the Middle East and consult with allies, but there is perhaps no clearer illustration of the differing interests of Europe and the United States: The United States sees migration to Europe as a European problem, and Europeans have no plausible reason to see the matter as an American problem.
American leaders have a stake in maintaining a stable and united Europe, but they should use the coming years to help Europeans gain autonomy. The United States should encourage even embryonic efforts to promote defense integration and capacity investment within the European Union—rather than reflexively resist or worry about them as a perceived challenge to NATO. Furthermore, both sides should focus on areas on potential cooperation, such as fighting terrorism or responding to the rise of China, rather than differences or areas in which Europeans have little effective value to add.
Will both sides of the Atlantic succumb to the internal and external forces that are driving them apart? Is the transatlantic project an anachronistic, post-World War II collaboration that has outlived its usefulness? We think not. U.S.-European cooperation on an unsentimental basis does indeed have value. But what do political leaders need to do to persuade their publics that the risks and costs of this relationship are warranted?
Over the past two years, both before and after the 2016 American presidential election, we traveled to Europe and spoke with experts and policymakers. As one would expect, the answers to the above questions varied tremendously depending on the perspective of our interviewees, their national origin, and the timing and context of our talks. Events in Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and other countries influenced the content and color of these conversations. The United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the EU, in particular, provoked a series of exchanges about the future of Europe and what a fractured and divided European Union would mean for the United States. So also did the unexpected election of Donald J. Trump as the new U.S. President.
In the following pages, we will try to capture the richness of these conversations and what these responses suggest for the future of transatlantic cooperation. We have used the comments and insights our conversations provided to develop an account of where the transatlantic relationship has been and where it could go in the future. Our answers are not absolute. Changes in American and European leadership, a dramatic increase in terrorist attacks in Europe or the United States, further Russian aggression in the Baltics or elsewhere in Europe, or any number of new developments could change the calculus very quickly and decisively.
The preeminent Atlanticist, Winston Churchill, said: “It is impossible to look too far ahead. Only one link of the chain of destiny can be handled at a time.”1 Yet, short of some dramatic new development, the outlook for the transatlantic relationship is modest at best. NATO will continue to exist, and the promise of the collective security guarantees of Article V of NATO’s charter will still give assurance to those most threatened by powerful neighbors. Trade deals between the U.S. and EU have been put on ice, Brexit threatens to cause some temporary disruptions in commerce and investment, and President Trump speaks unfavorably of globalization. Nonetheless, the American and European economies will remain highly integrated. But the grand U.S.-European partnership that helped to undermine the Soviet Union and then integrate so many countries into the Western, democratic world may be the victim of weariness, internal divisions, and uncertainty in an increasingly chaotic world.