Revitalizing Transatlantic Relations

The end of the Second World War gave rise to arguably the strongest alliance in human history. The transatlantic partnership between the United States and Europe has been instrumental in avoiding total wars, attaining economic prosperity, and strengthening democratic institutions and liberal norms. Foreign policy experts, however, argue that the alliance is quickly graying as both sides are facing unique challenges domestic and abroad. Although developments in Europe and the United States have placed a strain on both sides and have caused each of them to turn inward, the transatlantic relationship must be, and can be, revitalized.

Julianne Smith’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2016 provides a clear description of the external and internal threats challenging the European Union. The EU’s external threats include regional instability in the Middle East, terrorism, the refugee crisis, and Russian aggression. The end result, Smith concludes, “has been an alarming fracturing of EU solidarity, policy paralysis, and inaction, which in turn is exacerbating a number of internal crises.”[1] One internal crisis is the loss of faith in the European Union by citizens who believe the institution is unable to defend its borders or protect its citizens. Excessive regulation, heavy taxation, a generous welfare system, and an inefficient bureaucracy have led to underperforming economies and the questioning of the EU’s democratic legitimacy, Smith argues. If one believes in the balance of power, then either the collapse or weakening of the European Union will undermine the transatlantic alliance and embolden adversaries. Both would be detrimental to the United States as a global power, as its influence in Europe would be limited and ineffective.

The United States has also struggled to be the unwavering leader Europe has depended on since the Marshall Plan. Ian Bremmer, in his article “The Hollow Alliance,” believes the transatlantic rift has been in the making for decades. The Yugoslav Wars caused many Americans to become frustrated with Europe’s reliance on the United States to solve European security problems. The invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003 was met with fierce resistance by France and Germany. The global financial crisis in 2007-08 made Europeans skeptical of America’s unregulated capitalism. Perhaps most damaging to the integrity of the transatlantic alliance was a WikiLeaks release showing that the United States intentionally spied on European governments and leaders.[2] These developments, although spread out across decades, have created a sense of unease between the two sides. While neither the United States nor Europe should expect the other to be wholly homogenous in its strategic policies, the lack of transparency and communication has hurt the relationship.

Furthermore, the United States is currently undergoing its own identity crisis, pulling attention away from the needs of its European allies. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States has forced Americans to reflect on themselves as a society and as a country of great global influence. Yet, not until the American electorate can accept America’s role in the pivoting global order – whatever it may be – will it be possible for the United States to effectively exercise its envied power with public approval. But given the ever-changing developments in Russia, China, and the Middle East, time is a significant factor, as the world is unlikely to wait for the American electorate to make up its collective mind.

Solutions to revitalizing the critically important relationship between the United States and Europe are similar among policy experts. This is to be expected, as few would argue in favor of American isolationism after the interwar period. Thus, if we must not retract our influence, then we must advance it. Advancing our influence does not mean waging wars or overthrowing dictatorial regimes; in this case it means strengthening relations with allies by being more active and engaged with issues abroad. Simon Serfaty, believing in a resurgent Russia, argues that a convenient way to strengthen America’s transatlantic partnership while countering Russian aggression is to station U.S. forces in Europe and show more support for NATO members.[3] On the other end, Europe must convince citizens that NATO is good for the security of European nations and governments must start paying their fair share to NATO.[4]

Symbolism plays an important role in international relations and can be used as another way to strengthen relations between the United States and Europe, according to Jeffrey Gedmin.[5] In “The West in Crisis: The Demise of Europe or Transatlantic Renewal?,” Gedmin criticizes the Obama Administration for not prioritizing a stronger response to European terrorist attacks, such as having the President attend a unity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Trump Administration may have opportunities to show such solidarity and send a personal message to Europeans that their struggles are our own, and that such challenges can only be overcome when standing side by side. Another show of support would be through the increased acceptance of migrants from the Middle East. This would be an awkward pivot after Trump’s anti-refugee rhetoric, but a compromise could be made if the United States commits to providing refuge to the elderly, women, and children. This would reaffirm American principles and show Europeans that the United States is willing to help and ease Europe’s burden.

Committing to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a wise economic decision. Completing and implementing this trade agreement will create jobs in Europe and increase prosperity, bringing both sides closer together and reminding Europeans of their mutually beneficial relationship with the United States from an economic standpoint.[6]

Finally, the United States must take the leadership role and initiate transatlantic strategic dialogue to share strategic foresight and provide policy input.[7] This is especially important and time-sensitive. Increased communication between the United States and European countries provides the opportunity to build greater links at all stages of the policy process, from perceptions of threat, prioritization, analysis, threat definition and policy formation to implementation and action.[8]

Ultimately, through increased cooperation strategically, symbolically, and economically between the United States and Europe, citizens and governments alike will realize that the United States and Europe are stronger together. If the Trump Administration decides to retract American influence abroad, it will leave Europe discombobulated and at worst will create a global power vacuum. But if transatlantic relations can be revitalized, the current global order will remain for the time being, and the West will be prepared to deal with whatever lies ahead.

– Gregory Kulchyckyj


[1] Julianne Smith “Strains on the European Union: Implications for American Foreign Policy” Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 3 February 2016

[2] Ian Bremmer “The Hollow Alliance” Time 16 June 2016

[3] Serfaty, Simon “The Atlantic Pivot” The National Interest 14 August 2016

[4] Bremmer

[5] Gedmin, Jeffrey “The West in Crisis: The Demise of Europe or Transatlantic Renewal?” War on the Rocks 5 May 2016

[6] Gedmin

[7] Serfaty

[8] Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer “The Future of US Global Leadership Implications for Europe, Canada and Transatlantic Cooperation” Chatham House 9 May 2016

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