America alienates Europe at its own peril
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Washington Treaty, which created NATO in 1949 and laid the foundations for the modern transatlantic relationship. Since then, the US and Europe have achieved much together: the Soviet Union has been relocated into history’s dustbin, Winston Churchill’s metaphorical Iron Curtain has come down, and the risk of nuclear Armageddon has faded. Not a bad resume.
Although the world has changed, the transatlantic relationship remains as vital as ever. Through its war against Ukraine and hostile influence operations on both sides of the Atlantic, Russia has made it clear that it wants to be seen as a revisionist power and as an adversary of the West. An increasingly powerful and assertive China is also challenging the existing liberal international order, which the US helped to create with its allies after World War II. These challenges require common transatlantic solutions.
Yet, the transatlantic bond is arguably weaker today than at any moment since 1949. Both sides are to blame for this. Concerning the US, President Donald J. Trump has alienated many of America’s European allies through his hostile rhetoric. The President has shocked Europeans by calling the EU a foe and arguing—wrongly—that it was set up to take advantage of the US economically. Europeans have also been disturbed by his alleged desire to quit NATO, a move that would hand Russia the biggest grand strategic prize it could imagine.
European Atlanticists are also dismayed by Trump’s affinity for European populists and ethno-nationalists. His world view seems often closer to that of former UK Independence Party leader and Brexit architect Nigel Farage than that of German Chancellor Angela Markel. This is evident, for example, from the administration’s hostility towards the EU.
In December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in Brussels that mentioned the EU only once, even though he was speaking a block away from the European Parliament. Moreover, this mention was delivered in the form of a thinly veiled punch to the gut of his European audience: Pompeo asked whether the EU is placing the interests of its members and their citizens before those of Brussels-based bureaucrats.
Europeans are used to occasional transatlantic rifts and American straight talk. The two sides were bitterly divided over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and many Europeans still have not fully forgiven former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for simplistically dividing the continent into ‘old Europe’ and ‘new Europe’. Yet, Europeans worry that the Trump administration represents something qualitatively different, implicitly if not explicitly hostile towards them, at least on certain issues.
Yet, Europe itself has also contributed to the weakening of the transatlantic bond. The US is right to criticize Europeans for failing to reach NATO’s 2% of GDP defence spending target, due to an entrenched culture of free riding. European societies have also grown psychologically somewhat apart from the US, which manifest itself in popular opposition to initiatives such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Although it was President Trump who halted TTIP negotiations in 2018, there was little chance that a final deal would have been ratified in all EU countries.
The US also has a point in arguing that Europe could do more to support American foreign policy goals, as Vice President Mike Pence suggested in his ill-received speech at the 2019 Munich Security Conference. On some issues such as the future of the so-called Iran Deal, the emergence of a common transatlantic position is unlikely, at least for now.
On others such as the political crisis in Venezuela, in which the geostrategic implications for Europe itself are limited at best, there should be a more concerted effort on the European side to support the American line as a goodwill demonstration and also to project transatlantic unity to the outside world.
Yet, even though Europeans can sometimes be frustrating allies, the US should not be sleepwalking away from the transatlantic relationship by siding with populists, treating the EU as a foe, and dismissing NATO. In a turbulent world where there are many threats to US national security, maintaining traditional alliances will help the current and future US administrations mitigate those threats.
The defining international security issue of the 21st century is likely to be the Sino-American rivalry. As China’s power increases, the need for Washington to balance Beijing to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond will grow correspondingly. However, China’s economic power is already greater than that of America’s great power rivals in the 20th century: the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Imperial Germany and Imperial Japan. This means that the US cannot afford to alienate its existing allies.
Collaborating with, at times, frustrating Europeans will therefore continue to be important for the US. America will need Europe to form an effective coalition to balance against the negative aspects of China’s growing influence around the world, including within Europe itself.
It will also need Europe to preserve and protect the fundamental elements of the existing liberal international order, which is under unprecedented pressure. As Sparta needed allies to stand against a rising Athens in the fifth century BC, so too will the US need its allies to stand against a rising China today.
In 1963, France and Germany signed the Elysée Treaty, which set the framework for their post-war relations and laid the foundations for further European integration. This January, France and Germany signed the Treaty of Aachen, to strengthen their bilateral ties and set future priorities.
To recalibrate the transatlantic relationship in the 21st century, the 70th anniversary of the Washington Treaty could be celebrated with a new treaty in which the US and Europe would recommit to tackling common challenges. To increase its appeal to the White House, it could even be called the Mar-a-Lago Treaty.