Unhinged or Reinvented?
Relations between the United States and Europe are at an historic juncture. The US elections in November will be decisive in determining whether the transatlantic partnership will be affirmed and tuned to new challenges or will fracture and collapse.
US relations with Europe have become largely dysfunctional at a time when unprecedented global health, economic, and security challenges demand robust transatlantic leadership. This state of division and mutual inwardness threatens the prosperity, the security, and the well-being of North Americans and Europeans alike.
President Donald Trump bullies allies such as Angela Merkel and embraces autocrats like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Viktor Orbán. He has blown hot and cold on NATO, first declaring it “obsolete” and then calling it a “fine-tuned machine.” He treats the alliance as a protection racket by tying US support for other allies to their defense spending levels. He has imposed “national security” tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from European allies, and has announced that more may follow. He has called the EU a “foe” and “worse than China, just smaller.” He celebrates Brexit and has encouraged other EU member states to leave the bloc. He is disdainful of European priorities, whether climate change, the Middle East peace process, or efforts to improve global health, human rights, and development assistance. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate deal, the INF treaty, the Open Skies agreement, and the WHO as well as his attacks on the WTO have rocked Europeans’ belief that they share common ground with their most important ally.
Transatlantic disarray is not due solely to Trump. Europe seems as likely to fall apart as come together. COVID-19 has ravaged societies and economies with unprecedented ferocity and scale. EU member states have agreed on a recovery package and a multi-year budget going forward. Yet those debates have revealed ongoing differences that could widen once the worst of the pandemic is past.
An EU whose societies are busy distancing themselves from one another is not one prepared to integrate additional societies knocking on its door. The vast spaces of Europe that lie beyond the EU and NATO have become more violent, less free, and less secure than they were a decade ago. Chancellor Merkel recognized this situation when she said that Europe is more fragile than many believe.
What if Trump Is Re-elected?
If Donald Trump is re-elected, the US voting public would have vindicated his view that Americans are suffering through many domestic economic and social ills because the United States has been too generous to the rest of the world, taking in immigrants and paying to defend ungrateful allies, and because the country’s political elite had negotiated a series of flawed international deals that had harmed the US economy and ordinary American workers. A second Trump administration is likely to double down on its agenda of economic nationalism and international burden-shedding.
Unfettered by a need to run for re-election, Trump is likely to be brazenly transactional in his approach to allies. Those who don’t pay don’t get protection. Uncertainty about the US security guarantee would hollow out NATO. Trump’s own former national security advisor, John Bolton, recently wrote that he thought it “highly questionable” that Trump would keep the United States in NATO if given another four years in office.
Euro-optimists may believe that the European allies would quickly coalesce around a new EU framework for their common security. The more likely prospect is that individual European countries would scramble to secure bilateral security deals with Washington, and to look more warily at their neighbors. Without the US as a rudder, NATO allies will head off in different directions. These divisions are likely to be exacerbated by the Trump administration’s efforts to play EU member states off against each other to weaken the EU. The UK after Brexit would rush to cement a bilateral alliance with Washington and be little inclined to tie its security to continental partners, further diminishing Europe’s nuclear deterrent. European countries who believe their security threats come from the east are less likely to support those who believe the main dangers come from the south, and vice versa. Those concerned about Russian intentions or Germany’s growing weight on a continent without an American anchor are likely to seek reinsurance from varying coalitions of continental partners.
These fissures would threaten to return the European continent to the very pattern of history that in the last century brought untold tragedy to Europe, America, and the wider world.
The Trump administration is likely to strike a nationalist course with regard to a COVID-19 vaccine. It would contest European efforts on issues such as climate change, development aid, health, trade, and Iran’s nuclear program. It would do little to rein in Erdogan’s Turkey or to tame the disorder and dysfunction of the Middle East, leaving Europe to pick up the pieces.
Transatlantic breakdown would also embolden Moscow and Beijing to step up their own tactics of disruption and disinformation. President Xi Jinping is likely to probe Europe’s political and economic vulnerabilities. Both countries are likely to work energetically to rewrite the rules of the international order.
Simply stated, the transatlantic partnership would come unhinged. Europe and the United States would be less safe, less prosperous, and less able to deal with the enormous challenges they face.
What if Biden Is Elected?
When he was vice president, Joe Biden emphasized that “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world” and “our catalyst for global cooperation.” Biden’s first instinct will be to turn to Europe as America’s indispensable partner of first resort when it comes to addressing international challenges. He is a passionate transatlanticist.
Nonetheless, if Biden is elected, perhaps the greatest danger to a vital transatlantic bond will be Europe’s temptation to believe that the relationship can go back to “business as usual.” That would be a mistake. The transatlantic alliance as we have known it is dead. A Biden administration will not want to the restore transatlantic partnership; it will want to reinvent it: to position each side of the Atlantic for a world of severe health, economic, and climate challenges, more diffuse power, dizzying technological changes, greater insecurities, billions of new workers and consumers, and intensified global competition.
A reinvented transatlantic partnership will demand more, not less, of Europe. It will require Americans and Europeans to devise a new model of globalization, one geared less to market efficiencies than to enhancing societal resilience and well-being. Some international institutions, such as the WTO, will need to be recast. Others will need new authorities—for instance the WHO, which needs to be able to gather and disseminate real-time information and investigate when states are being deceptive. Still others will need to be created—for instance a global disease surveillance and rapid response system similar in concept to our global weather forecasting capabilities. New mechanisms could be devised to tackle climate change, the proliferation of agents of mass destruction and challenges emanating from the digital, biological, and quantum computing revolutions. The old state-centric multilateralism will not do. A new multilateralism is needed—more inclusive, more networked, more flexible, more agile.
Expecting More from Europe
A Biden administration will expect far more from Europe than Europeans currently seem to appreciate. It will judge the value of transatlantic partnership largely in relation to Europe’s willingness to assume greater leadership in addressing its own challenges and its ability to tackle together with the US a host of problems far beyond European shores.
A Biden administration’s most immediate challenge, however, is likely to be an unenviable confluence of crises at home: the ongoing pandemic, deep social tensions, continued recession, and astronomical levels of government debt. America’s partners should not be surprised, and should in fact welcome, the likelihood that Biden’s initial focus will necessarily be on domestic challenges, because the United States is unlikely to be the type of consistent, outward-looking partner that Europeans need and want if it does not beat COVID-19, generate economic growth, create millions of jobs, and work to heal its deep social, racial, and class divisions. America can’t help others if it can’t even help itself.
That help could come via transatlantic efforts to build international coalitions to end the coronavirus pandemic and to create economic pathways out of the recession. An early step might be a US-EU agreement to lift all trade barriers on medical supplies and equipment. Another might be a Transatlantic Recovery Initiative that galvanizes US and European efforts to generate jobs and growth, and to get the transatlantic economy back on track.
Biden is also likely to announce quickly that the United States is rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. A reinvented transatlantic partnership will then need to quickly work out a joint approach to improving US and EU climate commitments consistent with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a timetable to achieve that ambition.
Biden is likely to want to re-engage with European allies on stopping Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. A reinvented transatlantic coalition could offer to freeze future sanctions on Iran in return for an Iranian freeze on advances in its nuclear weapons program. It could begin talks with Iran on missiles, counter terrorism, human rights, and Tehran’s destabilizing activities in neighboring countries such as Iraq.
Like Trump, Biden wants to end the US’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A reinvented transatlantic partnership will mean building partnerships with actors who can bring some modicum of stability and hope to the peoples of the region. It will mean resetting the course of US and European policy to the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Israel-Palestine struggle. This too, will require more of Europe.
Biden is likely to affirm the value of NATO and US defense commitments, but he will want to define the alliance in terms of the future and not the past. A new Strategic Concept for the alliance, and a truly strategic US-EU partnership, could be the hallmarks of transatlantic reinvention. Unlike Trump, Biden won’t be Putin’s chum. But he is likely to want to engage with Moscow on arms control and other initiatives that can lower risks and avoid accidents and miscalculations that could lead inadvertently to conflict. Europe needs to be prepared with ideas and contributions.
China will be an early test of a reinvented transatlantic partnership. There is a broad consensus in the United States—among Democrats and Republicans alike—that China’s rise as a systemic rival must be addressed. The critical difference is that Trump sought to bludgeon allies into servilely following his confrontational course, whereas Biden is likely to seek to build a coalition together with Europe and other like-minded democracies to address concerns about China, most of which Europeans share. The key will be to hammer out where the US and Europe can engage with China as a partner, for instance on climate and energy issues, health, or anti-piracy; where they must address China as a competitor, for example with regard to Chinese cybertheft, Chinese assaults on intellectual property, forced technology transfers, poor implementation of its WTO obligations, and its state-subsidized overcapacity in steel and potentially autos, robotics, and other sectors of the economy; and how to counter China’s rise as a systemic rival—whether through its efforts to weaken or dilute international norms or to build alternative institutions shaped by illiberal principles.
In the next few years, the transatlantic partnership will be profoundly transformed—for better or for worse. Much will depend on who wins the November election. But much will also turn on Europe’s own actions, for the US debate is more open-ended than Europeans realize, and more susceptible to influence than they may appreciate. In many ways, Donald Trump has relieved Europeans from their own—and equal—responsibility to reinvent the transatlantic partnership for a new age. It has been far easier for them to agree on what they don’t like about Trump than on what they must do together with America.
Reinventing the transatlantic partnership will be painstaking work. It is unclear whether Europeans have the will, or Americans the patience, for it. If we succeed, our partnership will be more equal, more global, and more effective. If we fail, the termites that have been gnawing away at our partnership will finally break through the bulkheads, and our security, our prosperity, and our democracies will be imperiled.
Daniel S. Hamilton is the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins University SAIS and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. This article reflects only his personal views.