11 July 2018

The Future of the Trans-Atlantic Political and Security Relationship

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Europe have been gradually drifting apart.  Since Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2017, this drifting apart has gained momentum and the two sides of the Trans-Atlantic alliance find themselves further apart than at any time since the Second World War.  In the United States, interest in European affairs has waned since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent rise of China and other emerging markets.  In Europe, there is a growing desire to regain strategic independence from the United States and to play a greater role in global affairs.  This drifting apart will be evident as President Trump visits Europe in the coming days, particularly when he meets with the heads of the member states of NATO, the US-dominated military alliance that has kept the US in Europe since the Second World War.  Likewise, he will meet with the leaders of his country’s leading ally in Europe, the United Kingdom, and its leading competitor, Russia.  However, given the state of US-European relations in recent years, it is expected that President Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be smoother than his state visit to Brexit-torn Britain.  How times have changed.

The View From the United States: From the perspective of a global superpower such as the United States, Europe no longer holds as much interest for Washington as it once did.  In fact, the US never wanted a dominant position in Europe given the isolationist streak that still remains a powerful force in US politics.  After helping Britain, France and their allies to win the First World War, the US abruptly withdrew from Europe.  However, after the Second World War, the US was forced to stay in Europe by a combination of British pleading, a dangerous power vacuum on the European continent, and the start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Since Communism collapsed and the Soviet Union dissolved, the United States’ level of interest in Europe has waned to the point where Europe is no longer one of the two or three top regions in terms of US strategic focus.  Instead, the United States’ sees its global leadership role under threat from the rise of China and the shift in economic and military power to Asia.  This has forced the US to focus more of its military and economic focus to that region.  At the same time, the United States has been forced to continue to intervene in areas such as the Middle East, where its strategic interests are under threat.  This has left little room for Europe, particularly as an increasing number of people in the US favor a reduced focus on global affairs by their country.

The View From Europe: While the United States’ interest in European affairs is in decline, that region is caught in two minds regarding its relationship with the US.  On one hand, European defense capabilities are lower than ever, as decades of neglect and reduced spending have left the region’s armed forces a hollow shell of their former selves.  As such, many European countries remain determined to do whatever it takes to maintain the security blanket provided by the United States, particularly as threats along Europe’s eastern and southern peripheries worsen.  On the other hand, a number of European leaders are determined to allow Europe to have a voice on the global stage that is free of the shackles of Washington.  Some of these leaders believe that their own countries are strong enough to play a global role on their own, but most realize that only a united European Union is large enough to be heard in a world of superpowers such as the United States and China.  Going forward, Europe’s relations with the United States are likely to prove to be highly divisive in Europe.  For example, some countries such as Britain, Poland and the Baltic states are determined to do whatever it takes to keep the US (at least its armed forces) in Europe.  In contrast, larger European countries such as Germany and France are likely to move to secure more strategic independence from the US in the years ahead, splitting European policy towards its Trans-Atlantic partner. 

Going forward, the relationship between the United States and Europe is likely to be decided in Washington.  Simply put, the US may decide that it is no longer interested in defending Europe from external threats and may withdraw the security umbrella that has been in place since the Second World War.  Alternatively, it may decide to remain in Europe, even if it is in a reduced role.  Either way, this leaves Europe in a quandary.  If the United States remains the dominant partner in the Trans-Atlantic alliance, Europe’s strategic independence will be limited as it will remain the West’s junior partner.  On the other hand, if the US withdraws completely from Europe, either a united European Union or individual European countries will regain their strategic independence.  However, this could lead to major divisions within Europe, as the strategic goals of Europe’s larger countries differ greatly, and as we have seen in recent crises involving Europe, these divisions are often impossible to overcome.  Likewise, Europe’s hard power is severely limited and this will hamper Europe’s ability to deal with significant threats on its borders as well as further abroad.  As such, there is a real concern that a withdrawal by the United States from Europe would actually worsen the divisions within Europe, rather than bringing individual European countries closer together.