The Transatlantic Relationship Was Already Dying

The Transatlantic Relationship Was Already Dying
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
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Although America’s political theater has long fascinated and entertained Europe, real estate mogul Donald Trump’s entry into politics has provoked more fear than excitement on the other side of the Atlantic. The election of the brash businessman has caused some to already declare the Transatlantic relationship dead. Trump’s lukewarm statements toward NATO, his radical anti-immigrant proposals, and his embrace of Russia will make it difficult for European leaders to embrace him. For many, the Transatlantic community, the bedrock of global democracy, appears to be crumbling.

Yet, while Trump’s election has perhaps put the final nail in the coffin, the bond between the United States and Europe was already on life support well before any votes were cast this November. Recent years have seen a slew of high-profile disagreements on issues including Russian sanctions, government data collection and surveillance, and counterterrorism. In addition, the Obama administration has openly pushed for a “pivot” away from Europe and the Middle East toward the Pacific theater, and leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have struggled to agree on new trade deals. Once considered paramount for both Europe and the United States, today the transatlantic partnership has faded in significance. While many have bemoaned this development, it is not so much a political failure, but rather a sign of what Transatlantic ties have accomplished in transforming the international community.

The Transatlantic relationship -- a term used to define the shared defense, economic, diplomatic, and cultural ties between the United States and the democracies of Europe -- was born out of necessity after the Second World War. The fragile states of Western Europe relied on the United States to help rebuild their shattered economies, to guard against Communist pressure within their politics, and to defend against potential Soviet invasions. The United States, for its part, was paranoid of potential Communist domination in Europe and relied on its European allies to offset the growth of Russian power among Eastern European nations. Although disagreements and tensions routinely surfaced during the Cold War, the common goal of defeating Communism cemented the Transatlantic alliance as the cornerstone of each side’s foreign policy.

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the necessity of this alliance is now in question. Economically, Europe has transformed from a dependent of the United States to a primary competitor. At the same time, the fall of the Soviet Union has drastically reduced the threat of direct military conflict in the Continent. While Europe still must confront evolving security problems emerging from the Middle East, North Africa, and a more assertive Russia, these threats pale in comparison to those once posed by the Soviet Union. With Europe rich and the Soviet threat defeated, many Americans including Trump have questioned the need for using American resources to defend Europe. Why, they ask, should the United States continue to be responsible for the defense of these nations who are not actively threatened by a global power and who are more than capable of paying for their own defense?

Amid new levels of wealth and unprecedented stability in Europe, the United States and the European powers have been free to focus in more recent years on other regions and partners around the world. Although they have certainly cooperated with many non-democracies in the past, the United States and Europe have traditionally favored working with “like-minded” partners, and the spread of global democracy has resulted in more potential partners today than existed fifty years ago. Once the only advanced market economies in the world, Western democracies are now almost as dependent on East Asian economies as they are on their Atlantic partners. While the Transatlantic trade deal sputters, both sides are reaching out to potential trade partners in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The “catch-up” of newly prosperous nations around the world, aided by important assistance from the Transatlantic community, means that there are now more relationships to be built. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Transatlantic connection has faded in significance.

While many will point to Trump’s victory as the deathblow to Transatlantic cooperation, the days of the alliance as the cornerstone of Western foreign policy had already ended. Created to defeat global Communism and help usher in a new international system, the alliance has largely been successful in dispersing power amongst a more diverse global community of states. The successful economic, technological, and democratic development of other states has ironically taken away much of the fire driving the Transatlantic relationship. Europe and the United States are now pursuing their own respective courses with new global partners. Indeed, some of these new partnerships may at times be favored over the formerly paramount Transatlantic ties. 

As the Transatlantic alliance falls from its once dominant position, Europe and the United States will begin to pursue more divergent policies as they adapt to increasingly varied national interests. Transatlantic cooperation may become more transactional and calculated and less reflexive as the geopolitical necessity for acting in complete lockstep recedes. Still, American and Europeans should take heart that this change is not the result of Trump’s victory or other domestic political turbulence, but rather a reflection of the Transatlantic alliance’s success in transforming the global community.

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