17th Sep 2019


A new era for EU-US relations?

  • (Photo: European Commission)

As many Europeans ponder about the putative blessings of the post-Bush era, it is only opportune to ask how the at-times strained transatlantic relationship might evolve in the future.

Will a new tenant in the White House - especially a Democratic one whose credentials seem to promise a clear departure from the current administration's foreign policy - really alter European perceptions of the US?

Read and decide

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If the phrase coined by the Truman administration still holds true today and "partisan politics stops at the water's edge", the now often-heard notion of change could be one of form rather than substance for Europe. Would that really be enough to transform the current atmosphere and herald the beginning of a new transatlantic spring?

True, it seems likely that all of the remaining candidates with a realistic chance to obtain the presidency would close down the Guantanamo Bay detention centre, opt for more multilateralism, battle climate change more effectively, favour additional rights for homosexuals, and increase gun control - to name but a few issues that many on the old continent have taken issue with.

Yet none of the contenders can offer the panacea for many of the foreign policy quandaries of our time. Such is the case with Iraq, even if the candidates' respective policies towards troop deployment vary quite dramatically. At the same time, all three contenders are advocating a tough stance against Iran and will push Europe for a greater commitment in these areas, as well as in Afghanistan and many other international security matters.

Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown are all seen as textbook Atlanticists in Washington and will soon feel the strong embrace of the US. The juxtaposition of this European triumvirate, with a new "POTUS" and a Democratic-dominated Congress, could hardly have been dreamt by Americans seeking US-EU rapprochement only a few years ago.

Nonetheless, while the political climate is likely to improve due to the new power-constellation, differences will remain. It is simply a question of how to deal with them. And they will have to be dealt with in light of the challenges ahead.

While there may not be a single overarching, strategic challenge to discern today, tests for the transatlantic alliance come in a bundle that is greater than the sum of its parts. It will take a stupendous effort to overcome these often interlinked, yet mostly anarchic threats in light of the erosion of our common principles, which we seem to be taking increasingly for granted.

So if values such as democracy, the rule of law, pluralism and an independent media don't suffice as uniting forces in themselves, shared threats may just do the trick, whether an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan; a volatile Middle East; international terrorism or the wearing down of democratic structures coupled with the rise of authoritarian capitalism. There is plenty to worry about together.

Recent polls conducted by the German Marshall Fund, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the University of Siena all underscore these notions: Americans and Europeans are increasingly reconciling their threat perceptions. As a corollary, and while support for the US in general remains weak amongst the general public in EU countries, an ever-closer transatlantic cooperation is being desired in Brussels and European capitals.

What kind of US leadership?

The question is therefore not really whether US leadership is wanted or not - most political elites acknowledge that there is currently no alternative to it - but, rather, what kind of leadership the US can and should provide and how Europe can exert greater influence on what former secretary of state Madeleine Albright has rightly described as the "indispensable nation".

For the US too, there now appears to be added value for transatlantic cooperation. EU reform, as seen through a US prism, created a sense of opportunity for a more able partner - a less inward-looking EU. Furthermore, increased involvement by EU member states in peace-keeping missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chad, Darfur, Lebanon and other countries have further stepped up hopes for a credible partner on the international stage.

But, of course, such missions often constitute the proverbial drop in the ocean. As we have come to expect nothing less of the US than responsible leadership, we should ask ourselves what we owe to this alliance as well. While it was acceptable for the US to have a weak and dependent partner in Europe during the Cold War because Europe was of predominant geopolitical importance, this no longer holds true. Quite the contrary. If Europe wants to raise its own relevance, it needs to become more autonomous and coherent and has to boost its military capabilities in order to be perceived as a significant force by the US.

An America under a new leadership would be more than open to such overtures because, in reality, the US is not the "hyperpuissance" it has disaffectionately been described as. That it often cannot project such relentless power is one of the harsh lessons learned under the Bush aegis.

The gap between the only remaining superpower and others will further narrow, and other actors will play an increasingly prominent role on the international stage, for economic as well as demographic reasons. Both sides of the Atlantic should therefore have an interest in shaping up multilateral institutions in order to adapt to new realities. To do so does not suggest that the US will not act unilaterally when it feels that it has to, nor does it mean that Europe automatically possesses the power and will to assume greater responsibility. But it will become more difficult for European governments to rebuff a more multilateral US administration's requests for a greater military involvement on the world stage.

As a whole, Europe should be optimistic towards the next presidency, though cautiously so. While the Atlantic rift is likely to narrow in the months and years ahead, we should bear in mind that the next US president remains first and foremost accountable to his own Congress and constituents.

This means that the US will keep making foreign policy decisions that lie in the perceived national interest and that cannot always be reconciled with expectations that would make it more popular abroad. Nevertheless, a genuine alliance is attainable if both sides attempt to reconcile their strategic visions beyond an à la carte relationship. A US change in style and rhetoric will not procure a landslide of support in Europe, but it might well be a necessary precursor for a revived partnership.

The author is senior fellow for EU affairs at the Transatlantic Institute


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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