To Improve Transatlantic Relations Look to History and Identity

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
September 25, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Donald TrumpNATOChinaAlliesNational Security

To Improve Transatlantic Relations Look to History and Identity

Without leadership by example from Europe or America, the world order will shift in China's favor.


In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the demise of the Iran Deal, squabbles about burden sharing in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, tariff wars, and general confusion over U.S. policymaking, transatlantic relations appear worse for the wear. Explicit security guarantees aside, the transatlantic sense of friendship, commonalities, and a shared identity, are all being subsumed by both rancor and uncertainty.

Responses by everyone from policymakers to academics have exhibited a kind of “stepping up” mentality. This means intensifying and renewing efforts to strengthen the ties that bind America to its European allies to preserve “the transatlantic relationship,” and the amicable cross-spectrum cooperation it engendered.


With all the hand-wringing over the current state of “the relationship,” one might be tempted to think it had been a steady constant vital to the liberal world order. But nothing could be further from the truth. “The relationship,” if there is such an entity, has always ebbed and flowed, waxed and waned. The presumption that transatlantic nations and its citizens can be lured back into congruence is misguided. Indeed, to rise above squabbles and return to a state more conducive to cooperation, it’s vital to take careful stock of the true nature of the “transatlantic relationship,” and avoid preservation of the status quo for its own sake.

If we were defining it academically, we might say that the “transatlantic relationship” is an idea that is emergent from a series of reciprocal connections and relationships, (economic, security, cultural, social) that undergird it. If we think about national identity and nationalism as the ties that bind a country internally, then transatlantic relations are the ties that bind a country externally. Those ties are an invisible reminder that we are not alone in this world and acting as such has a domino-like effect. The policy framework that produced transatlantic relations as we know them today, the Marshall Plan, was designed to aid in post-war recovery and provided pillars of connectivity between America and its allies at first. It was predicated on the idea that shared values, interests and beliefs make states collectively stronger. But as is the case with all relationships, attention must be paid to the details. For instance, reciprocal obligations between countries absent shared identity and values are unsustainable. In this case, shifts in identity can erode or even destroy reciprocal obligations, as we’ve recently seen. Therefore, shoring up “the relationship” when the foundation is weak is fundamentally the wrong approach.

Arguably all sides have in recent years taken for granted the shared values and interests purported to undergird transatlantic relations. The new trend (promulgated by traditional media and exacerbated by social media) of proclaiming the deteriorated state of affairs has increased lately. These proclamations gained traction with the dawn of the Trump presidency and the administration's new policies, inducing a kind of Trump-based, Trump-sized reaction. More importantly, with the rise of far-right populist movements across the Western world, there is now a hungry audience for this rhetoric that seems to be growing, fueling the divergence of shared identities. Moreover, the emerging culture of criticism and condemnation of U.S. foreign policy has given way to little action from Europe, which is unfortunate—because this is Europe’s soft power moment. Thus, the question isn’t one of volume (i.e., amplifying existing efforts), but of direction. Where should Europe and America place their efforts in this time of eroding ties? What should be done absent shared values and in light of increasingly divergent identities?

The crisis response to this widely acknowledged erosion seems to be redoubling existing efforts by towing the proverbial party line and adhering to traditional diplomatic talking points. This includes declarations that relationships below the heads of state are solid, increased funding for existing projects and programs, and diplomats underscoring commonalities rather than disagreements. Yet, public diplomacy efforts are what they are—neither great nor horrible—tweaks at the margins of public opinion. Meanwhile, it’s possible both that German citizens’ poor view of the United States and Americans, for example, is justified and that targeting perceptions for improvement is not the solution. Furthermore, while there is value in imparting the significance of transatlantic relations on the next generation, transatlantic relations must be allowed to evolve based on the benefits they afford, and when the political climate is conducive. This means healthy transatlantic ties may only become self-evident when they begin to disappear.

Shared security operations and obligations aside, should the remaining Canadian-European liberal world order forge ahead—largely absent U.S. involvement—these actions could ultimately tip the scales of natural affinity further away from America and towards Europe. This requires, at a minimum, forward momentum from Europe, and, in the limit, dynamic leadership. Much to the chagrin of the majority of the western world, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel relinquished the title of “leader of the West” even when she was the only clear successor, instead claiming the more comfortable, unofficial title of “leader of the European Union.” Germany is either far too cautious or hindered by its own history to forge a new path forward, preferring instead to “huddle in the middle.” While Merkel was never convinced that Germany was up to the task, many in the United States thought (and still think) otherwise. Either way, in the long-term this lack of leadership could prove more damaging to “Western values” than any Trump policy alone.

France, under relatively new leadership with President Emmanuel Macron, is all too ready to spearhead the “new West” (sans America) into the next decade. His budget and defense priorities are consistent with new European defense initiatives coming out of Brussels that aim to make Europe more autonomous in ensuring its security. In an age where strength responds to strength, Macron’s tour de force at this year’s G7 summit was the first sign that someone from the EU could pick-up the mantle of “leader of the free world” or, at the very least, shame the United States into a return to “Western values” if and when the time comes. Even with his dipping approval ratings, there’s still enough time for Macron to slip into this role—if he so chooses. However the chips fall, new leadership in Europe or existing leadership with a new view on what it means to lead will be essential, and the new world order must include both France and Germany's voices.

If Europe does not fill this void, transatlantic relations will ultimately wither. Not from a stated death wish for transatlantic relations; rather, as a result of the acceptance of their temporary lull. Eventually, per history’s normal pattern, the United States will, through either social isolation or financial crippling, understand what it means to remove itself from the new world order (to say nothing of leading it) as other countries move to align themselves with the “new West.”

Thus, Europe should concentrate its efforts on values-driven leadership, recruiting the like-minded along the way—leading by example with civility and humility on issues of global import (e.g., conflict prevention, stabilization, and next-generation nonproliferation). Eventually, those that like how Europe is leading (including, but not limited, to individual U.S. congressional members and governors from across the Atlantic) will align their interests accordingly. This is the evolution of transatlantic relations in a “new West.” The alternative—the consistent, hackneyed pursuit of the preservation of transatlantic ties that have been grandfathered-in over the years—will undoubtedly leave a void that could remain for the next six years. We have, of course, had ample warning about China's interest in filling it.

Dr. Amy J. Nelson, Ph.D., is currently a research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. She was previously a Stanton Nuclear Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and a policy analyst in defense trade controls at the U.S.Department of State.   Emily Byrne, MPA, is currently an independent consultant. A public servant by training, she has held various governmental leadership positions as a policy innovator and systems entrepreneur with issue area concentrations in education, housing, and immigration. Both authors were 2017–18 Robert Bosch Foundation Fellows in Berlin, Germany.

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to hold a news conference after participating in the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium July 12, 2018. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause