The year of 2016 has been exceptional in delivering potentially transformative political shocks. After Britain decided to adopt the course of withdrawing from the EU, after America elected Donald Trump (in many terms the most unconventional President ever having this privilege), with the EU itself having a political “make-or-break” moment and with Russia geopolitically benefiting from all of it, the transatlantic community reaches another milestone. Because of the cumulative effect of these events, the political alliance that has shaped the world like arguably no other before is once again at the forefront of policy discussions on both sides of the Atlantic – and that could be perceived both as bad news and good news.
On the negative side, the seven decade long political bond between America and Europe has arguably never look so faint as it does look today. At the end of the Cold War, the West (with the US on its forefront) was the sole guardian of the international order and its will and interest were the main determinants of stability, prosperity and security. A quarter of century later, we are living in a world that hardly fits into the aforementioned narrative.
On the positive side, no ambitious partnership can afford to “waste” any serious existential crisis to reflect and address the roots of its inner disorder. And, over the course of president Obama´s administrations, both America and Europe have been wasting time by avoiding such a reflection to take place While the reality of Donald Trump´s public elevation to the highest office of the free world might come to many of us as a rather shocking occurrence, hardly anyone attentive could be shocked by the level of overall regress in the geopolitical weight of the transatlantic partnership – as this process have been continual, tolerated and largely ignored, but on the other side, this regress could have also been prevented from happening. There is almost an unavoidable general tendency to perceive nature of this trend via a prism of fatalism. Yes, admittedly history never pauses as power tends to move within the everchanging international system and the rise of Asia, the resurgence of Russia and the spill-back effect of failed regional transformation attempts in the Middle East have all had an overall negative impact upon transatlantic leadership, but there is certainly more in the causality of the perceived transatlantic despair.
The most obvious, yet societally ignored and politically neglected factor of the regress rests in the lack of mutual appreciation of the value of the transatlantic bond. Despite the realization that NATO is the ultimate cornerstone of European security, only few of the European allies have taken continuous American calls for enhanced budgetary contribution in European defences to their hearts despite being fully aware of the continual damage done to the mutual relations.
On the economic and societal fronts, the globalization pioneered by both America and Europe has empowered citizens around the globe to live more flexible, interconnected and mobile lives than any generation ever before have had a chance to live. However, the very same globalization induced rising inequalities in the very same societies. Blinded by our hubris of societal progressiveness, we somehow failed to realize that maintaining a sound level of social cohesion is a key precondition for a functioning democracy, stabile societies and capable (i.e. non-demagogic and populist) political leadership. The rejection of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on both sides of the Atlantic is the clearest demonstration of public aversion towards encouraging more dynamism before the lack of cohesion is being addressed.
Furthermore, the prospects of positive reforms in transatlantic affairs (both NATO and TTIP related) are being complicated by the fact of a key American political ally (i.e. Britain) embarking on a path out of the political Europe. On the continent itself, the Dutch, German and French political mainstream is already bracing for the outcome of key elections in 2017. The Italian PM Matteo Renzi is struggling to maintain power. The Europe´s south is continuing to cope with governance inefficiencies and significant part of Central Europe has been more than flirting with Putinism.
Despite the daunting mood in the West, it is important to understand that the decrease in relevance of the transatlantic relations has not happened primarily because of the objective decrease in power, or influence, or prestige that the West possess externally. But the relevance of transatlanticism faded rather due to an ignored malaise in our strategic judgement and due to a too-long tolerated lack of will to honour our mutual commitments – what has ultimately weakened us internally. Last weekend, at the Château Béla, GLOBSEC hosted exceptional transatlantic leaders seeking to address these challenges with building a new narrative for transatlantic relations defined exactly in honouring our mutual commitments, comprehending the changing reality within our societies and understanding the dire strategic implications of a divorce.
The stakes are as high as they could be since further potential decline in American global leadership and continued European political incompetence could not only threaten the existence of Euro-Atlantic political axis in shaping global affairs in general, but it would almost certainly produce a profound change in the politics and security of Europe and would also push America towards an even greater isolation.
After a divisive, aggressive and unpleasant campaign, the weight of responsibility of occupying the Oval Office will reveal us the width of the gap between candidate Trump and president Trump, or if you will, between the Donald Trump – a politician and Donald Trump – a statesman. While difficult to resolutely foresee, the next US administration will presumably pursue a transactional approach to the transatlantic partnership – both in security and economic affairs. That essentially implies that a Trump presidency could be (at least a modest) catalyst for European political leadership – if there will be one for the start. Before committing fully to the conventional Allied obligations, the new US leadership will likely be eager to witness substantially greater European drive towards honouring their share of the “transatlantic deal”. That implies that “the ball” is on the side of Europe. Showing determination to invest in security, defence, intelligence cooperation will be equally important than pursuing walkable path in regaining transatlantic leadership in global trade policy. Europe has relied for too long on American pro-activeness, despite its obvious internal challenges, it needs to make a credible and compelling case for the new American administration to preserve the transatlantic bond.
Tomáš A. Nagy
Defence and Security Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute