Russia Bridges A Transatlantic Trust Divide
In his speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin repeatedly called for international cooperation based on common interests, underlining that possible disagreements and compromise-based solutions are the core of international relations. Credit should be given where it is due: Russia’s own actions in Ukraine have contributed to bridging some transatlantic divides and leading the “West” to enhanced cooperation.
The surveillance activities of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) have led to widespread assertions that trust has been eroded within the transatlantic relationship. Yet the relationship is not shattered as feared. No doubt, knowledgeable observers already knew of U.S. surveillance; it was later revealed that also German and French intelligence agencies closely cooperated with the NSA. But it is Russia’s actions in the neighborhood it shares with the EU, which the West perceived as a threat to transatlantic security, which cushioned the damage of and to some extent steered public attention away from the NSA affair.
What makes the transatlantic partnership stick? To put it shortly: common interests; a sense of collective identity, interdependencies, and joint institutions to deal with problems. The increasing convergence of identities and interests attests that Europe and the United States are not likely to drift apart and that theirsecurity partnership is enduring. The transatlantic area is still economically interpenetrated, as the eurozone crisis and its repercussions for U.S. economy have suggested. Europeans and Americans may sometimes not see eye-to-eye on the role of NATO, yet it is a functioning security institution upholding transatlantic interests and engaging in security matters.
Yet, an imminent common insecurity also contributes to the resilience of transatlantic relations. Insecurities derive from threats that can be either verbal—specific statements that promise damage—or physical—moving forces to uncontested borders, withdrawing ambassadors, or accumulation of military and economic power. The imminence of the threat depends on the perception of the actors who are on the receiving side of verbal or physical action. Thus, threats are socially constructed based upon discussions by experts, the public, and political leaders. International threats become credible—or become an imminent insecurity—if they are perceived as a threat by the intended audience, rather than after the sender of the threat acts upon them.
The crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated that many leaders in Europe and the United States perceive Russia’s actions and its “pervasive propaganda” as a “real and present danger” that “undermine the foundations of the global security architecture.” Russia’s actions have also reinvigorated Eastern European fears of invasion. Lithuania published a war manual and reinstated military conscription. In order to safeguard the country from another cyberattack, as it suffered in 2007, Estonia has been working on digitally backing up the country. The European Parliament called Russia’s actions “a potential threat to the EU itself.” The European Commission President even suggested creating an EU army to show Russia that the member states are “serious about defending the values of the European Union.”
Not only officials are wary of Russia’s actions. Seventy-two percent of surveyed Americans had an unfavorable view of Russia in 2014, as opposed to 43 percent in 2013. At the same time, 49 percent of respondents in 2015 (as opposed to 32 percent in 2014) considered Russia’s military power as a “critical threat” to the United States. Overall, 74 percent of surveyed Europeans had unfavorable view of Russia in 2014, compared to 54 percent in 2013.
Among other factors, these perceptions fueled by Russia’s actions encouraged the EU and the United States to coordinate action and set aside their differences as they faced an imminent threat to European security. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, which threatened the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative, Washington stepped up its economic assistance not only to Ukraine but also to Georgia and Moldova—the other two EaP countries which have consistently been interested in European integration. A set of sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and United States despite divisions within countries has also underlined the willingness for transatlantic cooperation.
Even if still critical of U.S. surveillance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has continued to refer to the United States as a friend, partner, and an ally despite “widely divergent” perceptions. The European Commission and the European Data Protection Supervisor framed their remarks over the NSA and the following developments as steps for “rebuilding trust.” During her February 2015 visit to Washington, “also on behalf of [her] colleagues in the European Union” Merkel underlined that the “foundation for the relationship remains solid” and even in the cases of “fundamental, underlying trust” there may be disagreements, “like there are between friends.” The European public also continues to have a positive image of the United States, with 67 percent of respondents recording a favorable opinion of the country even in the aftermath of NSA revelations.
Thus, despite substantial discourse among European political elites and the public about breach of trust in transatlantic relations, trust is still easily identifiable in the discourse and actions of political elites. Imminent transatlantic insecurities have contributed to the reinforcement of transatlantic relations. Yet, there is no claim that the mentioned insecurities have also positively influenced unity within the EU itself or completely neutralized concerns generated by NSA surveillance. On the contrary, it seems Russia’s actions have reinforced already existing divisions, such as euroskepticism of the governments in Greece and Hungary, and transatlantic partners should be vigilant about Russia’s divisive actions.
Article originally published on www.transatlanticacademy.org