Souvenirs from a troubled year
WASHINGTON -- Reflecting on the past year in transatlantic relations, it is tempting to compose a scorecard of successes and failures, or a short list of critical events. Many of these items have been discussed in Transatlantic Take when they were front page news. In truth, 2010 is a hard year to rate in transatlantic terms because there have been few clear-cut outcomes, and many open questions remain. Four defining issues, all unresolved, are emblematic of challenges that are likely to be critical in 2011 and beyond.
First, domestic developments remain the key drivers. Societies on both sides of the Atlantic are troubled, insecure, and, in some cases, insolvent. Recent experience calls into question the idea that “rich” countries are places of gentle trends and few shocks. In economic terms, we are hardly out of the woods. The deepening financial crises on Europe’s periphery, most notably in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain, persistent high unemployment, and depressed housing markets, suggest that 2011 could hold some new and unpleasant surprises. Since the start of the great recession, observers have worried about the implications of prolonged economic stringency for social cohesion and politics. After a few years of such stress, populist movements are becoming a real force on the political scene, upsetting established politics in the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and elsewhere.
The results of the American midterm elections also point in this direction. The emergence of a sovereignty-conscious, populist wave could spell revolutionary change across a spectrum of transatlantic concerns, from immigration to the environment, from trade to defense. The pressures for minimalist, inward-looking, and re-nationalized policies have grown, even as the problems facing Atlantic societies are more evidently global in nature. Over the coming year, the unresolved crisis in the eurozone could well present core Europe, and even the United States, with the need for a new and very large bail-out. All of this will place in stark relief the question of whether politics—even security—can and should trump economics when it comes to European and transatlantic cohesion. These questions were answered in a very clear way after World War II, and again in the years after 1990. Will the answer be the same today?
Second, containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions remains foreign policy issue number one, for the Obama Administration and for transatlantic partners. This is one area where the European Union has developed a truly concerted approach, and a place where transatlantic cooperation gets high marks. The June 2010 Iran sanctions vote in the UN Security Council was a watershed event. The fact that Russia and China approved the measure while Turkey voted “no” was a striking indicator of flux on the international scene. But Iran appears undeterred in its drive to become a nuclear, or at least a nuclear-ready power, and 2011 might well hold further surprises on this front.
Third, 2010 has been a year of second thoughts for an American foreign policy that seemed headed for ever-increasing attention to Asia . The experience of the G20 meeting in Seoul, and vocal differences over trade, finance, and climate policy, make clear that Asian partnerships are no easier to manage than those in Europe—and perhaps a lot less predictable. The risk of conflict on the Korean peninsula, the looming strategic competition with China, and the tremendous and still largely undeveloped potential for cooperation with India will surely keep Asia on the American agenda. But these issues will also be high on the European agenda, and the management of all these challenges will be fertile ground for transatlantic cooperation.
Fourth, it is hard to discuss the lessons of 2010 without mentioning WikiLeaks. The release of a mass of relatively low-grade diplomatic message traffic has galvanized the media and the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic. The episode has caused considerable embarrassment and has tarnished the image of American diplomacy. But has the WikiLeaks story raised the general (and generally pretty low) public interest in foreign policy? It will be a good question for the next Transatlantic Trends survey in September 2011.
If nothing else, the leaks remind us that international politics are still made by individuals, often with strong personalities and strong views. These political personalities will face some big and defining questions in 2011. The answers will shape the future of transatlantic relations for some time to come.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.