What to Watch: Transatlantic Relations in 2018
Will transatlantic democracies finally tackle the problem of foreign interference?
When it comes to the issue of foreign interference in democracies, 2017 was in many ways a lost year. Russia’s attempts to inflame societal divisions in democracies continued even as its interference in the 2016 U.S. elections provoked conversation and investigation. Yet transatlantic governments took few steps to close vulnerabilities. Russia continues to deploy an integrated toolkit blending cyber, disinformation, malign finance, economic coercion, and support for extremism. Governments will need to acknowledge the scope of this threat and break down the silos that impede cross-sectoral steps to address our democracies’ vulnerabilities. In the transatlantic community, there needs to be a greater effort to share lessons learned and to cooperate on this issue outside of law enforcement and intelligence channels. The capabilities of institutions like NATO and the European Union need to be leveraged more effectively to deal with this challenge. With Russia continuing to hone its capabilities and other foreign actors watching closely as European elections and the U.S. midterms loom in 2018, time is of the essence.
Will Europe, overwhelmed and under-resourced, see what it can do in the Balkans?
In 2018, the EU diplomacy will focus on those international issues where it can deliver results. These do not necessarily coincide with the most pressing global problems; the aim will rather be to make sure the EU can make a difference. Alas, this means that the unspeakable bloodshed in the multiple crises in the Middle East will not be assuaged by EU engagement, even if Brussels continues its so far successful efforts to protect the Iran nuclear deal.
In the Balkans the EU can be a game changer, and that is one region where engagement will intensify. And the High Representative will also try to make sure that the deal on defense cooperation (PESCO) reached last December is followed through with concrete projects and incentives for further cooperation.
The battle that should be fought is to make sure the EU puts words into money. As the negotiations for the next multi-annual financial framework start, more resources should be demanded to meet the ever extending list of international issues European states and citizens expect the EU to take care of.
-Rosa Balfour, Senior Fellow, Europe Program
Deeper turmoil in the United States, and an external crises to follow?
The most significant thing to look out for is not what the United States does abroad, but the state of America at home. Disruption is intrinsic to Trump, and this will continue to be at best distracting, and at worst, politically crippling. We seem on the brink of deeper turmoil.
The coming year will challenge the core institutions of American democracy — the press, law enforcement agencies, Congress, and the national security bureaucracy. Trump's troubles will get worse before they get better — no one knows how far the multiple criminal investigations into the administration will go, but it is safe to expect the news will not be good. Trump's response will become more unhinged, and as November's Congressional midterm elections approach, expect talk of impeachment to get louder.
U.S. foreign policy would rumble along, but it would do little more than paint-by-numbers, with Washington finding itself less relevant (as we have seen happen with the United Kingdom over the past few years). Yet history also shows that when faced with domestic turmoil, many leaders — especially those with an authoritarian bent — create crises abroad to consolidate their power and distract from problems at home.
It is hard to say how this will end. But it will not end well.
-Derek Chollet, Executive Vice President and Senior Advisor for Security and Defense Policy
How will Macron consolidate French foreign policy?
2018 will be a testing year for President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign policy motto France is back. The French president should be judged for his ability to sustain his activism at the international level, and particularly in three domains.
The first is Europe. Paris will have to show quick results in working with the newly-formed German government to deliver on eurozone reforms and defense cooperation. In parallel, the Brexit negotiations have entered a new — and even more sensitive — phase where France’s position will be key.
Second, Macron will face new tests at the transatlantic level. His strong personal relationship with Donald Trump has made him Washington’s first European interlocutor, at a time when trade conflict is looming between the United States and the EU. The Franco–U.S. “special relationship” may experience troubled times if economic competition defines transatlantic relations in the coming year.
Finally, global influence will remain a main objective. His state visit in India and his Foreign Minister Le Drian’s trip to Iran set the course of a year in which France will aim to make its voice heard on the global stage and play a mediating role where Washington chooses disruption.
How will Europe respond to Trump?
The Trump administration’s approach to Europe is unlikely to change in 2018. NATO Allies will be encouraged to continue increasing their defense spending. Many Trump administration policies related to global issues, such as climate change, multilateral institutions, and trade will continue to cause heartburn in European capitals. The key transatlantic question of 2018 is how Europe will respond.
Will this be a moment of increased European cohesion and attempts to challenge an increasingly unilateral United States? Or will Europeans’ own divisions and ongoing struggles with their own populist movements mean that their response is muted? Across an increasingly complicated global landscape, it is imperative that the United States and Europe develop a common agenda. From the Balkans to Russia, ongoing conflict in Syria, to Iran, and the rise of China, there are plenty of opportunities. Yet European leaders will have to be willing to work productively with the United States at a time when politically, there may be little upside to doing so.
-Jamie Fly, Senior Fellow and Director, Future of Geopolitics, Asia Program
What will the surge of diversity engagement bring?
Strong men politics and growing populist forces have had a profound impact on groups that are not white and male. While oppressive traditions such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are interconnected, they continue to be handled separately, and “minority” groups have not yet found a good way to approach their own internal diversity. Yet in the United States, African Americans, women, migrants, and others, are using the perceived threat to democracy — personified in Trump — to create a new vibrancy.
Europe is grappling in its own way with being more inclusive — of women, refugees, migrants, religious minorities, and others — in the process of working toward a more comprehensive EU. The #metoo campaign has revealed the common experience of women in Europe, but has not translated into a pan-European challenge. In Europe addressing inclusiveness in our diverse societies is especially complicated, as it is tied up with what kind of Europe its member states and citizens want.
The incredible wave of civil society and political engagement on both sides of the Atlantic launched in 2017 will continue in 2018. This year though, it will be interesting to see how policy makers respond, as the voices demanding inclusion can no longer be ignored.
-Corinna Horst, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Brussels Office
Will transatlanticism turn transactional for Eastern Europe?
Expect countries east of Berlin to display an even more transactional approach to both the European Union and the United States in 2018. The transatlantic community, its values, and norms held rich intrinsic value in the early 1990s and provided an engine for change in Eastern Europe in subsequent years. But a transatlantic orientation has shifted from a major objective to a series of political, military, and economic transactions. The governments in both Central and Eastern Europe, facing elections throughout 2018 and 2019, will intensify their nationalist paths, and/or further slow their already almost stagnant adoption of transatlantic principles. At the same time, security and military cooperation will continue, pushed forward by real security threats and economic interests. But this cooperation will be isolated from transatlantic values, which will be ignored or even flouted. With a crisis of values and principles also in evidence across the Atlantic, transatlanticism will be further reduced to a number of transactions, good enough to address individual problems, yet insufficient to fuel transformation.
-Alina Inayeh, Director, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation
Will transatlantic gap over the Middle East continue to widen?
Throughout 2017, Europe and the United States have placed themselves repeatedly at opposite ends of key Middle East policy positions. From commitment to the nuclear deal with Iran to the position on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Europeans have, with increasing resolve, cast off their doubts over disagreeing with Washington and taken positions in direct contradiction to those defended by the Trump administration.
While the United States has chosen a confrontational course against Iran, a solid consensus across European capitals decidedly backs a strategy of dialogue and de-escalation. The ensuing transatlantic gap is set to widen further in 2018 as intensifying flares of Saudi-Iranian proxy confrontation entrench Middle Eastern polarization. Particularly worrisome in this regard is the future of the JCPOA that will take center stage in the coming months. The deadline set by Trump to European allies to sort out the troubles with Iran in 120 days or reinstate sanctions that will hurt European investments, security, and credibility, is a countdown to a major transatlantic clash.
-Kristina Kausch, Senior Resident Fellow
How much of China’s Communist Party growing influence will we see?
Allegations of Russian interference on Western politics are widespread, but China’s Communist Party is likewise undertaking influence operations around the globe. Not only regional democracies (most prominently Australia), but also European states — including Germany — have recently been targeted.
Expect operations — and the backlash against them — to expand in 2018. Germany will be a special case to watch in 2018 as the last German federal election has resulted in the largest ever German Bundestag with more than 700 representatives from seven different parties including more than 280 newly-elected members. Two thirds of these novices are embedded in established structures and mechanisms of existing party groups or can draw on decades of party practice. The 92 Alternative for Germany (AfD) representatives have no previous experience to draw on. They form the soft underbelly for potential foreign influence on the German parliament. Awareness has to be raised and security mechanisms adapted to incorporate this challenge.
-Janka Oertel, Transatlantic Fellow
What will come of Washington’s rivalry with Beijing?
For China, the most important development to watch is whether President Xi Jinping will actually carry out the radical economic reforms he has long promised but not yet delivered. After gaining political supremacy at the 19th party congress in 2017, Xi will face his own moment of truth. His defenders insist that Xi has relentlessly pursued power in order to carry out reforms. He will have a chance to prove his supporters right — and his skeptics wrong — in 2018.
Everyone should pay attention to U.S.–China relations as they enter a new period of heightened strategic rivalry. As an assertive China keeps expanding its influence and challenging U.S. interests, a consensus is fast forming in Washington that the engagement policy that has sustained U.S.–China relations should be replaced with a more robust and confrontational one. We may see this new policy start taking shape in 2018.
-Minxin Pei, Non-Resident Senior Fellow
More technology, fewer jobs?
The technologies that are changing work and displacing labor — including automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence — will begin to ripen in 2018. For some people and industries these advancements will improve productivity at all skill levels, raise wages, and make work more enjoyable. But as the Mckinsey Global Institute has reported, for millions of others in the United States and Europe, jobs that they now perform will begin to disappear. Work opportunities will grow less stable and the pressure on workers to continually improve and build their skills and maybe even regularly change not just employers but careers will grow. We will need public policy initiatives and investment to help people on both sides of the Atlantic adjust to this structural revolution in production or we will see a populist backlash to technology identical to the current pushback on open markets and trade.
-Daniel Sepulveda, Non-Resident Fellow, Technology and Innovation
Will France and Germany Find a Compromise?
The crucial issue impacting German and European politics alike will be the way Franco–German political chemistry develops in 2018. France and Germany had agreed to an overly ambitious time frame for EU reform, especially concerning the euro. By March, they wanted to have agreed in principle on a workable compromise, by the summer it is supposed to be all hammered out in detail. But given the fact that Berlin will not have a new government before March, this timeline is more than tight. More crucially, the gulf between the two partners on this issue (just as on the issue of defense cooperation) is as wide as it could be. The entire EU dynamic in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament election (and beyond), will depend on whether the two can agree on a workable compromise that is both meaningful in substance and acceptable to the other 25 member states.
-Jan Techau, Director of the Europe Program
Where is Turkey headed?
In 2017, Turkey’s relationship with both the United States and the EU worsened, while cooperation with Russia and Iran on regional issues blossomed. This will continue in 2018 as Turkey finds itself in a kind of regime survival mode, while Washington lacks strategic thinking and the EU remains consumed by its own problems.
While Turkey will continue to drift away from the West, it will not move toward Russia. Turkey has gone a long way from shooting down a Russian plane in 2015 to in 2017 closely cooperating with Moscow in Syria and buying Russian S-400 missile systems. Yet disagreements with Washington are escalating, particularly regarding the role that Syrian Kurd groups (PYD and YPG) will play in Syria’s future. After a decade of shifting orientations, 2018 will find Turkey focusing inward.
-Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Director, Ankara Office
Who will fill the void left by U.S. withdrawal from migration challenges?
On the UN level, negotiations for two big compacts — a global compact on refugees and a global compact on migration — are due to be completed and presented toward the end of 2018. They present the first compacts of their kind on a global scale to establish global political (yet non-binding) rules to allow for migration to be safe, orderly and legal. One big player will be missing from the negotiation table: the United States. In Trump’s “America First” doctrine, a global governance approach is not compatible with U.S. sovereignty. The Trump administration has set a new cap for the U.S. refugee resettlement quota at 45,000 for 2018, the lowest cap since the creation of the program in 1980. With conflicts around the world continuing, and new ones possibly on the horizon — China has just started to build refugee shelters on the border to North Korea — the plight of hundreds and thousands of people will not improve and new actors will need to step in to fill the void the United States is leaving.
-Astrid Ziebarth, Senior Migration Fellow, Europe Program
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.