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European Disunion and America First

5 min read
Photo Credit: Marian Weyo / Shutterstock
In her annual State of Transatlantic Relations call, President of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) Dr.

In her annual State of Transatlantic Relations call, President of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) Dr. Karen Donfried presented her view of how things stand in the different aspects of the relationship between the United States and Europe. This included her assessment of where developing trends may lead in 2019, and how GMF can serve as a platform for dialogue on transatlantic cooperation.

At the outset of 2019, the European Union is devolving into “European Disunion,” authoritarian populism is on the rise, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy has reduced the United States’ role in its alliance with Europe. Dr. Donfried stated that liberal democracy, a free market economy, the rule of law, and the rights of the individual are values Americans and Europeans have worked hard to uphold over the past 70 years and must continue to defend.

Below are some of the call’s key takeaways.

  • The transatlantic relationship is built on a foundation of shared values and it matters because the United States and Europe form the largest trade and investment bloc in the world. At the same time, NATO remains the United States’ strongest military alliance.

  • The European Union faces trials on a multitude of fronts. Tensions from the 2008 financial crisis linger in the eurozone, European countries must cope with the reality of Russia’s aggression since its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015 continues to dictate politics on terrorism, causing debate over moves toward closed societies and closed borders in every European country.

  • Authoritarian populism is rising in Europe because of growing concerns about economic inequality and the loss of national identity as a result of immigration. A similar trend is present in the United States, although the relative importance of economic inequality and sense of loss of cultural identity may differ across countries. The question in Europe now is how the balance tilts between support for nationalist populism versus support for integration.

  • Several European leaders have experienced a downturn in their fortunes. In Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down from the leadership of the Christian Democratic Union party and passed the baton to Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. In France President Emmanuel Macron is confronted by the “Yellow Vest” protests, and in the United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May has failed so far to get parliament to approve the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the EU as Brexit nears.

  • President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy threatens to damage the U.S.-European relationship. He views alliances as transactional rather than enduring; for example, when he says the United States has gotten a “raw deal” from its European allies and calls to re-evaluate U.S. commitments in Europe.

  • President Trump threatens the liberal international order, which he believes does not serve U.S. interests. He has turned the United States away from being a status quo power or the leader of the liberal international order it built alongside its European allies since the end of World War II. This stance forces the latter to defend an order that they believe has served them well. The gap in mindset toward the system means the United States itself is a challenging, divisive new factor for Europe.

  • President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from major international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, has led a few U.S. states to step up in representing the United States on the world stage. This is one positive outcome in the face of the president’s isolationist policy and rhetoric.

  • European countries struggle to discern in which direction the United States is headed and react differently. France exercises strategic autonomy and seeks to break its reliance on the United States; Germany practices strategic patience and hopes the 2020 presidential election will yield a new administration; and Poland exercises strategic embrace, as seen in President Andrzej Duda offer for his country to host a U.S. military based to be called “Fort Trump;” while Britain is consumed by Brexit.

  • Amid political turmoil in Europe and the United States as well as threats to the transatlantic relationship, GMF will continue to strengthen cooperation to the benefit of both sides, and to that of the shared values that underlie GMF’s work. For example, the new Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative (DIDI) led by Karen Kornbluh will focus on digitalization and technology in the transatlantic context.

As GMF prepares for 2019, we will continue to defend the common values of the United States and Europe. Dr. Karen Donfried addressed the United States’ changed role in the international system, noting the relative decline in its power, specifically in relation to China, its relations with Russia, and its approach to dividing Europe. This makes the United States’ relationship with its allies even more important because its power will be greater when working with them. This is where Dr. Donfried sees real potential for transatlantic cooperation. GMF believes U.S. interests have been well served alongside those of Europe and therefore strives to uphold its mission, despite political and social turmoil, by serving as a platform for transatlantic dialogue.

GMF’s State of Transatlantic Relations are exclusive to members of the GMF Alumni Leadership Council. If you are interested in taking part in events like these, please see the Alumni Leadership Council page.

Summary prepared by Sarah Nelson, German Marshall Fund, Leadership Programs, Intern.​