Seven Building Blocks for a Resilient Transatlantic Relationship
This coordination is even more remarkable given that the transatlantic relationship has only recently emerged from a period of significant mutual distrust, as seen when former US president Donald Trump described the EU as a trading foe and sowed doubts about the solidity of US commitment to European security within the framework of NATO (an organization Trump described as “obsolete”).
Estrangement between the EU and the United States is, however, something that neither can afford, due to the significant strategic cost to both. An increased transatlantic distance would be particularly dangerous when Russian and Chinese interests are converging to question the current international order and to offer an alternative, set out in the Sino-Russian joint declaration of February 4, 2022, which relativizes the concepts of democracy and human rights, disqualifies the rules-based global order promoted by the West, criticizes NATO, and supports the supposed new European security regime advocated by Russia.
Twenty days after the joint declaration was published, Russia invaded Ukraine, thus confirming the gap between its claims of respect for international law and its actual actions. As for China, this revisionism is clear at the regional level (in its attitude toward Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea), while extending more generally to basic international principles (for example, in its attempts to dilute the scope of human rights).
Russian aggression on Ukraine and internal political uncertainties in the West call for a reflection on how to make this relationship more resilient.
Not coincidentally, this revisionist agenda is gathering momentum at a time when the relative weight of the United States and the EU in the world has declined compared to eras past. In 1960, US GDP alone accounted for 40 percent of the world total, while today, the United States and the EU together represent about one-third. The technological gap is also narrowing, and China seems ahead of the West in some sectors that are critical to the economy and future security. As for Russia, its war against Ukraine has exposed the limitations of its military capabilities and illustrated that Europe is at greater risk than previously thought—and that the transatlantic bond in terms of security and defense is more necessary than ever.
While the transatlantic relationship is susceptible to peaks and troughs, strategic alignment in this context offers advantages to both sides. Russian aggression on Ukraine and internal political uncertainties in the West call for a reflection on how to make this relationship more resilient. The following seven building blocks are intended to preserve and strengthen the transatlantic bond during uncertain times.
1. Shared Interests
Common values such as democracy, human rights, and adherence to a rules-based international order are the basis of the transatlantic relationship. In addition, the EU and the United States should also respond in a coordinated manner to global challenges such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics. And they have many shared interests that contribute to the strength of their relationship.
The growing convergence of EU and US interests is most apparent in their relationship with China and Russia. In general terms, the current US administration and the EU have conceptualized China as a partner in tackling global challenges, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival. However, longer-term perspectives on this relationship have differed. Across the US political spectrum, China is increasingly viewed as a competitor for global hegemony, while in the EU, a more nuanced position has prevailed, focusing more on the need to rely on China to respond to global challenges and develop mutually beneficial economic relations. The EU’s more positive attitude has been facilitated by the fact that China seemed to share an interest in preserving multilateral institutions, something that was not apparent in the previous US administration. Today, however, China’s growing assertiveness is bringing European positions closer to those of the United States.1
The vicissitudes of the EU-China investment agreement—ratification of which has been suspended after an escalation of European criticism of the human rights situation in China—reflect the limits of the initial European approach. This approach has also been hampered by China’s tendency to leverage its economic strength to protect its reputational interests (targeting Norway, Sweden, Australia, Lithuania, and others) and by its reluctance to guarantee a level playing field for foreign companies. This growing convergence of interests between the United States and the EU on China is further reinforced by China’s accommodating reaction to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
The EU and the United States share an interest in minimizing differences and maximizing common positions. Neither can alone safeguard their democratic, economic, technological, and strategic interests.
This aggression has also brought views on Russia on both sides of the Atlantic closer, for example, on the need to put an end to European energy dependence from Russia. Moreover, coordinated sanctions between the EU and the United States have confirmed how effective both can be when acting together.
Convergence has been facilitated by the transatlantic agenda for global change launched by High Representative Josep Borrell2 and by several bilateral fora on trade and technology (TTC), security and defense, China and the Indo-Pacific, and Russia. In addition, the Energy Council has been reactivated and, following the aggression against Ukraine, a specific working group has been set up to reduce European dependence on Russian fossil fuels.
In short, the EU and the United States share an interest in minimizing differences and maximizing common positions. Neither can alone safeguard their democratic, economic, technological, and strategic interests—only by working together can they guide global trends in the face of increasingly well-defined alternative agendas.
2. Building Consensus
It is one thing to note the existence of common interests, and another to agree on how to prioritize and achieve them. The Ukraine crisis has already taught many lessons, one of which is that cohesion requires time (the United States began to share its assessment of the situation well before Russia initiated hostilities) and a willingness to take into account each other’s sometimes divergent concerns (for instance, the asymmetric domestic effects of ending gas imports from Russia).
The aggression against Ukraine has shown that the way to act effectively is not through unilateralism, but by crafting common responses with allies and partners.
Consensus-building is the antipode of attempts to impose one’s own position. In the Ukraine crisis, a unilateral US action followed by pressure on its European partners to follow suit would conceivably have led to divisions in the Western camp, and consequently to a better position for Russia. The management of the AUKUS agreement and the withdrawal from Afghanistan are examples of unilateral decisions with counterproductive results. For US administrations, the commitment to cohesion through dialogue shown during the Ukraine crisis may have a domestic political cost, particularly in the face of a Congress that is unaccommodating to the idea that the United States must rely on others to act internationally. But, once again, the aggression against Ukraine has shown that the way to act effectively is not through unilateralism, but by crafting common responses with allies and partners.
The search for consensus might be frustrating and fail to yield immediate results. As with the termination of energy imports from Russia, different departing points might imply differences in approach. The relation with China is an example of growing convergence between the United States and the EU, but also of different departing points that will influence their respective positions in the future. Consensus-building thus also means managing differences. In that process, the EU and the United States need to strategically appraise their relationship, so that potential disagreements do not affect the relationship as a whole and curtail their capacity to advance a shared global agenda.
3. Beyond Political Polarization
After World War II, US support for European economic integration and development, as initiated through the Marshall Plan, enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Today, however, the European Union is viewed with suspicion by some sectors of the US political spectrum.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, 65 percent of Democrats and like-minded independents rated the EU positively, compared to 39 percent of Republicans and like-minded independents. This gap of 26 percentage points was the largest between Democrats and Republicans since the Pew Research Center began asking this question in 2002. It should be put in the context of the growing political polarization in the United States and of President Trump’s public criticism of the EU.
NATO is not immune to this trend of partisanship. Prior to 2017, Democrat respondents showed slightly more support for NATO than Republicans, with a maximum difference of 15 percentage points.3 From 2017 onward, the difference widened and by 2021, it was 33 points (77 percent of Democrats and 44 percent of Republicans). The Ukraine crisis has strengthened support, but the differences between Democrats and Republicans remain significant (78 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans).4
- 1Andrew Small, Bonnie S. Glaser, and Garima Mohan. Closing the Gap: US-European Cooperation on China and the Indo-Pacific, German Marshall Fund of the United States, February 2, 2022.
- 2A new EU-US agenda for global change https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/joint-communication-eu-us-agenda_en.pdf.
- 3Moira Fagan and Jacob Poushter. NATO Seen Favorably Across Member States, Pew Research Center, February 9, 2020.
- 4Richard Wike, Janell Fetterolf, Moira Fagan, and J.J. Moncus. Seven-in-Ten Americans Now See Russia as an Enemy, Pew Research Center, April 6, 2022.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2019, 65 percent of Democrats and like-minded independents rated the EU positively, compared to 39 percent of Republicans and like-minded independents.
Overall, despite these differing levels of support for the EU and NATO between Democrats and Republicans, the transatlantic relationship is not among the issues that deeply divide the two camps. In fact, it is one of the few areas where there is fairly bipartisan consensus. But this should not be taken for granted.
For its part, the EU must make an effort to ensure that its positive relationship with the current US administration and its difficult one with the former5 are not perceived as taking sides in US domestic politics. In this context, an intensification of transatlantic relations not only between administrations, but also between members of the legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic could prove useful and timely.
A regular exchange at the committee level between the European Parliament and Congress would promote a better understanding of their respective positions and help to avoid parliamentary blockages to joint initiatives resulting from the new working groups between the EU and the United States. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s role should also be enhanced, and its meetings should be given greater public visibility in order to symbolize the community of values among allies.
There is also room for wider transatlantic dialogue between universities and think tanks of all political persuasions, increased exchanges between experts, joint analysis, and larger visitor programs. Taking into account that US society is becoming less European in its demographic origins, efforts to maintain personal links across the Atlantic should be stepped up on the European side, for example by significantly increasing the number of university exchanges, such as the Erasmus+ program, thereby fostering bonds between future European and US citizens.
4. A More Balanced Relationship
Beyond its polemical presentation, President Trump’s demand for greater European economic commitment to the security of the continent reflected a longstanding US position.6 At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO member states agreed to a gradual increase in their defense budgets, in line with economic developments (which have not been favorable), to reach 2 percent of their GDP by 2024.
The aggression against Ukraine sets the stage for greater convergence in this field. On the one hand, the US commitment to security in the region, questioned by some after the end of the Cold War, has turned out to be justified. On the other hand, for the Europeans, the invasion has been a wake-up call. Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of a Zeitenwende (a new era) when announcing a €100 billion increase in Germany’s defense spending and the delivery of armaments to Ukraine—a radical shift in the country’s foreign policy. The crisis has also been a turning point for the EU, which has, for the first time, financed lethal armaments and approved massive sanctions against Russia. Other countries, including Spain, have announced a significant increase in their defense expenditure, and Finland and Sweden are now at NATO’s doorstep.
The EU, as reflected in its recently approved new Strategic Compass, is prepared for greater participation in crisis management and further development of military capabilities, thus helping to lighten the US security burden in and around Europe.
All this points to Europe’s readiness to make a greater commitment to its own defense. The EU, as reflected in its recently approved new Strategic Compass, is prepared for greater participation in crisis management and further development of military capabilities, thus helping to lighten the US security burden in and around Europe. But for this rebalancing to occur and for increased European agency to bear fruit, the United States must abandon the perception of an alleged dilemma between NATO and the EU in this field.
In particular, efforts within the EU to develop a European defense industry are set to strengthen Europe’s contribution to NATO, which remains the cornerstone of its collective defense. After all, the member states do not have separate forces at the disposal of both organizations but intend to improve their capabilities in the service of both, each in its own sphere of action. The United States must recognize that European burden-sharing implies the development of a European defense industry.
5. Interdependence as a Liability and an Asset
The attack on Ukraine has diminished the idea of economic interdependence as a deterrent; that is, the notion that the risk of conflict is reduced between states when prosperity is mutually conditional: it neither dissuaded President Vladimir Putin from his attack nor paralyzed the EU’s reaction (although it did hamper the EU’s ability to restrain energy imports from Russia). This shows how political considerations can prevail over economic ones, which applies today to Ukraine and could apply tomorrow to Taiwan.
The economic fallout of the crisis triggered by Russia laid bare the need for a radical reduction of European energy dependence on Russia and, looking ahead, questioned the commercial and technological interdependence of the EU and the United States with China.
As a consequence, a split between large technological and economic blocs could be taking shape. This is apparent both in the Western policy of technological disengagement from China7 and also in China’s strategies of domestic industrial development (Made in China 2025) and “dual circulation,” which seeks to increase domestic consumption and spur self-sufficient technological innovation while reaching international investment and trade agreements to avoid being internationally isolated by the United States. The challenge for the EU and the United States will be to navigate this growing competition while preserving an international open trade system from which they, and the rest of the world, benefit greatly.
On the one hand, the EU and the United States need to coordinate in international fora, particularly the WTO, to make sure that the international trade system does not become weighed against their interests. At the same time, they must preserve a bilateral trade and technological relationship that is mutually reinforcing. The TTC and its different working groups move in that direction. As well, the notion of integrated deterrence, developed by the current US administration, reflects the idea that having partners and allies is a multiplier and not a hindrance to one’s capacity for action.
Integrated deterrence, developed by the current US administration, reflects the idea that having partners and allies is a multiplier and not a hindrance to one’s capacity for action.
On the other hand, beyond their bilateral relations, if the United States and the European Union refrain from using interdependence with the rest of the world as an asset, then it will become a liability for them. In the global competition that is emerging, the struggle for influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is not likely to be framed primarily in military terms, but in terms of legitimacy (where a crucial aspect will be to what extent Western ideas of democracy and human rights prove to be universal) and prosperity (where trade and technological exchanges will play a key role).
The current US administration has not rectified President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Asia, while China has stepped up initiatives to enter into a free trade agreement with all Asian countries. Although the recent US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework opens some avenues, it remains tentative and vague, and is not a substitute for a full-fledged trade agreement.
In Latin America, the European Union is unable to ratify the EU-Mercosur trade agreement due to internal politics in some of its member states, and is dragging its feet on others, while China’s presence in the region is multiplying.
Africa will experience an exponential demographic boom in the coming years, with a growing middle class and vast natural resources coveted by China. The United States and the EU must increase their relationship with the region not only in terms of cooperation (they are by far the main donor) but also in terms of trade and investment. The Continental Free Trade Agreement is an opportunity for doing so.
In short, the waning prestige of the notion of interdependence should not lead the United States and the EU to withdraw into themselves, as it would diminish their prosperity and global clout and allow others to fill the vacuum.
6. A Transatlantic Agenda Open to the World
If the international order, as envisioned in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and the institutions created by it, is still there, it is not because of its Western origin, but because it reflects the aspirations of the international community as a whole. The purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter—such as the peaceful settlement of international disputes, respect for territorial integrity and political independence of states, prohibition of the threat and use of force, and so on—remain the cornerstone of peaceful coexistence among nations throughout the world.
The transatlantic agenda goes beyond the interests and values of the United States and the European Union and connects with those of the entire international community.
The protection of this rules-based order is therefore an interest shared by Western countries with the rest of the international community. The transatlantic agenda goes beyond the interests and values of the United States and the European Union and connects with those of the entire international community. This has at least three ramifications:
It is not about the preservation of Western hegemony, but international law. In March and April of 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted by an overwhelming majority three resolutions condemning the aggression against Ukraine, demanding respect for humanitarian law, and suspending Russia from participating in the Human Rights Council. This should not be seen as a triumph of the West, but rather a reflection of the international community’s attachment to the basic norms that govern coexistence between states. True, many countries have not followed the West in applying sanctions against Russia, but through these resolutions, the majority have shown their attachment to international law. The preservation of Western credibility globally depends on respect for these principles being the starting point for its present and future international actions.
Democracy is not owned by the West. No doubt the relativized concept of democracy advocated by China and Russia in the joint declaration of February 4, 2022, makes a parody of democracy. On the other hand, the recent summit for democracy highlights the challenges of launching such a process as a purely Western initiative.
The West should avoid being perceived as trying to set itself up as the authority that grants certificates of democracy to the rest of the world. Rather, they should help those who wish to improve the functioning of their institutions, fight corruption, and strengthen the rule of law. The logic of the US Millennium Account, which establishes governance requirements as a basis for cooperation, is a good example to follow.
The idea of a community of democracies must also be driven by the democracies of the south to avoid being perceived as reinstating a vertical north-south relationship. Western countries should be willing to share leadership with countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Multilateralism is not exclusively Western. The UN General Assembly Resolutions, Russia’s suspension from the Council of Europe, and its forced exit from the World Trade Organization show how multilateral institutions are an effective and useful instrument for the preservation of a rules-based international order.
However, Western countries cannot aspire to a universal multilateral system that systematically responds to their interests, precisely because to be universal and multilateral, it must reflect the interests and aspirations of all members.
The transatlantic strategy toward multilateral organizations should not consist of turning its back on them when difficulties arise (as in the case of the US withdrawal from the Human Rights Council or UNESCO), but to remain present and active even then, in order to help shape their future actions.
The United States and the European Union must also be aware of the need to give the countries of the south a greater say in the institutional architecture established after World War II, a time when the many states that emerged during the decolonization process were not recognized as independent. The paradigmatic example of this necessary updating is the enlargement of the UN Security Council to include African and Asian countries, a process which the United States and the EU should lead, lest the countries of the south get the impression that the rules-based international order is in reality an instrument for preserving past privileges.
7. A Shared Vision
Common interests and values, a consensual approach to dealing with their differences, and a balance of mutual expectations are necessary but not sufficient to give direction and meaning to the future transatlantic relationship. A shared vision of the future, articulated in a joint agenda, is also needed.
This was the purpose of the New Transatlantic Agenda, approved during the Spanish presidency of the EU in 1995, and is currently the purpose of the transatlantic agenda for global change launched by High Representative Borrell.
These initiatives, however, may suffer from excessive technicality: they are guides for action for the respective administrations, but they do not sufficiently appeal to citizens. They excel in detail,8 but do not rally public opinion around a shared political project. The United States and the EU have taken each other for granted for too long, and now look like a marriage made more of routine than passion. In the face of today’s external and internal challenges, they need a reinvigorated common project.
The United States and the EU have taken each other for granted for too long, and now look like a marriage made more of routine than passion. In the face of today’s external and internal challenges, they need a reinvigorated common project.
It is tempting to articulate this common project around a new containment of Russia and China militarily, technologically, economically and in the energy field. Undoubtedly, the United States and the EU must respond to the challenges that these two countries pose, and this must be part of their common agenda. But a positive project for the future is also necessary for the transatlantic relationship and for the world.
The main element of this positive vision should be the preservation of a rules-based international order, and its corollary that a balance prevails in international society, such that all actors can influence the shaping of that order, but none can dictate its terms.
There are many points of convergence in this vision of international society between the United States and the European Union. For example, many Americans believe that the United States and the EU should partner on security and defense, and on climate and the environment.9
Just as the recently held conference on the future of Europe brought together ordinary European citizens and resulted in concrete proposals to advance the integration project, a conference on the future of the transatlantic relationship could involve citizens as well as think tanks from both sides of the Atlantic and across the political spectrum, to discuss ideas and strengthen mutual understanding beyond prejudices.
Since 2008, there has been a paradigm shift from global interdependence to global competition. Russian aggression against Ukraine has accelerated this shift. We do not know when, in what form, and after what new crises the international system will stabilize again. We do know that the West will enjoy a different and relatively less prominent position than it has had over the last 500 years.
However, this diagnosis should not lead to declinist fatalism. The world of the future will be more plurilateral, but the values and principles the West has brought about will be more necessary than ever.
This implies the need for greater cohesion between the United States and the European Union. On this path, the transatlantic relationship should rise above partisanship, anchor itself in shared values and interests, and be based on systematic consultation to respond to the challenges ahead and manage the differences that inevitably will arise along the way.
- 5Richard Wike, Jacob Poushter, Laura Silver, Janell Fetterolf, and Mara Mordecai. America’s Image Abroad Rebounds With Transition From Trump to Biden, Pew Research Center, June 10, 2021.
- 6Though perhaps the clamor in US public opinion is less than it sometimes seems: According to Pew, in 2019, 48% of Republicans and like-minded and 28% of Democrats and like-minded thought Europe should increase its defense spending.
- 7Jon Bateman. US-China Technological “Decoupling:” A Strategy and Policy Framework, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2022.
- 8See the US-EU Joint Statement of the Trade and Technology Council, May 16, 2022.
- 9Katherine Walla. Exclusive poll: Europeans are warming to the US in the Biden era, Atlantic Council, May 13, 2021.