The sustainability of the transatlantic alliance lies not so much on the external environment that surrounds it but rather on the will of the people than live within it. Why citizens in France, the UK, Hungary or the US have decided to question that order so openly must surely be one of the central questions that analysts of transatlantic relations attempt to answer.
And yet, what one normally finds at the core of analyses produced on the state of transatlantic relations are exogenous structural factors. These are issues like Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe or the rise of China and its geopolitical consequences. On both accounts the argument normally goes as follows: These emerging and revisionist powers pose a particular threat to shared European and American interests. Transatlantic collaboration in defense of these interests, mostly but not exclusively through NATO, is therefore pertinent. At a more structural level, some actors might be seen as seeking to upend fundamental portions of the rules-based international order built by Western powers since the end of the Second World War. Human rights, open markets, porous borders and even liberal democracy itself are sometimes enumerated as the core pillars of that order now under siege. This far-reaching threat calls, yet again, for cooperation among those that constructed that order in the first place.
Seen through the lens described above, the members of the Atlantic world are understood as isolated and impermeable units that act and react to external developments. Their interests are static, quantifiable and almost self-evident. And yet, one of the most important lessons of recent political developments in Europe and the US is that the very nature of Western global leadership is shaped in major ways by domestic developments. So much so that one could say that events such as Brexit, the Trump presidency and the rise of nationalism in Europe will have a far greater and more detrimental impact on the Atlantic institutional architecture than any external threat those institutions face. Or to put it differently, Trump’s willingness to revise fundamental portions of US foreign policy, be it on the funding of NATO, the Iran Deal or the fight against climate change, can do more damage to the transatlantic partnership than any of Putin’s actions.
Interestingly, one of the greatest sources of threat for the transatlantic partnership lies today in the connection between external and internal actors that seek its demise. This connection is most evident between Russia and anti-establishment political movements across Europe. The case of direct Russian funding of the Front National in France has surfaced, for example, and there is now also abundant evidence that social media was extensively used to spread fake news during the Brexit debate and also during the buildup to the October 2017 Catalan independence referendum. So whether it is through direct or indirect means, we know that some actors do not wish the liberal world order or the states that sustain it well.
What is important, however, is to remember that these acts of interference in electoral processes would not have been as effective had there not been so many people within Western societies willing to listen, and, in the process, to question the role of political, intellectual and business elites. What is new, as matter of fact, is not the desire to interfere in political processes, something that has existed for decades and a practice in which almost all states engage, but the fact that so many western citizens were willing to listen to such disruptive messages.
The developments described above all point in one fundamental direction: Something has changed in the domestic preferences of transatlantic partners. This shift in national policies is the real cause of the drift within the Atlantic world. The central question we should be answering, therefore, is: Why has this change occurred and how can we reverse it?
The most compelling set of arguments about why this social and political fracture is occurring have all come from people looking at the underlying economic conditions of the middle classes within Western societies. The macro data seems to be quite conclusive. There are communities in the US where children have now shorter life expectancies than their parents. This was something that had not been observed since the end of the Second World War. The child mortality data of economically depressed communities in the US is as shocking. In some places child mortality has doubled over the last thirty years. In Europe there are large pockets of the population that have seen no economic progress in real terms over the last two to three decades. And there is abundant evidence to support a strong correlation between worsening economic conditions and support for populist parties and rejection of immigration.
Unless we get the domestic politics right, the rest of the analysis and the development of the external environment will not matter. The order will collapse from within. This puts international relations scholars in an uncomfortable position, because it forces us to look within countries. But the fact remains that our economies and domestic politics are now greater determinants of the state of transatlantic relations that ever in the past.
Dr. Manuel Muñiz is Dean of IE School of International Relations and a Senior Associate at Harvard’s Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship