Western democracies are facing tough times. The United States is suffering from deep divisions, witnessing challenges to political institutions and retreating from a global emphasis on democratic values. Its traditional partner, the European Union, has turned inward after the financial crisis and refugee crisis as well as the acrimonious Brexit negotiations. Elections over the last two years saw gains by right-wing populist parties in Austria, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Governments in Hungary and Poland are threatening media and judicial independence. Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are worried about the adverse effects of globalization, displacement caused by new technologies and perceived immigration threats. Political parties, particularly on the center-left, have struggled to address these concerns.
These domestic challenges are compounded by strains within the transatlantic alliance, fueled by a combative American president whose policy instincts could have risky international consequences. President Donald Trump’s reflexes were partially contained in the first year of his presidency by his advisors. Although he withdrew from the Paris climate accords, he reaffirmed (grudgingly) American commitment to NATO and maintained (at least temporarily) the Iran nuclear deal. However, Trump’s growing confidence in the job and recent cabinet reshuffle indicate a rougher ride ahead. The EU received a temporary exemption on new steel and aluminum tariffs, which would have led to retaliatory EU sanctions on American goods (ranging from bourbon and motorcycles to blue jeans and peanut butter) and a senseless trade war. It looks increasingly likely the US will withdraw from the Iran deal in May, which could lead the US to impose extraterritorial sanctions on European firms and leave Europe awkwardly aligned with Russia, China and Iran. Although the EU has played a minor role in North Korea talks, there is concern in European capitals about pre-emptive American military action that could have catastrophic results.
In response to such developments, European leaders are characterizing their policy toward the United States in the diplomatic language reserved for challenging partners: Cooperating in areas of shared interest, being frank about differences and remaining true to their values. European Commission President Donald Tusk recently called for continued engagement amid what he termed “seasonal turbulences.” Indeed, turbulent times among allies are nothing new. It is only 15 years since divisions over the Iraq War heralded the era of freedom fries, rhetorical divisions of Europe into “old” and “new” by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and lamentations by French President Jacques Chirac that his Central European colleagues missed “an opportunity to shut up.”
While transatlantic disputes in the early 2000s were tinged with anti-Americanism, current European frustration has been primarily directed at the US president. This has its benefits but also its perils. For Americans living, working and traveling in Europe, it is a less confrontational time than it was then. It is easy to dissociate from an unpopular president and remind Europeans of a multiplicity of views back home. Indeed, many of Trump’s own advisors tell their interlocutors to ignore his tweets and focus on their policies. Yet recent developments (such as the spontaneous announcement of a meeting between Trump and North Korean president Kim Jung-Un) demonstrate that Trump remains the decider, chief diplomat and (in his words) “the only one that matters.”
The risk comes from failure to recognize that much of Trump’s rhetoric reflects the sentiments of a significant swath of the American public. Many believe the US has been ripped off in trade deals, subsidized European defense spending (while allies developed generous welfare states) and borne an unfair share of the global security burden. Furthermore, such preoccupations are not uniquely American; similar concerns about raw deals have galvanized support for European populist parties.
Where then does this leave the Atlantic community? It remains intact, even if it is sometimes hard to identify. Public recognition of its importance has weakened. The memory of how NATO and the EU were built from the ashes of World War II is fading as that generation leaves the political stage, while the security alliance has struggled to communicate its raison d’être following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the ongoing war in Syria, including the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State and the political and socio-economic cost of large-scale refugee flows, is a stark reminder of the need to address regional threats that affect European as well as American security and prosperity. It would be difficult if not impossible to unravel the ties that bind our countries, with Brexit highlighting the pain of divorce. And the cost of their demise is far higher than the investment needed to sustain them. History has proven time and again (e.g., Balkan wars, Iran agreement, Russia sanctions) that we are stronger and more effective when working together, yet these lessons are quickly forgotten.
A rethink of our domestic politics and multi-lateral institutions is required across the Atlantic community. It seems unlikely politics will return to ‘normal’ or function as they did previously. In addition to great power conflict and nuclear threats, the 21st century is posing new tests such as cyber warfare and disruptive technology. This is coupled with challenges to values many believed were accepted throughout the West, namely the virtues of liberal democracy and international trade. Transatlantic leaders must find new ways of addressing citizens’ calls for more responsive governance at home, as well as adapting international institutions so they more effectively share burdens, mitigate economic difficulties and enable common responses to collective problems. Election results in the United States and across the European Union brought these issues into stark relief. Now that we are aware of the problems, the Atlantic community must work together to address them before it is too late.
Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. She is also a nonresident fellow in the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School. Her areas of expertise include Turkey and Southern Europe, British politics, the European Union’s foreign policy, and trans-Atlantic relations.