Stopping the Trans-Atlantic Drift

You might call it the Obama paradox: Atlanticists on both sides of the ocean were certain that this president, inaugurated two years ago, would renew the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Yet two years later, the United States and Europe seem further apart than they have ever been in their policies as much as in public attitudes. For the United States, Europe appears to be less relevant than ever; in Europe, anti-Americanism seems to be drifting into simple indifference.

According to some, this was inevitable: America’s destiny in the 21st century, they say, is to defend its lone superpower status against a rising China. Europe, in this view, is relegated to a minor ally at best; at worst, it becomes a deadweight irrelevance.

We disagree. In a world buffeted violently by the combined impact of globalization, the economic crisis and increasingly assertive non-Western powers, the trans-Atlantic alliance is more important than ever.

The United States remains, of course, the main guardian of global order. But its power, hard and soft, has been eroded by war and economic distress. It needs Europe (and other alliances with like-minded countries) more than before, because it (and they) give it leverage and legitimacy and help it conserve its political resources.

Europe, conversely, is a trade giant which still finds itself — to put it politely — vertically challenged in the political sense. Its enduring desire to be America’s partner in the renewal of global governance is surely worth acknowledging; yet Europe is still too often unable to match its actions to its aspirations. And it needs American power to gain worldwide leverage.

On both sides of the Atlantic, then, there is a tension between goals and capability that ought to draw America and Europe closer together. The alliance needs to be re-calibrated, not abandoned. We propose three main areas for action:

•First, Europe must recognize, the erosion of U.S. power notwithstanding, that its political power has shrunk even more rapidly. The causes: economic malaise, an incoherent foreign policy and a deepening military weakness combined with rising social and political tensions in many member states.

Europe cannot hope to work shoulder-to-shoulder with America unless it addresses these issues. It must remedy the flaws in euro-zone governance and foster growth through a combination of structural reforms at home with broad liberalization and integration of E.U. markets.

If the European Union’s foreign policy is to be taken seriously elsewhere, it must no longer be limited to either bringing countries into the club or keeping them out. In order to think more globally, it must invest in forecasting and strategy.

And while Europe will always have many voices, the new European diplomatic service must help it find a common songbook. It must radically retool European defense efforts through integration, pooling and specialization.

Yet none of this will be credible if Europe does not learn to fix social, ethnic and political conflicts in its own neighborhood, from Belarus to the Caucasus — or, for that matter, to defend free speech in its own borders, for example in Hungary.

•Second, the U.S. and Europe must do far more to remove or at least lower the barriers that currently prevent closer collaboration across the Atlantic. They need to deepen mutual trade, strengthen defense cooperation, and improve political consultation.

There are many practical ways of doing this: from reducing non-tariff barriers to trade, improving regulatory cooperation (including on financial markets and banking), exchanging best practices on energy sustainability, and consumer protection, to ending onerous regulation on exports of arms to one another and clearer guidelines for NATO’s future missions.

Yet the guiding principle is the same overall: If the U.S. and Europe do not want to live in a zero-sum world in the 21st century, they must lead by example, and begin at home.

•Third, the U.S. and the E.U. need to work together to foster a more collaborative global political climate. This means sharing power in international institutions, and defining an agenda for tackling global governance issues.

E.U. member-states and the U.S. should keep up the task of reforming international institutions such as the United Nations. They should also formulate a joint agenda for fighting climate change, sustainable energy production and nuclear and conventional arms control. Given the combative current climate, global collaboration on many of these issues may remain elusive. Perhaps the best the E.U. and the U.S. can achieve together is to create “islands of cooperation.” The likeliest scenario may be no more than a joint effort at benign and patient management of competitive chaos. Still, that would be an improvement on the current state of affairs.

In sum, there are a multitude of pragmatic ways to bridge the current gap between the United States and Europe. Still, achieving cooperation in a multipolar world looks likely to be the most severe test of the trans-Atlantic relationship yet. In the end, it will be up to America’s and Europe’s leaders to convince inward-looking publics that the future of the alliance must not lie in turning it into a gated community.

Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Tomas Valasek, director of foreign and defense policy at the Center for European Reform.

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