US-Europe Relations After the Obama Victory

15. 3. 2017

The bold French leadership in Mali in response to Islamist terrorism illustrates an interesting phenomenon: US-European relations are moving towards almost a reverse of the old division over the Iraq war. Whereas a decade ago the United States demonstrated bold leadership in addressing global security concerns, U.S. leadership today has become overly cautious, if not hesitant.

While America has deliberately chosen to “lead from behind,” as one of the President’s advisors noted after the intervention in Libya, European leaders have been at the frontline, pushing for action in Libya, Syria, and, now, Mali.

European leaders have taken this stance despite the toll taken by the global financial crisis, and the challenges posed by excess spending, especially on entitlements, which also plagues the United States.

Barack Obama is in some sense America’s most European president since the birth of the European Union. His foreign and defence policies have been guided by multilateralism and natural skepticism for the use of American hard power.

When he took office nearly four years ago in the aftermath of the diplomatic clash over the Iraq war, President Obama sought to restore a relationship of trust between America and Europe. It was a commendable goal; but while the rhetoric is calmer today inside the alliance, the Atlantic alliance no longer seems to have the importance it had a decade ago.

Despite the energy of its leaders, Europe has receded in Washington’s consciousness. Senior European officials, when off the record, indicate that they feel a distance from the U.S.—not over policy per se—but a sense that Europe no longer figures as prominently on the White House’s radar.

It is true that European nations have not carried an appropriate share of the burden in upholding international peace and security since the Cold War. Decades of fruitless demands, no matter how impassioned or threatening, have failed to convince European leaders to overcome severe domestic constraints—whether fiscal, strategic, or political—to assist the United States in foreign military interventions. The current financial crisis has only exacerbated the situation, leading many European governments to focus inward and cut their own defense budgets. But now the Obama administration is following this same path.

The Obama administration has refocused its foreign policy toward Asia, particularly China. But despite Washington’s policy of engagement, Beijing has remained reluctant to cooperate constructively on issues such as climate change, North Korea, or other global challenges. China, instead, has chosen to become increasingly assertive against Japan, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies.

The United States needs to reinforce its ties with its historic allies. We need to revitalize the transatlantic relationship and build a stronger NATO, elaborate a solid missile defense system and a more forceful security posture towards such shared threats as the Iranian nuclear program.

The world is changing quickly. And the Atlantic Alliance, which has served the U.S. and Europe well for 60 years, has the ability to face current and future challenges in a way no other international relationship can. These include:

  • Protecting the global commons
  • Preserving the influence of Western nations and values
  • Restoring and sustaining a healthy global economy
  • And building bridges, when possible, between Western and Muslim communities

Today, we see a proliferation of powers of various size and weight. This new multipolar world is one which the alliance has not been immediately prepared for. The difficult economic situation in which we find ourselves has had startling geopolitical consequences.

As power and influence are increasingly scattered among diverse emerging powers and non-state actors, European and American interests are increasingly shared and aligned. As many members of the old Soviet bloc and non-aligned nations have made their way toward full integration into the global economy, the United States and its European allies cannot count on these emerging powers to support their goals. China, Brazil, Russia, and others may share many of the transnational foreign policy challenges facing the United States and Europe, but they do not necessarily share the same priorities or policy prescriptions.

Specifically, they may well have quite different answers than those of the United States and Europe to questions such as such as the importance of political liberalism, fate of Iran’s nuclear program, addressing terrorism, cybersecurity challenges, and other asymmetric threats.

For decades, the United States has used its military might to guarantee the freedom of the commons for trade and commerce. Maintaining this strategy is becoming increasingly difficult and will require coordinated efforts with allies and partners around the world. The period when the alliance sought to extend its reach is ending and we now face the need to preserve its influence and values as global power dynamics are shifting.

As this alliance moves forward in a changing world, we can take steps to make sure that it grows stronger and more unified. Let us work on strengthening its foundations by investing time and resources into it.

High-level political exchanges between Washington and major European nations are getting increasingly rare. U.S. think tanks, for their part, have increasingly divested themselves of expertise on Western European allies. And European interest in strategic studies continues, with some notable exceptions, to occur on the margins of the policy making process.

Reforming the alliance to meet today’s challenges means analyzing and understanding the common and disparate interests on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Younger generations of parliamentarians should be encouraged to participate in exchange visits
  • Think tanks and policy institutes should rebuild their Europe programs
  • European and American experts should consult one another on matters of global concern, including the rise of China

The focus of these conversations must be on the national interests of European nations and the United States. There is no institutional fix to the transatlantic divide.

NATO must adapt to meet these challenges while maintaining some degree of conventional military capability against more standard threats. This will not be easy. But it is essential if NATO is to provide comprehensive security to the transnational community in coming decades.

Kenneth R. Weinstein

is President and CEO of Hudson Institute. He has written widely on international affairs for leading publications in the United States, Europe, and Asia. He is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and international affairs who comments on national and international affairs on television and in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Bungei Shimbun (Japan), Le Figaro and Le Monde.

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