The Return of Atlanticism - Europe as a Strategic Priority for America

Ivo H. Daalder was U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 2009–2013 and is now President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.Andy Morimoto is Research Associate at the Council.


DOES Europe still matter to the United States? Both Europeans and Americans could be forgiven for having their doubts. Given the disjointed responses to recent crises in Ukraine and Greece, the perennial turmoil across the Middle East, and the resulting migrant challenge, as well as all the hype about the so-called “rebalance” to Asia, it often seems like the once iron-clad U.S.-European partnership is inexorably drifting apart. A common view among many Europeans and Americans is that the partnership is slipping into strategic irrelevance.

This view is popular and long in its development—but it misses the point. In reality, the transatlantic alliance is still strong, and as necessary today as ever. The world’s most pressing challenges demand effective and deep transatlantic cooperation, from countering Russian aggression and addressing financial crises, to dealing with the Islamic State and the rise of China. But this will require a renewed sense of focus, urgency, and dedication on both sides of the Atlantic.

The question, therefore, is not whether the United States and Europe have parted ways, but rather, how a new, more strategic partnership can be forged, through which both sides can better cooperate to meet the many new challenges of our era.

An Enduring Alliance
Considering the crisis of confidence that afflicted it in the wake of the Iraq War a decade ago, the transatlantic alliance remains remarkably strong. In fact, no other alliance in the world is so closely aligned in values, capabilities, and aims.

As an alliance of democracies, the United States and Europe share a commitment to fundamental values and principles. The alliance is dedicated to ensuring the life, liberty, and happiness of free peoples; it is committed to free markets and open societies; and it is committed to transparency and the rule of law. Building upon these shared values, the United States and Europe are natural military and economic partners.

The United States and Europe together account for nearly 60 percent of global defense spending. In dollar terms, NATO spends over $1 trillion annually on defense, while the rest of the world combined spends roughly $700 billion. In terms of manpower, NATO boasts over three million service members, while Russia has roughly 766,000 troops and China has an estimated three million.

On the economic front, the transatlantic economy is the world’s wealthiest and most integrated. Data from the Center for Transatlantic Relations shows that Europe remains the partner of choice for the United States, and vice versa. Look at investments: Europe has accounted for 57 percent of American investments (71 percent of total inflows) since 2000; U.S. investment in the Netherlands was fourteen times that in China in 2012; and U.S. investment in Europe was fourteen times that in BRICS nations, and four times that in Asia, in 2013.

Or look at trade: affiliate exports from Ireland alone were four times greater than those from China and 3.5 times larger than from Mexico between 2000 and 2012. Furthermore, U.S.-EU merchandise trade has more than doubled over the last 14 years.

When measured according to American and European perceptions, the transatlantic partnership also looks healthy. Recent polling data from the Chicago Council Survey shows a strong majority of Americans believe that Europe is important to American economic and security interests, and that the European Union can deal responsibly with world problems. From the European perspective, recent Pew Research Center polls show that a large majority of Europeans view the United States favorably, and believe overwhelmingly that America would come to the defense of its NATO allies. These views are reinforced by lasting personal ties: nearly three times as many Americans visit Europe as do Asia annually, and more Europeans than Asians visit the United States every year.

All of this points to a transatlantic partnership that is fundamentally strong. But challenges persist, both internally and externally.

Challenges from Within
The first challenge is to ensure that each transatlantic nation is responsible for its fair share of the common defense. For years now, Europe has largely passed the buck—on national, European, and transatlantic defense. Case in point: this year, only three of NATO’s 28 members reached the target of spending two percent of GDP on defense. This leaves the United States, which spends more than four percent of its much faster growing GDP on defense, to shoulder the brunt of NATO’s security burden—even at a time when its own budget is being squeezed.

Growing nationalism poses another challenge. In the coming months and years, the European Union is expected to endure a storm of political events that may exacerbate festering, nationalist issues—spurned by the growing popularity of nationalist, anti-EU political sentiment resulting from the long-running economic downturn, large migration movement from the south and the east, and increasing doubts that the social contract of the postwar period is still viable.

In the coming years, Europe will witness a string of elections—in Poland, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. In each case, there is a real possibility that elected parties and new governments will be less cooperative partners with the Alliance. Take, for example, Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, which seeks to distance Warsaw from Brussels (and is favored to win in the general election on October 25th).

Or look at the recent elections in Greece, where nationalist sentiment continues to flare up and opinions about the EU are at their lowest point in years. Depending on what sort of policies the new/old government pursues, the election could be a potentially important step for broader stability and unity in Europe, or it could revive European anxiety over a Greek exit from the union.

Then, in 2017, comes the British referendum, which will determine the UK’s membership in the European Union and could potentially cause lasting harm to the partnership. If the UK leaves the EU, it will cut off a major bridgehead for the United States in Europe, and will increase uncertainty about the future of the transatlantic project.

Adding to this uncertainty is the current EU migrant crisis, in which over 340,000 migrants and refugees have fled to the EU in the first eight months of 2015. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier calls the crisis “the greatest challenge the European Union has faced in its history.” It is not difficult to see why: the crisis has resulted in countless human tragedies; it has unleashed waves of xenophobia throughout Europe; and it has demonstrated a failure of EU immigration policy, as well as a fundamental lack of European unity.

If there is a theme to all of these examples, it is that the transatlantic alliance is too often taken for granted. This is unwise and unsustainable. Yet, as troublesome as these internal problems are, the external challenges are far more daunting.

Confronting Russia
The most urgent challenge outside of the transatlantic alliance concerns the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The Minsk II Agreement that was supposed to end fighting in eastern Ukraine has suffered from repeated violations and a general unwillingness from President Vladimir Putin and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to abide by its terms.

Only the transatlantic alliance has the capabilities to deter further Russian aggression—but why should the United States get involved in what seems like a fundamentally European problem? The answer is that Russia’s actions in Ukraine pose serious dangers not just to Europe, but to the global security order.

Russia has deliberately upended the core principle upon which European security is based: that states do not seize territories by force. If this blatant violation goes unchecked, the effects may be irreversible. Success in Ukraine could encourage additional Russian military action in Georgia, Moldova, or even against the Baltic States.

What is more, the crisis over Ukraine has further militarized relations between Russia and the West. Russia led three times as many military flights over NATO airspace in 2014 than in 2013—actions made all the more dangerous by many of their warplanes flying without active transponders. It has also increasingly engaged in large-scale, no-warning military exercises near its eastern borders. And, in March, Russia conducted one of the largest military exercises ever in the Arctic, with 45,000 troops and dozens of ships and submarines.

More disconcerting is President Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling. Last year, Putin revised Russia’s nuclear doctrine to allow for the use of nuclear weapons in Europe—ostensibly to prevent further NATO expansion eastward. He has simultaneously embarked on a major modernization program that includes new submarines, more modern bombers, and more strategic nuclear weapons. In fact, over 40 new intercontinental missiles will be put into service in 2015.

How Should the West Respond?
In the short term, the United States and Europe need to continue to increase pressure on Russia. While direct military confrontation should be avoided, NATO should lift its self-imposed restriction on deploying substantial combat forces to allied territory in the east. This restriction—which was extended to Russia in 1997, when Moscow behaved far more cooperatively—was based explicitly on the assumption that the then “current and foreseeable security environment” would remain unchanged. Today, there are clear grounds for this unilateral restriction to be lifted.

America and Europe should also tighten their economic grip on Russia. Additional pressure could be exerted by threatening to ban Russian banks from the SWIFT mechanism—one of the core frameworks of international finance. If implemented, this would freeze Russian financial institutions out of relations with the West, and potentially cripple the Russian economy.

In the long term, the alliance should return to a policy of Kennanite containment: it should continue to exert economic pressure and build international support for the political isolation of Russia, in the expectation that internal opposition will build enough to bring about a change in policy.

Europe & the Asia Rebalance
Just as the transatlantic alliance is needed to contain Russia, it is also needed to address the myriad challenges and opportunities associated with the rise of Asia.

Consider what Asia’s rise means: by 2050, Asia’s per capita income is expected to rise sixfold in purchasing power parity; its share of global GDP growth will be nearly 52 percent; and its population will grow to nearly five billion. Then there are the geopolitical flashpoints: growing tensions between China and its neighbors in the East and South China seas, perennial issues between China and Taiwan, and hostility on the Korean peninsula.

Where does the transatlantic alliance fit in?

Importantly, the United States neither needs nor expects Europe to play a major military role in the Pacific. (And it is doubtful that European capabilities are well suited for a Pacific presence anyway). Europe should, however, help the United States establish rules of good conduct in Asia—for human rights, trade, international law, and more.

Europe should also take a greater lead in supporting Asia’s regional integration. Europe has a long history of building institutions that promote stability; it should therefore lend its expertise where possible to assist Asia’s existing economic and security structures. Having a regional architecture in Asia that promotes peace and prosperity would have lasting benefits for the region.

The most important way that Europe can help the rebalance in Asia is to help itself. This means continuing to take the lead in maintaining peace in Europe, and, as mentioned, demonstrating a greater commitment to defense. If European defense spending continues to decline, the United States will be forced to shoulder a larger portion of the alliance’s security burden, and will be less able to devote resources in Asia.

Binding the Atlantic Economy
The geostrategic goals of the West depend on a strong transatlantic economy. Today, this economy is the largest and wealthiest in the world. But, in the wake of the global financial crisis, there is much room for growth.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)—a major trade agreement currently being negotiated between the United States and Europe—will be an essential tool to reenergize the transatlantic economy. According to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, estimated potential gains for Europe could be as high as $134 billion annually, and as much as $107 billion for the United States.

The trade deal will lead to more jobs, more growth, and more investment. But TTIP is important principally because it will help strengthen and renew transatlantic ties. It will provide a sense of renewed purpose to the alliance, at a time when Americans are skeptical of European commitments to defense and Europeans are questioning America’s commitment to Europe.

Think of the TTIP as a renewal of U.S.-European vows. Every relationship, no matter how strong, requires a continued commitment by both partners to make it work. For Europe, TTIP provides reassurances that the United States can be relied upon for its varied security guarantees. For the United States, TTIP gives Americans faith that the EU will continue to engage globally, rather than just domestically.

A healthier fiscal environment resulting from TTIP may also allow transatlantic governments to reverse the defense cuts that have come over the last decade. Wealthier European partners would then be able to spend more on both regional and global threats, from counterterrorism and climate change, to maritime security and disaster relief.

In sum, TTIP would mark a new beginning for the transatlantic partnership; it is an essential tool in the foreign policy toolkits of both Europe and the United States—one that neither can afford to squander.

Where Do We Go From Here?
The biggest question for the transatlantic alliance moving forward is whether to consolidate or enlarge the Allied region.

For decades, the consensus among Atlantic observers held that enlargement was the surest way to advance the principles of the alliance—and for years it did.
Over the last thirty years, NATO’s enlargement helped usher a newly democratic Spain into the West; it integrated a unified Germany into the alliance; and during the 1990s and 2000s it helped foster stability and security in countries formerly under Soviet domination. Expansion of the European Union concurrently led to an ever greater commitment to peace through shared sovereignty.

So, will further enlargement help or hurt the transatlantic project?

In the long term, completing a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace is in the interest of the United States, and of every state in Europe. But the success of this process depends vitally on broad popular support—of those that would join the Western alliance and those that are already there. That consensus is currently absent—and it needs to be rebuilt before enlargement can proceed.

Take the European Union. Ever since the failures of the French and Dutch referenda on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005, a sharp sense of enlargement fatigue has lingered over Europe. Perhaps such a state of affairs should have been expected. The costs and consequences of the EU’s enlargement—whereby its overall population would increase by nearly a quarter, yet the combined GDP of the countries to be added would only be five percent that of current members—were always enormous. The economic crisis of the past half-decade has further dampened enthusiasm for further enlargement.

Within NATO, there is a similar sense of enlargement fatigue. The enlargement consensus that was broken in 2008 by the ill-fated attempt to force agreement on opening up a membership program for Georgia and Ukraine has yet to be re-established. Continued pressure to add new members to the Alliance will only make it more difficult to rebuild the consensus.

What, then, should the Allied region do?

For the foreseeable future, the best option is to focus on consolidating NATO and the EU as they are—not as they can or will be. For NATO, this means focusing on improving defenses and strengthening deterrence of Russia—including by enhancing NATO’s forward presence. For the EU, this means addressing the financial and euro crises through further integration and consolidation, as well as implementing a fair and just migration absorption policy. The United States will be critical to the former effort, and can play a much more supportive role than it has in this context.

The successful consolidation of NATO and the EU will set the stage for further enlargement down the road. This is not a question of drawing new, stark lines; rather, it is to ensure that the very consensus that made early enlargement possible is recreated and sustained in the future.

Europe matters for the United States—and the transatlantic alliance matters for the world. The challenge moving forward is to take the alliance’s strengths and ensure they are guided by renewed focus and wise policy. Today’s challenges are more complex and more unpredictable than at any point in history. We are better off when we are able to confront them together. 

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