Come January there will be a new U.S. administration settling into the White House, with attendant personnel changes in key government positions, new ambassadorial and national security appointments, and several months of flux to follow as Washington adjusts to the new President. On foreign and security policy, there will also be the usual debates on continuity vs. change, with criticism and praise modulated by the party affiliation of the new tenant in the White House. Historically this is an opportunity to set the policy priorities that will shape the next four years; U.S. relations with Europe should be among the highest priorities, for the relative strength of Transatlantic relations will impact Washington’s ability to shape developments both along Europe’s periphery and in other key regions.
Regardless of the electoral outcome in November, this election season has seen a bumper crop of criticism and debate not just about the past eight years, but also about America’s foreign policy design since the end of the Cold War—across Republican and Democratic administrations. Russia, China, and the Middle East have dominated newspaper headlines and journal title pages, while policy debates about Europe remain muted, despite the fact that Europe’s eastern and southern frontiers have witnessed the most dangerous developments since 1990—from Russia’s seizure of Crimea and border revisions in Ukraine to state failure, the rise of ISIS, and escalating sectarian conflict across the Middle East. In fact, one could say that “Europe fatigue” has descended on U.S. policy debates. The Continent seems unable to muster the energy to resume its integration project or solve its most urgent problems, especially coping with the waves of migration from the Middle East and North Africa. And yet it is Europe where the impact of a resurgent and geostrategically assertive Russia has been felt most directly.
More importantly, Europe remains a key hub of economic power, with a combined GDP comparable to the United States and a population that exceeds it by more than 180 million. Across Europe consolidated democracies remain the norm, making their core values easy to grasp for America, even if the Europeans continue to conceptualize the relationship between the individual and the state differently. Notwithstanding the lingering aftershocks of the economic crisis, the combined hard power of the United States and Europe will remain unmatched by any rising or resurgent competitor for years to come. It is for this fundamental reason that a consensus between the United States and Europe on how to sustain and expand Transatlantic relations is key to our mutual security. Renewing and re-forging that consensus should be high on the agenda of the next U.S. President.
Today the paradox of Transatlanticism writ large is that, while NATO remains the core U.S. alliance and America’s defense commitments to Europe are explicit, the place Europe holds in U.S. policy debates seems to lag behind the level of those commitments. Washington has only slowly internalized the tectonic changes that have been rearranging Europe’s politics since the onset of the economic crisis. Conversely, in Brussels and Europe’s largest capitals, migration and nationalist surges have overwhelmed the vision of an ever deeper and wider European Union that only a few years ago seemed unstoppable. Even when Europe’s security has entered into U.S. debates this election season, such instances remained largely confined to declaratory statements on whether and to what extent the two presidential candidates support NATO.
Only the most Pollyannaish would argue today that Europe is still “whole, free, and at peace,” and it is precisely because of how potentially damaging the current fragmentation of Europe is for the Transatlantic alliance that the next Administration should move Europe up on its priorities list. Brexit has fundamentally reordered the delicate balance inside Europe, ending the era in which Europe’s leaders could entertain the notion of both deepening integration and widening its reach. While the United Kingdom remains an essential U.S. NATO ally, Germany is today the default hub of the European Union and the key ally of the United States on the Continent, its relative economic weight having increased with the United Kingdom’s impending departure. Germany’s close ties to the United States and its leadership on the Continent are even more important in light of Russia’s return to Eastern Europe. Moscow, having already partly revised the post-Cold War territorial and normative regime there, is staking its claim to a sphere of privileged interest along its periphery and seeks to influence Central and Southeast Europe. How the United States and Europe ultimately respond to this challenge depends to a large extent on the strength of U.S.-German relations, especially whether or not we speak with one voice on core issues when dealing with Moscow. The risk of escalation between NATO and Russia remains high, and misjudgment could lead to an all-out military confrontation. The stakes could not be higher.
One reason why current U.S. debates on Transatlantic relations have not moved forward is that, aside from the continued importance of NATO, there isn’t that much in the past 25 years of U.S. policy toward Europe that could serve as a guide to a new consensus on how—to quote one of my recent interlocutors on the Continent—“to get Europe right again.” Although the Balkans served as a focal point for U.S. policy in the late 1990s, in hindsight the lessons from the Balkan wars (especially the contentious Kosovo settlement) provide NATO with little guidance about how to address a resurgent Russia.
The first post-Cold War decade saw elite views on the U.S. role in the world shift from the central role some thought it would play in a unipolar world, through the view of the United States as an “indispensable nation” that would structure the international system around a generalized set of norms, to democracy-building and projection of American values, subsequently married to hard power after 9/11. The past 15 years saw, first, a rapid expansion of U.S. engagement during the George W. Bush era driven by the terrorist threat, followed by the eight years of the Obama Administration’s search for a new paradigm in foreign and security policy, with its “reset with Russia” and “pivot to Asia,” and a fundamental shift on U.S. policy towards Iran. This change was accompanied by concurrent efforts to manage the accelerated implosion of the post-Sykes-Picot Middle East, as the United States initially sought to disengage from the region, only to be pulled back following the rise of ISIS and Russia’s intervention in Syria. Today the fundamental challenge facing the United States and Europe is to reaffirm the core Transatlantic alliance so as to ensure that the collective West is more than an exercise in nostalgia. But not only must the next President make Europe a priority; Europe also has a responsibility to get its house in order and meet America half-way.
There is a growing weariness in the United States with Europe’s inability and, in some cases, unwillingness to address urgent common security concerns. That weariness has played into the public’s appetite for retrenchment (and, for a segment of voters, disengagement) in this election cycle. Not surprisingly perhaps, the regnant confusion over foreign policy makes it easier for some analysts to see the world’s ills and the U.S. predicament largely as a reaction to Washington’s “getting it wrong,” calling for a “course correction.” If it were so simple, a new strand of forward-leaning internationalism (the United States must sustain the global order) or “transactionalism” (if the allies don’t step up, the deal is off) would offer a sharp but conventional fix. The reality is more complex, however, even as it remains starkly simple in some ways. Over the past four decades we have witnessed China assume an ever more geostrategically assertive position in Asia, even as it also reaches into Europe, Africa, and Latin America. At the same time, the “no free lunch” cliché as applied to national security and defense is forcing more difficult U.S. policy choices than ever. After a quarter century of expanding strategic commitments, on the one hand, and shrinking resources and capabilities, on the other, the difference between our power requirements and capabilities is becoming too wide to ignore.
No amount of strategic sleight of hand can bridge the gap between the size of the U.S. military and the tasks it is asked to fulfill. That is why getting European NATO not just to accept but to actually do something concrete about burden sharing—that holy grail of so many past U.S. administrations—is so essential to U.S. efforts to address the changing security environment in Asia and contain the fires in the Middle East. There are three choices for Washington on the path ahead: a significant reinvestment in the military, returning it to the level required to meet U.S. security commitments worldwide; a reduction of those commitments (essentially a gradual pullback into a hemisphere-centric stance over the next two decades); or a determined effort to strengthen our alliance with Europe. Of the three, the final choice offers the best prospects for preserving the liberal international order at a sustainable cost, yielding a posture that the U.S. electorate would accept.
The United States and Europe have spent the past quarter century laboring under two mutually complementary if increasingly questionable assumptions about the likely course of change in the international system. Today the prospect that countries will continue to adopt systemic solutions favoring democracy and market capitalism is dim at best. Likewise, globalization and free trade may not automatically deepen the complex interdependence among nations, nor attenuate national and ideological friction and allow the norm-setting regime to moderate state-on-state competition. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case: competition between states has become more intense as economies have become more interconnected. This makes it imperative for the United States to buttress the Transatlantic security link, because—warts and all—Europe remains America’s closest ally.
The past quarter century of post-Cold War systemic change offers some poignant lessons for the United States and Europe. The unification of Germany and the implosion of communist regimes across central and eastern Europe were indeed transformative historic events. At one level, the end of the Cold War was symbolic of the end of an ideological “civil war” within the West. Still, the much heralded unburdening of history, having acquired an almost Hegelian flavor of inexorability, was never synonymous with the gradual waning of the nation-state or international competition. So today the question of whether the United States and Europe can reach a consensus on the core tenets of how to keep NATO a credible alliance is more urgent than ever.
More than at any point in the past 25 years there needs to be an agreement within the alliance on what constitutes a sustainable deterrent and defensive posture (and real money put against it), how to deal with Russia going forward, and how to respond to the deepening crisis on Europe’s southern flank. There are no quick fixes or “resets” in the offing that would solve the “Russian question,” end the threat of jihadi terrorism, or ensure a stable security environment in the Pacific. However, there is an urgent need for a strong consensus that the Transatlantic alliance is vital to the security of both the United States and Europe, as it is essential for addressing the threats we face today.