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FRANKFURT/WASHINGTON, D.C. – Transatlantic relations rebounded buoyantly after U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in the Oval Office. But the Taliban’s rapid takeover in Afghanistan and the chaotic evacuation of foreign nationals and at-risk Afghans has soured the mood. European disquiet over Biden’s handling of the Afghan withdrawal, alongside Germany’s forthcoming federal election on September 26, makes this an opportune moment to take stock of the Atlantic alliance.
Four fundamental geopolitical changes are reshaping transatlantic relations. First, although the transatlantic link survived Donald Trump, his presidency (and near re-election), coupled with the illiberal populism that also infects Europe, has exposed the fragility of liberal democracy in its historical bastions. This internal menace, rather than China, Russia, or violent extremism, may pose the greatest threat to the transatlantic community today.
Second, even though Biden’s election has reinvigorated Atlanticism, the domestic foundations of U.S. internationalism have weakened considerably. NATO allies perceive the United States’ too-hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan as a worrying sign that Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” means a focus on the home front and a continuing U.S. retrenchment in the broader Middle East. Moreover, America’s strategic preoccupation with China could mean less U.S. attention and resources for Europe, and imply an expectation that Europeans will do more to provide for their own security.
Third, the European Union has itself undergone major changes in recent years. Its internal cohesion has weakened in the face of the migration crisis, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the stubborn hold of illiberal governments in Central Europe. The new strains on EU solidarity reinforce the need for German leadership, but also increase others’ wariness of Germany’s outsize influence.
The fourth change is China’s strategic ambition and, thanks to its transnational Belt and Road Initiative, its growing global reach. The Atlantic alliance does not enjoy the material and ideological dominance it once had, and must adapt its strategic priorities accordingly.
To preserve its centrality and cohesion amid this changing global landscape, the Atlantic community should pursue several objectives. As a top priority, it needs to defeat the enemy within by addressing the underlying sources of illiberal populism. Conditions are not identical in the U.S. and Europe, but a transatlantic conversation about reducing economic insecurity, mapping out the future of work in the digital era, and recovering from COVID-19 is essential. Another high priority is developing immigration policies that meet the U.S. and Europe’s moral obligations and economic needs but also secure their borders. Otherwise, nativist appeals will continue to gain traction.
As for NATO and the security link between North America and Europe, talk of a transatlantic rebalancing finally needs to become reality. NATO’s European members, and Germany in particular, must shoulder a significantly larger share of the defense burden and upgrade their military capability and readiness. In effect, Germany needs to become the strongest conventional military power in NATO’s European pillar. The U.S. would remain the alliance’s existential military backbone, but it would no longer run the show. At the same time, the political importance of the U.S. troop presence in Europe would grow, reassuring European allies that more German power means more security.
A more active European security role goes hand in hand with greater capability. As the U.S. continues to pull back from the broader Middle East, Europeans – whether through the EU or NATO – have to pick up some of the slack to help promote stability in trouble spots such as Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. A more capable and active Europe will gain more public support and become a more effective a partner for the US, strengthening the transatlantic relationship. In contrast, the more Europe free rides on the US, the more quickly Europeans will lose confidence in the EU and the faster American patience will run out, weakening transatlantic ties.
Lastly, the U.S. and its European allies need to forge a more united front vis-à-vis China. This does not mean that Europeans should rally behind Biden’s vision of a world-defining clash between democracy and autocracy. On the contrary, they should encourage him to dial down his rhetoric and treat China as a capable competitor, not an implacable foe. Because Europe remains an important ally, it can help an overheated U.S. find the right mix of containment and engagement.
But building a transatlantic consensus will not be easy. Just this past week, a nasty rift opened between France and the Biden administration over the new security partnership between the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia, which entails Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. and the cancellation of a pending order to buy French submarines. And the EU issued a policy paper, “EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” that plays down confrontation with China.
But Europe must meet the U.S. halfway by toughening its stance toward China. To be sure, economic decoupling is not on the horizon; China is far too integrated into the global economy. Nonetheless, the EU and the U.S. need to push back together against China’s unfair trade practices and align their policies on export controls, repatriation of supply chains for sensitive technologies, and the regulation of Chinese investment abroad. The Atlantic democracies should also continue to speak with one voice regarding human rights in China.
Moreover, an effective Atlantic strategy for dealing with China requires joint US-European efforts to improve relations with Russia. The current Chinese-Russian partnership significantly augments the collective challenge they pose to America and Europe. Pursuing a measured détente with Russia – as European leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier have proposed – can help put distance between China and Russia. President Vladimir Putin remains a tough interlocutor, but he may welcome Western outreach, given Russia’s long history of tension with China and the Kremlin’s inevitable discomfort with being China’s junior partner.
The Atlantic alliance is enjoying a period of restoration following the damage inflicted by Trump. But as the West’s messy exit from Afghanistan makes clear, it needs to undertake determined efforts to prepare itself for the formidable challenges ahead.