Can the Transatlantic Relationship Survive the Populist Storm?
I feel lucky that my career has taken place during a dynamic period in the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. I started college as the Reagan presidency was ending, not long after the Evil Empire speech, and graduated soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was studying in Europe during the autumn of 1989, and failed to recognize the seismic shifts taking place, and regretfully did not go to Berlin to watch the Wall come down in person. By the time I went to graduate school in London to study European politics a few years later, the European Union was enlarging again and Central and Eastern Europe were changing at a blinding pace. But I still did not quite grasp the full significance of the historical events going on around me.
Despite my mis-reads on history, it was always clear to me that the bonds between the United States and Europe were critical to our common security and our economies. The cultural bonds were everywhere to see, from the vast number of U.S. military families in Germany, the many friends from exchange programs in high school and college, the rite-of-passage backpacking trips through Europe, to the easy decision to study twice in the UK. When I came to Washington, DC, newly armed with a European studies master’s degree, I quickly found a strong network of political, academic, and business leaders underpinning the alliance. And I was fully on board.
Politically, as time went by, the first Bush administration played a critical role in the reunification of Germany, and subsequent Clinton and Bush 2 administrations carried on the close ties with our European partners and support for the European Union. Sure, there were hiccups along the way, most notably in 2003 over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but political leaders and the business community helped bridge the differences and ultimately held the alliance together. The primacy of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and support for a strong and integrated European Union remained beyond question.
Soon after President Obama was elected, there was the pivot to Asia and the National Security Agency phone-tapping scandal, which caused significant tension in the alliance. Despite this, under the leadership of German Chancellor Merkel and with significant political capital from President Obama, both sides would launch an historic trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Despite initial concern about the alliance, we seemed closer than ever to significantly integrating our economies and again setting the rules for a changing global environment.
That was then. Now, a populist storm on both sides of the Atlantic is posing an existential threat to the transatlantic alliance and to those institutions that have been developed since World War II. Populist, anti-European parties have surged in Germany, France, the UK, and many other EU member states. This has resulted in a growing number of anti-EU members of the European Parliament intent on rolling back the progress made. Public support for transatlantic ties has suffered and anti-Americanism has surged. And then, the UK voted to withdraw from the EU, setting the current high-water mark for the populist movement in Europe.
Not to be outdone, the U.S. elected a president who has sided with the proponents of the UK’s Leave Campaign, openly questioned the viability of NATO, and has signaled, at least initially, a potential turn toward isolationist policies. The window on TTIP feels like it has been slammed shut. In a recent article for the Washington Post, Anne Applebaum suggested that after Brexit and the U.S. elections, we are now one election away from the end of the West as we know it, referring to the French and German elections in 2017. This time, with the benefit of history, I am able to recognize the scale of the changes going on around us.
Since the end of the Cold War, there have been questions about the importance of the transatlantic alliance. With the disappearance of the bipolar Cold War world, did we still need NATO? Was a strong and united EU in the U.S. interest? In the end, these debates were settled and the consensus held. The populist movements we are facing now, however, are the most serious threat to these assumptions in a generation. Arising from concerns ranging from immigration to the pressures caused by a globalized economy, this movement is a direct rejection of the network of leaders that has held the alliance together.
These are massive challenges that must be addressed, but the need for the transatlantic alliance is as great as ever. Our common values of open markets, democracy, and the rule of law make the U.S. and Europe the most natural partners in shaping the changing world. The security NATO provides remains indispensable, particularly for those newer members facing an increasingly unpredictable Russia. A more integrated transatlantic economy will make us more competitive and give our companies a better chance to succeed globally. Through a successful TTIP, reduced tariffs will lower the cost of doing business between our markets, while harmonizing different standards will allow new technology to come to market sooner and more cost effectively. If the alliance is not preserved, we will increasingly cede leadership in these areas to other emerging countries.
EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, responding recently to the U.S. elections, said that the U.S.-European alliance is deeper than any political shift. I hope that she is right. And I hope that the transatlantic network of political, academic, and business leaders that has built and held together the transatlantic alliance will now double down on that commitment, and weather the storm.