On February 19th, with the pandemic still in full effect, leaders of the Western liberal-democracies met virtually at the annual Munich Security Conference (MSC) to discuss a specific and closely concerning topic—transatlanticism. The conference’s theme was perfect in its timing, welcoming the newly elected President of the United States Joe Biden. He spoke alongside long-standing allies and international organizations on renewing multilateral relationships and restoring the liberal-democratic West beyond the growing Westlessness occurring in the rules-based order.
Beyond the apparent pronouncements of “America being back” and European allies eager for its return, there were differences in defining how the West can move forward in a world witnessing deepening multipolarity and the return of great power politics, along with the challenges brought on by increasing climate change, economic friction, and the erosion of liberal democracies worldwide.
One factor that everyone agreed on was the need for renewing transatlantic partnerships to tackle the various global threats. Despite the relationship approaching 72 years, transatlanticism was strained to the fullest during Donald Trump’s presidency. However, President Biden declared that the transatlantic relationship is “the strong foundation on which our collective security and shared prosperity are built” and it remains “the cornerstone of all our hopes in the 21st century,”. Therefore, can transatlanticism renew the cohesion and unity of the past? Can it offer the Western liberal democracies a new strategic front in a period of growing international power politics and fervent domestic polarisation? Yes, it can, and it must.
WHAT IS TRANSATLANTICISM?
Transatlanticism is a blurry concept politically and strategically. Before the 20th century, states within the transregional area had different preoccupations regarding their foreign policy interests. However, due to the two World Wars, the transatlantic region witnessed a significant integration of the states’ interests. Transatlanticism is the “common heritage and shared destiny of all the states bordering the North Atlantic.” Modern understanding of transatlanticism arrives from the 1941 Atlantic Charter that set out the American and British post-war goals. The Charter consists of eight clauses, each aiming for peaceful relations that would harmonize the transition of post-war Europe to avoid the pitfalls of the treaties from 1919.
“Victors claim no territorial gains, territorial adjustment, self-determination, the lowering of trade barriers for both the victors and vanquished, freedom from want and fear, freedom of the seas, and common disarmament.” CLAUSES 1-8 OF THE ATLANTIC CHARTER, 1941
Yet, with the growing discontent between the Soviet Union and the US, and the permanence of Soviet territorial expansion in Eastern Europe, Western European states were eager and anxious to keep collaborating with Americans. As such, the principles laid out in the Charter paved the way for the North Atlantic Treaty to be signed in 1949, leading to the creation of NATO, the principal international organization of the post-war order. Cohesion and unity led the transatlantic alliance to be deemed the driving force behind the liberal rules-based order while also advancing and supporting international free trade, economic and political development, and human rights.
IT CULMINATED WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP
Hegemony in Europe was strategically important for US foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War. A strong and united Europe under the leadership of the US, after all, enabled the US to expand its policy of containment elsewhere—namely Asia-Pacific. Such strategic focus, however, began to drift the two continents apart slowly. A common phrase used to define transatlanticism during this period was “keeping the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down,” but with Eastern Europe starting to break away from the Warsaw Pact in 1989, German reunification in 1990, and the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, transatlanticism was losing its significance. Further concerns began to arise with the gradual integration of European states into a supranational and intergovernmental actor and America’s unilateralist attitude in its unipolar moment.
Leaders and scholars indefinitely point to the Trump presidency as the leading cause for weakening and increasing tension within the transatlantic community. However, the transatlantic drift commenced before Trump preached about a presidential run in 2015. The American unipolar moment, i.e. when America attempted to spread liberal democracy to the Middle East, was crucial according to some scholars. It was the pivotal event that set off the downturn of cohesion and unity the transatlantic community had shared since 1945. For the first time since the inter-war period, the European Union’s integration permitted a more vigorous and more impassioned European bloc. It heightened its frequency of critiques to the sole global hegemonic power’s political actions. Remarkably this was shown when France threatened to veto any UN Security Council resolution to authorize force in Iraq and when Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder used his opposition as a re-election platform.
In 2009, there was hope for redirection and renewal of transatlanticism with the election of Barack Obama. Although he attempted to fix his predecessor’s mistakes, some scholars regard Obama’s presidency as a “real disappointment for Europe [as] his reflexes were not transatlantic at all.” Notably, his administration’s pivot to Asia, with the negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and US naval rebalancing to support Indo-Pacific allies, compelled European allies to determine that future American foreign policy interests laid in its growing competition with China in the region. Although Obama had launched a Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiation, Donald Trump’s election thwarted that plan.
Unequivocally, the Trump presidency accentuated the tension among the transatlantic community by continually threatening to pull the US out of NATO because of members not reaching the two-percent of GDP defense spending mandate. He also called long-standing Allies ‘delinquents’ and deliberately treated them as second or third-class members. European leaders, facing their own domestic polarization and the erosion of liberal democracies in Hungary and Poland, began to call for greater strategic autonomy for the EU to develop their own foreign policy with continental interests at the forefront. The decision also stemmed from Trump’s unilateral move to redeploy 6,400 US troops from Germany to Poland, showcasing his “America First” foreign policy, and his embrace of illiberal, autocratic, authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and at times, Chinese President Xi Jinping.
NEW ERA, NEW TRANSATLANTICISM
Although the transatlantic drift has seemingly shattered transatlanticism as a viable strategy for successful cohesion and unity between the West’s liberal democracies, its reintroduction at the MSC clearly illustrates the desire for its renewal. This is not surprising as the transatlantic alliance has created a deeply integrated and powerful partnership that one illiberal and irrational leader cannot destroy or thwart. Together, the transatlantic alliance accounts for over 40 percent of the world’s GDP and has highly developed, technologically sophisticated defense systems and equipment that transcends its rivals, although China has closed that gap in recent years.
To ensure that the strategy of transatlanticism remains central to the relationship between the North Atlantic states, the latter needs to focus on reforming its defense and security commitments and outlook. For instance, transatlanticism needs to renew the articles of commitment found in the North Atlantic Treaty—Article V in particular. Rolling back the Trumpian policies of troop redeployment and a show for greater cooperation in joint military exercises and fully encouraging a NATO summit that reaffirms defense concerns and supporting the NATO 2030 Strategic Concept discussions can showcase Biden’s and American seriousness to its assurance of commitment. To ensure that European NATO members uphold their obligation of matching the two-percent GDP mandate, President Biden should begin serious discussions that grant more ‘strategic input’ for a more muscular EU defense apparatus and leadership within NATO’s structures.
The fear that a more strategic independent EU body within NATO endangering US interests is a fallacy. For one, the EU during the Trump presidency was able to stay firm on its sanctions against Russia and saw it taking serious leads in coordinating policies to counter disinformation and cyber threats, despite pushbacks from its domestic populist movements. Unquestionably, the EU is materially and strategically prepared for greater responsibility for their region. As such, Biden can encourage the US to back an EU military headquarters that will closely coordinate NATO operations, strategic planning, and deployment with its North American partners. However, this readiness does not mean the end of the US-EU strategic partnership. Although the EU has increased its role and preparedness, some redundancies and inefficiencies in their capabilities remain. A particular area where both the US and EU struggle is in non-traditional security threats: information, data, telecommunication, and green energy technologies.
WHAT CAN BE FIXED?
By developing a transatlantic body that focuses on these ‘frontier’ technologies, US-EU officials can align their export-controls and infrastructure applications that avoid the growing dependency on state-own Chinese technology companies. Such emphasis is deeply possible as today’s transatlantic flow of data is one of the fastest and largest in the world. Creating multilateral hubs for ‘frontier’ technological cooperation through a transatlantic body situated in key cities that have the infrastructure and data capabilities (Frankfurt, London, Stockholm, Miami, New York, and San Francisco) can reinforce the integration of the transatlantic community and amplify its competency in taking on growing challenges.
Transatlanticism needs to transform its mandate through a new ‘Atlantic Charter’ that recognizes the need to establish a geopolitical standing for Western liberal democracies to flourish, becoming more competitive actors in resolving global challenges. Rather than continuing the relationship through a sense of obligation or entitlement, a new transatlantic mandate should force Western liberal democracies to recognize that their shared strategic interests in the world are deeply intertwined.
Historically, the transatlantic community has a poor track record when leaders gather; they often meet for short durations, resulting in generic promises of cooperation. An updated mandate should promote new regional institutions that garner specific and robust opportunities for strategic dialogues on common issues that have vital implications on the transatlantic community’s institutions of democracy, state safety, and multilateral partnerships. Among scholars and experts, a Transatlantic Council can incentivize greater intergovernmental cooperation at head-of-state meetings, ministerial and institutional summits, and transatlantic economic partnerships.
By pushing for a new transatlantic relationship, Western liberal democracies can shore up their suspicions of being isolated in a growing illiberal and competitive global order. Further, it can pressure the emerging and established antagonist power centers to recognize the seriousness and preparedness the Western liberal democracies will take in protecting the rules-based order that they help bring about. This new transatlantic partnership will bring the bulwark of liberal democracies to showcase that it can still maintain international peace and security and the principles of the free markets while also signaling that the community is amid the world, rather than apart or atop. Transatlanticism was built upon the foundation of incredible feats. One new feat is ushering in a multipolar rules-based order with liberal democracies flourishing across the world while working alongside antagonists in pursuit of resolving global threats that are too big for one state or bloc to fix.