international analysis and commentary

Four scenarios for transatlantic relations in Obama’s second term

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As President Obama’s new foreign policy team takes shape, the economic and political challenges facing Europe and the United States, the volatile democratization under way in the Middle East, the nuclearization of Iran, the growth of Asia and China, and the broader diffusion of power in an increasingly multipolar international system, are pushing and pulling the transatlantic relationship – and the West more broadly – in four different directions: collapse, dilution, consolidation and expansion.

The collapse of the transatlantic partnership is a real prospect, albeit one that might materialize in the longer-term rather than in the immediate short-run. Continued political paralysis and economic malaise are making Americans and Europeans ever more inward looking and polarized. While the war in Iraq pushed anti-American sentiments to an all-time high in Europe, the Obama presidency and its social and economic reforms have exposed and amplified deep and virulent anti-European feelings within American society, and particularly the Republican camp. Likewise brinkmanship in Washington and the threat of institutional collapse in the eurozone and the EU are a perfect recipe for a further erosion of transatlantic commitments. An emerging Asia could put an additional wedge between the two sides of the Atlantic, especially if America recovers economically and Europe continues to stagnate. If this were the case, the Pacific region would most certainly become America’s main economic, political and military hub, while the Atlantic region – along with the Mediterranean and the Middle East – would be increasingly seen by Washington as an unproductive crisis-ridden backwater. The often-discussed American “pivot” to Asia – or as it is now called “rebalancing” – could turn into a much broader embrace. In such a setting, American presidents would be looking ever more avidly for reliable partners in Asia, rather than in Europe, to restructure and manage the international order and institutions of the 21st century.

A second plausible scenario is one of dilution, whereby the transatlantic relationship simply continues to muddle through, with no particular coordination by either party, while economic, military, political and “normative” power continues to diffuse in the international system. In such scenario the West does not fall apart, no clear break-up between America and Europe takes place, but its influence and leadership within the institutions and practices of international society are progressively watered down and diluted. In such a world, in which alliances would largely be built ad hoc, the transatlantic link – left without any clear direction – would be sustained or easily disposed with according to circumstances. Moreover, the likelihood of increased competition over economic resources and ties with rising powers could further dilute the West’s already declining footprint in the international system.

This process is already partly unfolding and can be traced in the expansion of the exclusive G7/8 club to a more amorphous G20, in the growth in voting power of emerging/emerged non-Western economies in the Bretton Woods institutions, and in the ongoing discussions about expanding the UN Security Council and consolidating the European vote.

Yet, and somewhat paradoxically, the same domestic and international forces tearing America and Europe apart could lead to an entirely opposite scenario, one of consolidation. Moments of crises can also mean new opportunities. Hence, just as the euro crisis seems to be nudging the EU towards greater integration, Western economic stagnation is also spurring real efforts towards deeper transatlantic ties. Finally, the idea of a Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) agreement, which has been floating around for decades, seems likely to become reality. This follows in the footsteps of the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC), a forum institutionalized in 2007 and designed to advancing economic cooperation between the US and the EU.

Likewise, while in the past decade the Iraq invasion and the War on Terror caused major transatlantic rifts, American and European approaches to the contemporary challenges posed by the Middle East appear to be converging now. The United States and Europe closely cooperated in the 2011 military intervention in Libya and have also been meticulously coordinating their diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. Both wish to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible, and share a similar outlook for a more democratic, even if somewhat more Islamist, Middle East. China’s rise could surely weaken the transatlantic alliance. Yet it could also prompt a revitalized partnership, as Secretary Clinton suggested in a November 2012 speech at the Brookings Institution. “Our pivot to Asia is not a pivot away from Europe,” Clinton remarked. “On the contrary, we want Europe to engage more in Asia, along with us, to see the region not only as a market, but as a focus of common strategic engagement”.

A fourth plausible direction is that of an expansion of the core military, political and/or economic institutional structures that underpin the transatlantic relationship. While this scenario is unlikely to happen without greater consolidation of American and European cooperation, it is nevertheless producing some of the most lively and interesting policy debates across Western capitals. These discussions are also spurring a rather fascinating reconceptualization of what the West is, what it stands for and what its boundaries are and should be.

Several ambitious proposals are circulating among scholars, pundits and policy makers in America and Europe. One is the rather controversial pitch for an entirely novel “League of Democracies”. Mostly neoconservative and liberal internationalist American scholars have championed this idea, which also found its way in Senator McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Another conversation has revolved around turning NATO into a “Global NATO”. “Global” not only in its military reach, but also in its partnerships and perhaps future membership, which could include countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  

There is also an emerging debate centering on the prospect of a “Wider Atlantic” initiative that would economically and strategically connect countries in North America and Europe to those in Latin America and the Western portions of North and sub-Saharan Africa, to create a new center of gravity in the Atlantic basin possibly as powerful as Asia’s.

Serious questions need to be addressed about the economic and political models prevailing in the West, amid economic difficulties and political divisions in both America and Europe. The internal issues are compounded by the threats and opportunities emanating from the Middle East and Asia. These domestic and international forces currently at work carry the seeds of all four transatlantic scenarios. Indeed, the processes of collapse, dilution, consolidation and expansion outlined thus far, are all in the making simultaneously as we write. It is at this moment, therefore, that the leadership of President Obama and his newly appointed economic and foreign policy team, along with that of current, and others soon to be elected, European leaders becomes crucial. It is very much up to them to make those decisions – as well as the non-decisions – which ultimately will push the transatlantic relationship and the West ever more decisively down only one of these paths.