The sustainability of the transatlantic alliance lies not so much on the external environment that surrounds it but rather on the will of the people than live within it. Why citizens in France, the UK, Hungary or the US have decided to question that order so openly must surely be one of the central questions that analysts of transatlantic relations attempt to answer. And yet, what one normally finds at the core of analyses produced on the state of transatlantic relations are exogenous structural factors. These are issues like Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe or the rise of China and its geopolitical consequences. On both accounts the argument normally goes as follows: These emerging and revisionist powers pose a particular threat to shared European and American interests.
Let’s be traditional first: The main purpose of the transatlantic relationship in the 21st century will look familiar to those who have studied its history since 1949: To prevent a situation from emerging in which Europeans feel they need to call Moscow first, instead of Washington, in questions of international politics. Add Beijing to the equation, and you get an idea of how daunting the task will be.
Transatlantic relations are the permanent suspension of conventional geopolitics for the purpose of limiting other powers’ influence over a Europe they could otherwise own. Look at the map, and you understand that, based on size, wealth, population and location, it is Russia that should dominate Western and Central Europe. It does not do so because America’s presence and promise of security to Europe creates an artificial barrier that Moscow has been unable to overcome since the end of World War II. With NATO and EU expansion, this barrier has moved eastward by a few hundred kilometers, and this is where, if all goes well, it will remain for some time to come.
Western democracies are facing tough times. The United States is suffering from deep divisions, witnessing challenges to political institutions and retreating from a global emphasis on democratic values. Its traditional partner, the European Union, has turned inward after the financial crisis and refugee crisis as well as the acrimonious Brexit negotiations. Elections over the last two years saw gains by right-wing populist parties in Austria, France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. Governments in Hungary and Poland are threatening media and judicial independence. Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are worried about the adverse effects of globalization, displacement caused by new technologies and perceived immigration threats. Political parties, particularly on the center-left, have struggled to address these concerns.
The crises facing the transatlantic community are more profound that many citizens on either side of the Atlantic realize. A host of challenges, including migration, terrorism, low and uneven growth, high youth unemployment, significant debt, Russian disinformation campaigns, Brexit and the euro crisis, continue to erode domestic politics, economies, and security policies. While we should be proud of the many transatlantic institutions and initiatives that we’ve forged together over the past 70 years, we cannot afford to be complacent. We must engage in candid conversations about what is working – and what is not – and focus our attention on revitalizing the transatlantic community to more effectively tackle global challenges.