Transatlantic Relations Are Not a One-Way Street

America has reason to complain, but it can’t expect its European allies to fall in line every time.

Angela Merkel Barack Obama
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with American president Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, May 2, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

The United States have lately seemed more concerned than usual about the state of transatlantic relations.

At World Politics Review, Richard Gowan recounts several “stern signals” American officials have sent about Europe’s “obligations to the American-led world order.”

Samantha Power, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned NATO member states to halt their “dangerous” defense cuts during a visit to Brussels where she also lamented that the allies had “drawn back from peacekeeping.”

According to Gowan, who is an associate director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “This was an accurate but uncomfortable message for EU and NATO members whose appetite for stabilization missions remains very low after their Afghan nightmares.”

Sustaining American primacy

Later in the week, Americans officials accused the United Kingdom of “constant accommodation of China” after it decided to invest in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new organization proposed by China that rivals the American-backed Asian Development Bank. This informed the predictable anguish in Britain about the state of its “special relationship” with the United States.

It all reveals a deeper concern about potential challenges to American leadership, Gowan argues, “and Europe’s commitment to sustaining American primacy in particular.”

The current multilateral system rests on two basic pillars. The first of these is a American political commitment to work through international institutions, even if this is often more a matter of rhetoric than reality. The second is the continued willingness of Western European governments and Japan to pay a large chunk of the costs of this system, in addition to backing the United States against challengers such as Russia and China.

The second is being called into question at the same time when the Obama Administration is more serious about the first than its Republican predecessor was.

We’ve been through worse

The fraying of transatlantic relations should not be overstated. European countries remain America’s go-to allies. In 2011, a coalition was quickly assembled to intervene in Libya. American and European forces are currently working together to counter piracy off the Somalian coast and combat terrorist groups in the Levant and West Africa. No one else is stepping up to the plate.

Gowen points out that, together with Japan, Western nations still pay nearly 80 percent of the United Nations’ main budget. Their shared grip on the liberal world order’s institutions remains powerful. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank are dominated by their Western members.

Relations have been rockier in the past. France and Germany strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During the Cold War, both countries at various times pursued closer relations with the Soviet Union independent of the United States. America was highly critical of Dutch and French colonial wars. None of those disagreements led to a permanent rupture.

If anything, NATO looks stronger today. France rejoined its integrated military command in 2009 and Russia’s recent aggression in Ukraine has reminded Western Europeans of the alliance’s usefulness. (The new member states in Russia’s periphery needed no such reminder to begin with.)

Guns and butter

It’s true Western Europe has neglected its defense. Although the imbalance in military spending is partially due to the United States dramatically increasing its defense spending in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Americans are right to urge Europe to do more.

But the Europeans are also being urged from Washington to grow their economies and they’re struggling to do both at the same time.

America and Europe remain each others’ most important trading partners. The two account for half of the world’s yearly economic output and a third of the world’s trade. It is this economic interdependence that has helped the alliance endure for more than half a century.

America could help by rushing through a transatlantic trade agreement that would boost Europe’s growth .5 percent per year, according to the European Commission. One reason it is held up, however, is that President Barack Obama’s Democrats are refusing to give him the authority to negotiate a treaty.

Eyes on Asia

The administration’s priority seems a transpacific partnership anyway. Combined with all the noise it’s making about “pivoting” to Asia, it is little wonder the Europeans feel less obligated to do America’s bidding.

America must be engaged in Asia to make the Atlantic order a global one. But the Europeans can’t just tag along. It might even be helpful if they positioned themselves as a third pole in Sino-American relations.

Europe’s trading powers, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, could use their leverage — such as conditioning recognition of China as a market economy in the World Trade Organization and the sale of high technologies — to nudge China toward more openness, improving legal protection of foreign companies operating inside its borders and altogether accepting a rules-based international system in which the simple fact that China is a “big country,” as its foreign minister infamously put it in 2010, doesn’t entitle it to bully its neighbors and make up the rules as it goes along.

Europe could also introduce multipolarity in the system so a gain for either China or the United States doesn’t necessarily result in a loss for the other.

Reciprocity, not obedience

When Germany first pursued Ostpolitik in the early 1970s, Americans worried that independent German relations with the East Bloc would weaken the West’s resolve. Eventually, they came to recognize that German diplomacy provided an opening for détente between the superpowers.

When France and Germany refused to join the Iraq War, Americans were appalled by their ungrateful allies. Now most Americans accept they were right and might even wish their leaders had been less foolhardy and listened to their cowardly friends a bit.

Sometimes the Europeans need to be dragged kicking and screaming into holding up their end of the bargain. But they’re no American satellites. The transatlantic relationship must be one of reciprocity, not obedience.