Judy Asks: Can Europe Rebuild the Transatlantic Relationship?

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Every week leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the international challenges shaping Europe's role in the world.

James W. Davisdirector of the Institute of Political Science, University of St. Gallen

Is it broken or just moribund? Europeans are keen to remind Americans that when it comes to the European Union, the way is the goal. Or, keep pedaling lest the bike tip over!

Is it any different with the transatlantic relationship? Much as with a marriage, it is the day to day work on common projects that keeps the relationship healthy, not the achievement of a specific goal.

So the task is to identify common projects, and there are many.

Avoiding a worsening of the economic crisis is of course one, but maybe it is time to put a positive spin on things? Achieving a transatlantic free trade agreement will take time, but bringing together Europeans and Americans from almost every branch of industry and services, as well as every level of government, in pursuit of a common goal would give the relationship renewed purpose…and a lot of pedal power!

Dan Hamiltonexecutive director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS

This question is problematic for two reasons. First, the challenge is not to re-build the transatlantic partnership, it is to tune it to new times. Second, it takes two to tango—Europe alone can't make the partnership fit for purpose. The US must play its part as well. 

The single most important effort Europe and America could make to improve their ability to act together abroad is for each to get its act together at home. Without U.S. fiscal solvency, economic growth, and job creation, Washington is unlikely to be the type of consistent, outward looking partner that Europeans need and want. The United States has the same stake in Europe’s success. Europe’s protracted economic and financial crisis threatens to drain U.S. confidence in Europe and its institutions and derail U.S. support for major transatlantic policy initiatives.

Each side of the Atlantic faces its own particular set of economic challenges, but both crises at their core are essentially political. Each side of the Atlantic is paying a high economic price for evading hard political choices. In the U.S. the political fight is over the appropriate role of government in the market and in society. In Europe it is whether to move toward deeper integration or to stick to confederal arrangements. Unless both sides are able to break their respective deadlocks, each will hamper movement toward a fuller and more effective partnership. In this regard, the twin crises of deficits and debt could be a watershed moment: either they are the political spur to develop more competitive economies in the United States and Europe, or the time when each begins to lose out to more vigorous powers.

Meanwhile, the world marches on. Iran’s nuclear program continues to be a headache for both partners. The U.S.-EU dual-track approach of pressure and engagement, including significant sanctions, is hurting the regime but has yielded little progress. The question of direct U.S.-Iranian talks now looms. Any deal must verifiably stop Iran from acquiring a bomb and prevent it from breaking out toward weaponization.

The Middle East presents U.S. and European leaders with three more headaches: the Syrian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continued ferment in the Arab world. The United States and the EU share an interest in stopping the violence in Syria and preventing the conflict from spreading. Yet both have been reluctant to intervene more forcefully. As the killing continues in Syria, hostilities between Tel Aviv and Hamas have further inflamed tensions in the region, even as Egyptian President Morsi’s most recent grab for power has tempered hopes generated by the Arab Spring. The United States and the EU are working together with donors and new forces in the Arab world. Yet both partners—and others—are called upon to adopt a far more energetic approach to the region that combines strong support and serious assistance for freedom, democracy, and good governance with an unremitting focus on stopping regional clashes and disrupting terrorism.

Equally, President Obama and most European partners are committed to their 2014 deadline for transition in Afghanistan, though it is unclear whether Afghan forces can assume primary responsibility for their own security by then. Considering the possible consequences of a collapse of security and governance in Afghanistan—Islamist extremism, corruption, declining women’s rights and children’s education, further destabilizing of Pakistan—the urgent agenda is to develop a credible political strategy to complement the military drawdown.

President Obama will use his second term to consolidate his administration’s ‘rebalance’ toward the Asia-Pacific region, about which there is considerable European apprehension and misunderstanding. Europeans concerned about a shift in U.S. focus should consider three points. 

First, to the extent the US is seeking to build a new regional architecture of cooperation in the Pacific, it regularly uses transatlantic cooperation as a template and reference. Second, the military element of the shift has been from two theatres of war in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is not intended as a ‘pivot’ from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The United States remains both an Atlantic and a Pacific nation; that is in fact its edge in a world of more diffused power. Third, most U.S. officials want the ‘rebalance’ to be a pivot with Europe. President Obama has approached transatlantic partnership far more pragmatically, and with less of a Eurocentric focus, than many Europeans had expected. But the commitment to common values and shared interests is strong and real. His team seeks a partner that not only assumes greater leadership in addressing Europe’s own challenges but is able to tackle together with the United States problems far beyond European shores.

Climate change remains an issue of mutual frustration. A serious rethink of U.S.-EU efforts is in order. While the Obama administration agrees with the EU that climate change is a challenge, and is committed to pursuing mitigation policies, it differs on the tactics. Prospects for successful cap-and-trade legislation through the Congress are little better now than during President Obama’s first term, when such efforts foundered over partisan divisions. There is also zero Congressional support for Kyoto-like approaches. The EU’s approach to its emissions trading scheme has generated a backlash—not only in the US—forcing the EU to postpone implementation. US efforts to tackle climate change are rooted at the national level in tax incentives and the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority. Yet innovative approaches have also taken root in regional initiatives that offer opportunities for European engagement.

Relatedly, a new energy reality is looming. Over the past few years America’s oil and gas boom has rendered the US over 80 percent self-sufficient in energy production and use. It will soon become an exporter of natural gas and by the end of this decade is likely to surpass both Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest producer of oil and liquid natural gas. The U.S. switch to gas helped to lower its greenhouse gas emissions 9 percent between 2007 and 2011 – more than the EU, despite its focus on legal mandates and renewables. Other implications are worth considering. U.S. gas exports to Europe could alleviate European dependence on unpredictable suppliers; just the prospect has prompted a drop in Russian gas prices. Less U.S. dependence and continued European dependence on Middle Eastern energy sources could raise issues of mutual commitment and relative responsibility with regard to Middle East stability. The U.S.-EU Energy Dialogue has done little to address such issues; it must be revamped.

Amidst this array of domestic and international challenges lies one significant opportunity: a comprehensive Transatlantic Economic Partnership. The U.S.-EU High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth (HLWG) has been quietly discussing the framework for such an agreement, and is slated to release a final report on its feasibility. Further opening of the transatlantic market promises to generate millions of new jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. It should encompass transatlantic free trade but not be limited to it, since the greatest gains—and the biggest impact on jobs—would come from accords facilitating transatlantic investment and services and addressing a range of regulatory and non-tariff barriers. This could become the signature transatlantic initiative of Obama’s second term—and also a major achievement for European partners.

Such arrangements must be tied to joint efforts to strengthen the ground rules of the international economic system. The stronger the bonds among core democratic market economies, the better our chances of being able to include rising powers as responsible stakeholders in that system. The alternative is growing protectionism and the triumph of lowest common denominator standards for the health and safety of our people. The opportunity is at hand. If leaders on both sides of the Atlantic grasp the moment, the first U.S. “Pacific President” and his EU partners may well become best known for having re-founded the Atlantic Partnership.

Jonas Parello-Plesnersenior policy fellow European Council on Foreign Relations

Obama II gives Europe the opportunity to refocus the transatlantic relationship. 

A shift was already underway under Obama I with the rebalancing towards Asia. This will continue. Furthermore, Obama wants to do nation building at home, recasting the foundations for American greatness through better education, scientists, and infrastructure. It will leave less bandwidth for foreign policy and for engaging in all regions.

This means that Europeans will have to shoulder more responsibility and manage the crisis particularly in their own neighborhood—Libya or Georgia reruns will be Europe's task—since the United States will be focused on Asia—perhaps sometimes distracted by firefighting outbursts in the Middle East. 

This new situation is a chance for a more interesting division of labor than just reiterating shared values. My colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) wrote a recent piece on how Obama's re-election is for Europe the 'time to grow up'. That would be the building block for a new transatlantic relationship.

Gianni Riottamember of the Council on Foreign Relations

I am not sure the transatlantic relationship really needs "rebuilding". It is not destroyed or badly damaged. It's a long, quite, uneventful marriage, like the odd couple in Le Chat by Simenon, boredom implies tension. America is concerned about Asia, Europe is concerned about the euro debt crisis. They both now boast a Nobel Peace Prize for, they are both quite clumsy vis a vis Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Iran. They do not love each other passionately, or fight like desperate lovers anymore. They squabble over big business monopolies and Palestinian rights, but a few minutes later do not even remember what the fight was all about. Getting a divorce is expensive and uncomfortable, and going back to the dating scene is terrifying: India, China, Africa, Brazil, exotic but dangerous. The transatlantic routine sounds boring but nice.

Stephen F. Szaboexecutive director at GMF, Transatlantic Academy

While this is by definition a joint project requiring American efforts, Europeans have to demonstrate their willingness to be an active partner. The Obama administration is a realist one with a “What have you done for me lately?” type of approach so Europe will have to be engaged on the following issues:

  • The transatlantic economic zone which has to go beyond trade to make the Atlantic one big economic space 
  • Syria will be the next immediate test for alliance solidarity 
  • Staying close on Iran policy
  • The MENA requires a joint approach with a European lead
  • Extending the western liberal system in an increasingly nonwestern world.

Doing all this while solving the economic crises at home will be difficult, ambitious but essential.

Nathalie Toccideputy director of Istituto Affari Internazionali

Transatlantic relations under Obama are marked by a paradox. On the one hand, the European public continues to be openly enamored with the American president. On the other, experts on both sides of the Atlantic tirelessly point out the transatlantic drift under America’s first “Pacific” president. Are European public perceptions simply the product of knee-jerk irrationality? Arguably not. President Obama still offers the best chance for the transatlantic relationship to transform into an enduring partnership in a twenty-first century multipolar world—being able and willing to genuinely listen to European positions, so long as these are coherently formulated and implemented.

Amongst the suggestions produced by the transatlantic project TRANSWORLD, economic cooperation stands out as an area particularly ripe for a new bilateral bargain. There is sufficient ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the form of economic gains for both sides, particularly in a climate of stubborn economic stagnation, to justify an ambitious U.S.-EU economic cooperation agreement. Such an agreement could then lead naturally to a genuinely strategic discussion about a common U.S.-European approach to reinvigorating the multilateral trade agenda. 

 

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