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Getting the Transatlantic Relationship Back on Track

Written by Hayley Hunter

Introduction:

In the more than 70 years since World War II, the modern transatlantic relationship between the United States and Europe stood as the cornerstone of security in Europe. For decades, mutual interest in promoting free trade and creating alliances between democratic countries grounded the partnership. The original Atlantic Charter agreed to 80 years ago by U.S. President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill set goals for the post-WW2 world. These goals included not making territorial gains in the wake of the war, no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people, restoration of self-government to those deprived of it, reduction of trade restrictions, and disarmament of aggressor nations, among other goals. In 1995, the U.S. and European Union formalized this partnership and signed the New Transatlantic Agenda, which included four main objectives for collaboration:

  • Promoting peace, stability, democracy, and development around the world

  • Responding to global challenges

  • Contributing to the expansion of world trade

  • Closer economic relations and building bridges across the Atlantic

In recent decades, there has been an increasing number of clashes between the two sides of the Atlantic. In the 1990s, there were disagreements on policy towards the Balkans, with the United States complaining that Europe was not doing its' fair share in the post-war region. In 2003, Europe was divided on joining the U.S. in the Iraq War, and most states ultimately decided to sit it out. Despite these sporadic divisions, most U.S. presidents and their administrations still viewed the relationship with Europe as essential for national security and stability.

Although many attribute the rise in transatlantic tensions to former President Donald Trump, the first significant signs of strain developed from the Obama administration's shift in the United States' primary foreign policy focus from Europe to Asia. This shift continued and expanded existing policies to deepen the United States' role and credibility in the region, giving more attention, money, and military presence to the Indo-Pacific region.

While President Joe Biden seeks to mend these fractured relations and recommit the United States as a strong European ally, many wonder if his efforts will be enough. Following Biden's election, the European Council on Foreign Relations commissioned a pan-European survey of more than 15,000 people in 11 countries. Their survey found that most Europeans think the U.S. political system is broken and that it will not return to its status as the pre-eminent global leader. Rosa Balfour, the director of the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe, said of Biden's trip to Europe that "there is the shadow of his return and the E.U. will be left in the cold again. So the E.U. is more cautious in embracing U.S. demands."

Transatlantic Relationship under the Trump Administration:

While United States-Europe relations were already strained, Trump certainly did not help improve them with his "America First" policies and isolationist stances and rhetoric. President Trump's unpredictable style made the U.S. a tough ally to depend on. Danish Defense Minister Claus Hjort Frederiksen said of Trump that "Nobody knows when Trump is doing international diplomacy and when he is doing election campaigning in Montana. It is difficult to decode what policy the American president is promoting. There is a complete unpredictability in this, and one of the things you need in this alliance is predictability towards Russia."

Few European leaders could handle him. During his first trip to Europe in 2017, Trump surprised leaders when he pushed aside the Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković so that he could get front and center in the NATO photo. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, who became known as the "Trump whisperer," still couldn't manage to get through to him. While their relationship started fairly strong, even being called a "bromance," Macron grew frustrated after several failed attempts over the Iran Nuclear Deal, U.S. troops in Syria, and others.

Trump backtracked the United States from being a bilateral and multilateral partner to an isolationist in multiple ways. Trump frequently criticized the E.U. and its leaders, calling the European Union a "foe" and "nobody treats us much worse than the European Union."

According to John Bolton, Trump's former national security advisor, Trump told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the bloc had been set up to "take advantage of the U.S." Moreover, Trump often bashed NATO, saying, "I said a long time ago that NATO had problems: Number one, it was obsolete because it was designed many, many years ago." In Trump's four years as president, the U.S. withdrew from many multilateral agreements fostered by Europe, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which has helped keep Europe more secure since the Cold War.

Trump's handling of European foreign policy caused many European leaders to question their reliance on the U.S. President Macron said that "the United States is still an important ally, but we in Europe must become more sovereign and independent in taking care of our own security and defense."

Transatlantic Relationship under the Biden Administration:

For many European leaders, Joe Biden's election as president was a breath of relief. After four years of sporadic leadership from President Trump, they desired a return to a predictable, steady partnership. Many European leaders knew Biden from his years as Vice President to President Obama, and his familiarity comforted them. Immediately after his election victory, leaders across the European continent released statements congratulating Joe Biden. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, "I look forward to working with President Biden. Our trans-Atlantic friendship is indispensable if we are to deal with the major challenges of our time." European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte publicly announced their motivation to get transatlantic relations back on track.

At the 2021 Munich Security Conference in February, Biden sought to clear any confusion regarding the U.S.'s role as a close partner to the European Union. He stated, "I speak today as President of the United States at the very start of my administration, and I'm sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together." On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order rejoining the United States in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Biden's trip to Europe, almost exactly four years from Trump's first trip there, featured five stops: a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a G7 meeting, a NATO meeting, a US-EU summit, and finally, and a visit in Geneva to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden's team released multiple statements, agreements, and plans from this trip, including a New Atlantic Charter, a Carbis Bay G7 summit communiqué, a US-EU summit statement, and a US-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability. The original Atlantic Charter sparked the creation of international organizations from the United Nations to NATO to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The New Atlantic Charter is a renewed commitment to democracy and working with global partners to achieve eight specific goals ranging from ensuring democracy to climate security. The Carbis Bay G7 Summit communiqué and the U.S.-E.U. Summit statements were similar in their visions. Both accounts listed a wide range of goals each partnership hopes to achieve in future years, ranging from action on climate change to ending the pandemic to strengthening their shared values. The joint statement released by the U.S. and Russia is the shortest and contains a modest goal of reducing the risk of armed conflicts and the threat of nuclear war. Reviews on the success of Biden's meeting with Putin are mixed, but most tend to fall into murky territory.

The most significant European policy breakthrough so far in Biden's term is the Airbus-Boeing Deal reached in June, putting the tariffs on hold for five years. The deal ends an almost 20 year-long rift between the continents and eases some of the strain on trade. The Biden administration also made headway with the Group of 7 - which includes France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom – on a proposal for a 15% global minimum tax on the earnings of multinational corporations. These breakthroughs are potential signs of a trans-Atlantic reconciliation.

Conclusion:

While the transatlantic relationship is being mended, Biden still has a lot of work ahead of him to repair what previous administrations have undone. The election of Biden alone will not fix the damage incurred. European leaders are worried about what the next U.S. election might hold. Out of fear of another "America First" presidency, many European leaders are skeptical about aligning themselves too closely with Biden. Some do not want to devote significant time and energy to something that a future president could undo under a new administration in four years. In a 2018 speech to French diplomats and lawyers, Macron said that "Europe can no longer rely on the United States for its security." Thus, the United States must prove to Europe that it is a partner worth trusting.

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