The Roots of the Crisis Between the US and the EU

As Graham Allison writes in Destined for War, in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced with considerable fanfare an important “turning point” in American foreign policy. This would have diverted Washington’s attention and resources from the Middle East to Asia, in order to counteract the rise of China in the region. In the words of President Barack Obama, “After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region.” Obama promised to increase America’s diplomatic, economic and military presence in the region.

As Allison notes, this “major rebalancing” (better known as Pivot to Asia) announced by Obama and Clinton, remained un-actioned and greatly aspirational. An official of the White House under Obama commented that, “There was never a feeling that we had really turned away from the Middle East. About 80% of our most important meetings at the National Security Council focused on the Middle East.” Any attempt by the Obama administration to change this was definitively shelved by the so-called Arab Springs of 2011, in particular the conflict in Syria and the struggle against the Islamic State, in addition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Trump administration has started a trade war with Beijing, while showing a distinct lack of tolerance towards the German-led EU and, in particular, for Berlin’s trade surplus. President Donald Trump also greatly prefers dealing with individual states than with the intricate network of EU bureaucrats. As a pragmatist, he has perfectly understood that Germany and France hold the reins to the European Union. Overall, relations between the EU and Washington have worsened and European leaders such as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron dearly hope that the next US president will be the Democrat Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president. At the beginning of 2019, on the eve of the Munich Security Conference, Biden sent a reassuring message to European politicians, diplomats and military leaders concerned about America’s disengagement: “We will be back.”

Europe “is a vegetarian in a world of carnivores”

As Alina Polyakova and Benjamin Haddad write for Foreign Affairs in an article entitled ‘Europe Alone’, despite Joe Biden’s reassurances and the hopes of pro-Europe leaders, “a new US administration could assuage some of the current transatlantic tensions,” for example by “removing tariffs on European steel and aluminium or re-joining the Paris climate agreement.” However resolving these issues, experts at the magazine observe, “would not deal with the problem at its root. The rift between the United States and Europe did not begin with Trump, nor will it end with him.” Rather than giving in to nostalgia, they say, “US and European leaders should start with an honest assessment of the path that led them to the current crisis – the first step to building a more mature and forward-looking transatlantic partnership.”

Today’s crisis, they observe, “is first and foremost a result of the power asymmetry between the United States and Europe. For a long time, both sides accepted this imbalance, even cultivated it. Europe remained submissive in exchange for a spot underneath the US defence umbrella.” However the end of the Cold War, September 11, and above all the rise of China, “shifted Washington’s security priorities elsewhere, leaving Europe alone.” Today, the continent is “a vegetarian in a world of carnivores,” as said by Sigmar Gabriel, then Germany’s foreign minister. In fact, “European visions of ‘strategic autonomy’ from the United States, often invoked by the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and French President Emmanuel Macron, have remained just that – visions.”

Furthermore, the confederation of the European Union is composed of member states that do not renounce nationalism or the pursuit of their own national interests, which are often at odds with other member states. Those in Eastern Europe, for example, are more loyal to Washington than to Brussels. The economic domination of Germany, which has irritated Washington since Barack Obama’s presidency, when the US Treasury accused Berlin of focusing too much on export and not on domestic demand, weakens states like Italy, which are increasingly sceptical of European integration.

The rift between the US and the EU did not begin with Trump

As Foreign Affairs notes, the crisis of transatlantic relations did not begin with Trump. Obama announced the aforementioned “Pivot to Asia”, cancelling plans to build a US anti-missile defence system in Poland with radar stations in the Czech Republic, and subsequently withdrawing two US Army brigades from Europe. Things changed with the Euromaidan coup in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia.

Everyone blames Trump for the current crisis in transatlantic relations but, in reality, even in the case of a possible victory by a moderate Democrat like Joe Biden, tensions would remain. The US will continue to criticize Germany’s behaviour and its imperial (economic) ambitions over the rest of the Europe, but, above all, it will increasingly focus on challenging China and the containment of Beijing’s influence in Asia – whether Donald keeps his tenancy in the White House or not.

Washington will focus on challenging Beijing

In January 2018, the Pentagon unveiled its new National Defense Strategy that defines China and Russia as the two biggest threats to US direct interests, an epic turning point that marked a profound change in US defence policy after the War on Terror inaugurated by the George W. Bush administration post-September 11, 2001. Between the two, Beijing is perceived by Washington’s political elite as the number one threat that the American superpower must face.

According to political scientist Stephen M. Walt, “US foreign and defence policy will mainly focus on combatting China. In addition to trying to slow down China’s efforts to take the lead in a number of emerging technologies, the United States will also try to prevent Beijing from establishing a dominant position in Asia. However,” he says, “maintaining the US position in Asia will not be easy, because the distances are enormous, America’s Asian allies want to preserve their economic ties with China, and some of these allies do not particularly love each other.”

On the other hand, in the Old Continent, no country – including Russia – is in the position to threaten to dominate Europe. For this reason, Walt notes, “the role of the United States will continue to decline (as has happened since the end of the Cold War). Despite fears about Russia’s recovery, it is too weak to pose the same threat to Europe as the old Soviet Union.”