America First, Europe Alone?

At the annual general meeting of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative, participants discussed the current situation and the future of transatlantic relations.

Julian Heissler | May 2018
Participants of the panel discussion
Paul Morigi

Transatlantic relations are in crisis. It is no longer a given that the historical alliance between the USA and Europe that has influenced and defined the world order for decades will continue as before. The withdrawal of the US Administration from the Paris Climate Agreement, the announcement of a withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the ongoing trade disagreements are taking their toll and putting a strain on transatlantic relations.

This was reason enough for the Brookings Institution, together with the conservative think tank The Hudson Institute and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, to host an expert workshop and panel discussion titled “America First, Europe Alone?” at the annual general meeting of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI) to discuss the future of transatlantic relations.

What the panelists say

Are the US and Europe drifting apart?

There’s definitely no shortage of triggers: On the eve of the event, the US Administration announced its intention to evaluate possible tariffs on imported cars, a measure that would significantly affect many European partners of the US, and Germany in particular. The next bombshell came only a few hours later, when in the morning President Trump canceled the much-anticipated meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, which would have involved negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear program. “It’s an interesting day in foreign policy,” commented Bruce Jones, Vice President and Director Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, in his opening remarks in the Brookings Institution’s auditorium, packed with some 150 guests.

Mr. Jones voiced his concerns about the increasing divide between the US and Europe. Taking the Iran deal as an example, he stressed that only a short while back, it “would have been unthinkable” that the European nations involved would agree more with Russia and China than with the United States.

Disagreement is the new normal

Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President International Relations America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, also talked about “tumultuous times” in his welcome speech. Disagreement between Germany and the US had become the new normal, as exemplified by trade issues. Nevertheless, Mr. Hänel remained optimistic: “Europe and the US have had their ups and downs in the past, too. There’s no doubt we are experiencing a particularly difficult period on an official level right now. But at the same time, networking among civil society stakeholders and the interest in exchange and cooperation, especially between states and municipalities, are greater than ever before.”

Panel participants were uncertain whether this would be enough to get transatlantic relations through the next few years. Should the US and Europe drift further apart in the years to come, it might be difficult to bring the former partners together again, even after the end of Donald Trump’s term. “It’s a bit like a friend from high school going away to college for four years and then suddenly showing up on your doorstep again,” is how Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution (CUSE), described the situation. At that point, it wouldn’t be possible to just pick up where you left off. “Your own life has changed during this time as well.”

Ms. Sloat was also concerned that the increasing divide could be felt on both sides of the Atlantic. In Brussels, the relationship with the US is currently described in the same way the US State Department used to portray the relationship with Turkey in the past: “Cooperate in areas of shared interest, talk openly about disagreements, remain true to your own values.” Add to that the issues Europe is facing at home: “Europe is one bad election away from getting to the point where the US already is.”

Transatlantic relations at a crossroads

Edward Luce, columnist for the Washington Post and commentator for the Financial Times, took it a step further and argued that divergences were already dominating the debate: “Just take this panel and the questions we are discussing today, which are totally different from those we would have discussed a few years back.” Instead of the TIPP free trade agreement or a joint strategy in dealing with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the day’s debate focused on the fundamental solidarity of the western world.

It was indeed a crossroads, agreed Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at CUSE since 2014. While it was true that in recent decades there had frequently been disagreements between Europe and the US – about the use of military force, for instance – the main point of discussion had been which means to apply to a shared goal. “Today,” Ms. Stelzenmüller said, “we argue about the goal itself,” making this moment in time particularly disruptive. “And it may become considerably worse in the coming weeks or months,” she added.

“The question Europeans must ask is: Should we fight back?”

To counter this development, Europe must find its way back to unity, argued Célia Belin, Visiting Fellow at CUSE. Brexit and the rise of populism have shaken the European Union to the core. “Things that used to work don’t work anymore,” stated Ms. Belin, and right now of all times, when the US regarded Europe no longer primarily as a partner, but as a competitor. “The question Europeans must ask is: Should we fight back? How much should we fight back? And what are our goals?” Ms. Belin is convinced that Europe can only survive this crisis united. “It’s easier when you stand together.”

So, does that mean confrontation instead of cooperation with the US in the future? Kenneth R. Weinstein, President and CEO of the Hudson Institute, disagreed. There were plenty of issues on which Europe and the US could continue to work together constructively, he stated. “One example is the reform of the World Trade Organization,” where Americans and Europeans could pull together, he suggested.

The other panelists did not share Mr. Weinstein’s optimistic outlook. On the contrary, the consensus was that the next few years would continue to be very difficult for transatlantic relations.