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Europe Alone

What Comes After the Transatlantic Alliance

A mural attributed to the British artist Banksy at the Port of Dover in the United Kingdom, December 2018 Toby Melville / REUTERS

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in early 2019, former Vice President Joe Biden had a reassuring message for European politicians, diplomats, and military leaders worried about American disengagement: “We will be back.” Biden’s speech was met with applause and relief. Wait out the tenure of U.S. President Donald Trump, he seemed to be saying, and sooner or later, leaders can return to the transatlantic consensus that defined the post–World War II era. Patience is the name of the game.

Biden was feeding a common but delusional hope. A new U.S. administration could assuage some of the current transatlantic tensions by, say, removing tariffs on European steel and aluminum or rejoining the Paris climate agreement. But these fixes 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, U.S. 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.

The main threat to the transatlantic relationship is not a hostile White House or a decoupling of interests. Today’s crisis 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 U.S. defense umbrella. For all their current hectoring about “burden sharing,” American leaders have long preferred European free-riding to European chaos. But the end of the Cold War, 9/11, and the rise of China eventually shifted Washington’s security priorities elsewhere, leaving Europe alone and mortal. Today, the continent is “a vegetarian in a world of carnivores,” as Sigmar Gabriel, then Germany’s foreign minister, put it. The Trump administration’s Europe policy, alternating between indifference and hostility, has given this revelation a newfound

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