How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe and Asia is an opportunity to reconsider the frustrating state of contemporary transatlantic relations. In spite of mutual reassurances and charming summit photos, Europe and the United States are becoming increasingly alienated from each other. The European public, initially inspired by U.S. President Barack Obama’s charisma, has been left cold by his performance in office. Long hoping for more continental support for its policies, Washington has become annoyed with the European Union’s slow decision-making processes. Mutual irritation is not just a byproduct of personal estrangement among leaders on both sides of the Atlantic—Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are no George Bush and Tony Blair—but is rather the result of a deeper divergence that has built up for several decades.
The irony is that, even if both sides no longer see eye to eye, they need each other more than ever. Cultural differences are obscuring continued interdependence in trade and complicating cooperation on climate change, globalization, migration, and terrorism. A new transatlantic dialogue is needed to address this deepening division before it becomes unbridgeable.
On the surface, everything seems to be fine between the transatlantic partners. In after-dinner speeches, the partners continue to celebrate their friendship, especially when faced with common threats such as international terrorism. Hordes of U.S. tourists visit European sites each summer; many Europeans fly to the United States every year to admire the nation’s landscape. Study abroad programs are flourishing in both directions, filled with students interested in discovering the connections between two cultures on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Mutual trade has reached new heights, with U.S. imports from the EU totaling $247.2 billion during the first seven months of 2015.
But behind closed doors in Washington and Brussels, there is increasing irritation. The complex Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations seem stalled over disagreements on genetically modified food, industrial safety standards, and fears of unregulated competition. Despite close bonds between European countries and Washington, continental leaders are still upset about the U.S. wiretapping program that eavesdropped on French president Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and senior EU officials. The continental public fails to understand the spectacle of the U.S. presidential campaign, which seems both farcical as well as an unnecessarily lengthy process. At the same time, the U.S. media has had a field day denouncing Brussels’ austerity policies, especially with regard to Greece. Although none of these issues are particularly threatening in isolation, their accumulation reveals an increasing distance between the partners.
Euro-bashing and anti-Americanism are both on the rise. During the 2008 presidential elections, Republican candidate Mitt Romney campaigned against “European socialism.” Europe too has taken a back seat to the Obama administration’s turn to Asia and Africa as more dynamic regions of economic development, and policy rebalance has left European concerns in second place behind the markets—and geopolitical conflicts—to the East. And with an ever smaller portion of the U.S. population having European heritage, Europe has been reframed as part of the past. Meanwhile, many Europeans have sought to emancipate themselves from Washington’s guardianship. Previous generations might have been grateful for the United States’ intervention in two world wars. But time has run out on that sentiment.
Further, although the transatlantic relationship is based on common Enlightenment-era human values, their interpretation has started to diverge, particularly when it comes to the use of force. Contrasting memories of war as being overseas or on one’s doorstep have created fundamentally different responses to it, which manifested themselves in the Franco-German refusal to join the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the consistent EU preference for negotiations for political resolution over military intervention. Both Germany and Russia abstained from the UN Security Council vote on intervention in Libya, and were dismayed when conditions in the nation after the deposition of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi deteriorated quickly. As a result, few European nations are willing to get involved in the discord in Syria, having their hands full already with the stream of refugees. Europe is a war-weary continent made all the more afraid of violence in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea—few if any leaders demonstrate the level of comfort with intervention that some within the United States have expressed in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail.
Differing attitudes don’t end at diplomacy, either. The United States’ experience of colonial settlement, westward expansion, and mass immigration put a premium on both rugged individualism and a willingness to work hard for personal advancement. In Europe’s more collectivist systems, the widespread suffering experienced during times of war, monetary inflation, and economic depression served to emphasize public responsibility for society’s weaker members. This helped create an ethos of social solidarity that even conservative parties embrace. That is why the debate over the Affordable Care Act, for example, is incomprehensible for Europeans: healthcare in most countries is a given right, and single-payer systems the norm The huge income gap in the United States is a source of amazement for Europeans who take pride in their greater equality and how it reduces social tensions. Many European nations argue that social welfare programs should be given primacy in strained national budgets, while NATO and the United States see value in defense spending as the continent finds itself with combat at its doorstep. In 2015, only five of NATO’s 28 member states met their agreed-upon defense spending goals, raising already-high tensions about which nations must foot the bill for mutually assured safety. Freedom, in the United States, emphasizes protection from government control and foreign aggression; in Europe, freedom places high value on security and public provision of goods and services.
There are many other areas in which interpretations of freedom and responsibility have started to differ. One such example is the U.S. gun culture, which has transformed from its revolutionary and frontier-era roots into a source of increasingly high homicide rates. Three-strikes laws have swelled the U.S. prison population, which is now several times higher, per capita, than that of EU member countries. The European preoccupation with privacy, a byproduct no doubt of Fascist and Communist dictatorships that controlled personal lives, makes present-day government intrusion into one’s private affairs objectionable. Online privacy has become a key concern of the European Commission, which has passed laws that provide protection of personal data and “the right to be forgotten” in databases. Ever since the USA PATRIOT Act set a precedent of curbed civil liberties in the United States, the nation has taken a divergent path—one where certain freedoms from surveillance have been curtailed, rather than upheld. This divergence in policy is among one of the larger schisms between Europe and the United States which has the potential to create lasting divisions between two regions born from a singular philosophy in centuries’ past.
An increase in transatlantic tensions is dangerous precisely because Europe and the United States need each other more than ever. The EU and United States have the world’s strongest economic relationship, with both partners interested in the maintenance of work standards and safeguards for property rights. If they don’t stand together, then these standards are likely to crumble worldwide. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, is very much born from Western conceptions of property rights. If Europe and the United States fail to cooperate and collaborate as they have historically speaking, there is little incentive for TPP member nations to hold up their end of the deal when it comes to enacting realistic and meaningful standards.
Despite an expansion of goals and members, the NATO alliance has provided a bedrock of international security, especially when faced by new dangers such as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and attempted dismemberment of Ukraine. The reluctance of key European allies to revive the Cold War confrontations with Russia has resulted in a hesitant NATO response to Putin’s invasion, limiting common action to economic sanctions. The United States has pledged to supports its allies both within and outside of NATO, but appears wholly unwilling to unilaterally intervene in the Ukrainian stalemate. Without broader support from European allies, it is unlikely that this matter will be resolved in the near future.
Cooperation between the EU and the United States on global warming is similarly vital, as few other forcecould persuade the world’s biggest polluters, such as China and India, to join in efforts to stem further climate deterioration. Fortunately, the Obama administration’s recent initiatives—plans that call for a reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, and a call to expand the use of renewable energy sources by 28 percent over the next 15 years may closing the gap between U.S. European responses to climate change. If the United State and Europe can become closer together on their own climate objectives, it becomes likelier that they can pressure other nations into similar efforts that will finally produce tangible results.
Further, very few partnerships would have the strength or endurance to engage in the protracted negotiations with Iran that led to a negotiation over its nuclear ambitions. Failing to understand the doubts some have expressed this side of the Atlantic Ocean, European leaders are relieved that diplomatic solution is set to pass the Senate, hoping that it will lead to stabilization in the Middle East. Even if the United States is still more concerned with protecting Israel than many European leaders, and EU nations are excited at renewed trade with Tehran, both sides must work together in order to enforce the terms of the nuclear agreement.
Lastly, both the United States and Europe must find solutions for their immigration issues. Both are preferred destinations for immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, and both have much to learn from each other as they attempt to find lasting solutions. The United States has a grand tradition of immigration, and has developed a culture that celebrates diversity as a result. Europeans are more wary of migrants and the perceived changes in culture and religious demographics that come with population changes, but the continent needs help in its attempt to stem its demographic decline. The United States, however, has yet to legalize about 11 million undocumented residents, let alone accept new waves of refugees. The EU too must figure out how to create an immigration system that distributes the inflow of refugees and migrants more equitably among its members, in addition to finding ways to accept newcomers as a potential gain for their varied economies.
It is time for a new transatlantic dialogue that confronts the differing interpretations of common values. It is no longer enough to assume that individual leaders such as Obama or German Chancellor Angela Merkel can reach solutions more easily by understanding one another better. The sources of estrangement between Europe and the United States lie deeper.
Intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic ought to discuss the meaning of human rights in the 21st Century: Does freedom just mean lack of oppression or also a decent chance to live? How far does solidarity extend to one’s own people or to strangers? Instead of stereotyping the other, the transatlantic media need report more accurately in order to inform citizens better about each other. Similarly, the US should strengthen its Title VI support for Centers of European Studies, while the EU ought to expand American Studies programs in its universities. If the next generation of young people is to learn from each other, international exchanges such as the Fulbright Program or the German Academic Exchange Service must be fostered. As businessmen or tourists, ordinary citizens should take every opportunity to talk with each other in order to understand the other side better.
The United States and Europe share the same interests and fundamental values; they have to work together to address the world’s unresolved civil problems. Their common future depends on it.