The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
On August 14, 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill secretly met aboard a ship off the Newfoundland coast. The two leaders discussed war strategy, but more importantly, they laid out their common vision for a postwar world in a joint statement later known as the Atlantic Charter. The charter articulated shared principles and cemented not only the transatlantic alliance but also the foundation of a world order that has endured for more than 70 years.
Today, that alliance has reached a low point. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to leave NATO and referred to Europe as a “foe.” Some European officials have normalized the Trump administration’s denigration of the alliance. In interviews with us, they spoke of a reversion to historic norms, arguing that the United States is reverting to its pre-1941 isolationism and that the past eight decades of transatlantic cooperation were the exception to the rule.
But Trump is the exception. The alliance stagnated somewhat under previous U.S. administrations, but Trump has posed an open threat on an entirely new scale to the partnership Roosevelt and Churchill once immortalized. The current U.S. president has antagonized European leaders, fomented mistrust, and cast doubt on the value of the relationship itself.
But the transatlantic partnership is not beyond resurrection. U.S. and European leaders are already beginning to look beyond Trump and toward new possibilities for the alliance. In her State of the Union speech yesterday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that Europeans “will always cherish the transatlantic alliance” and hope for “a new transatlantic agenda.” Indeed, successful U.S. and European foreign policy continues to rely on effective transatlantic cooperation. What the alliance needs is renewal: a refreshed statement of shared purpose and democratic values, together with new institutions dedicated to shared action.
The United States and Europe still need each other, and the world needs a vibrant and energetic West to sustain the global order. Although some scholars argue that the center of economic and political power has shifted, the balance of material resources still lies in the West, as the United States and Europe earn nearly half of the world’s income and engage in nearly half of its military spending. Other industrialized democracies—such as Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea—are integral to addressing the rise of China and confronting North Korea, but the transatlantic alliance remains the indispensable foundation of any liberal order capable of acting in the global interest.
Europe is the United States’ “indispensable partner of first resort,” Vice President Joe Biden has said. In that spirit, rather than abandoning the transatlantic alliance, U.S. and European leaders should think creatively about its future. They should reinvigorate the partnership with a new transatlantic agreement and council: a twenty-first-century Atlantic Charter, equipped to handle not only today’s but also tomorrow’s crises.
During and immediately after the Cold War, the transatlantic partnership seemed to enjoy a zenith of success. American and European leaders coordinated their shared actions largely through NATO. But that organization’s primacy faded after the turn of the millennium, and the partnership itself seemed to fall victim to its own success, as the United States and Europe paid little attention to its upkeep. In the past two decades, NATO was the vehicle only for the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2011 intervention in Libya—but not for any other major U.S. foreign policy action.
The transatlantic relationship suffered some strains during the presidency of George W. Bush, but President Barack Obama strengthened the alliance and helped make sure that both its burdens and its leadership were equitably shared. The Obama White House recognized the importance of the relationship, but it didn’t always make it an urgent priority. The alliance’s achievements during Obama’s tenure, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, were often difficult to distinguish from global ones. The only distinctly transatlantic project—the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a bilateral trade agreement—failed.
Trump evokes not admiration, respect, or even fear in Europe, only contempt.
But if the transatlantic alliance suffered some benign neglect under earlier administrations, none before Trump dealt it outright hostility. Trump evokes not admiration, respect, or even fear in Europe, only contempt. Over the last four years, he has publicly denigrated the European Union and called NATO “obsolete,” even as he has openly supported antidemocratic leaders, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin. Charles Kupchan, the former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, told us the current moment is “existential” for the transatlantic alliance “largely due to Trump.” David O’Sullivan, former EU ambassador to the United States, called Trump’s foreign policy “upside down” and complained that the president “treats allies as enemies and potential enemies as allies.” Trump has walked away from shared commitments, like the Iran nuclear deal, and scorned the EU’s handling of the global pandemic. He has driven the alliance into a ditch.
As a result of Trump’s antagonism, some European leaders now view the United States as another great power, like China or Russia, against which Europe should balance its interests. For instance, Germany was a leading supporter of the transatlantic alliance for decades. But in 2018, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas released a new U.S. strategy in a German paper. He called for a realignment in U.S.-European relations and greater European strategic autonomy. In his view, the United States can no longer be a trusted ally.
For all that the United States and Europe appear to have drifted apart, many policymakers on both continents value the transatlantic relationship and wish to revitalize it. Former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told us that “it is very important for the next administration to focus on Europe.” But as Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States, noted, “This relationship will require a lot more care and engagement than previously.”
Such efforts may require rethinking some of the institutional structures through which the alliance works. The concerns that preoccupy the United States today—including the rise of China, Russia’s aggression, climate change, cyberspace, trade, technology, and public health—don’t fit neatly under the umbrella of NATO, nor have U.S.-EU summits adequately addressed them. When U.S. and EU leaders meet, they tend to do so only in short duration and to emerge with little more than nonspecific promises to work together. By contrast, G-20 meetings, the pivot to Asia, and even the initial two years of the reset with Russia produced concrete deliverables on matters of pressing import.
As a result of Trump’s antagonism, some European leaders now view the United States as another great power.
But while Washington may not be able to resolve its most significant foreign policy problems with European cooperation alone, it is unlikely to address them without it. Likewise, Europe relies on American support and security guarantees. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have called for Europe to develop strategic autonomy. But Europe is unlikely to be able to deter Russia or tackle terrorism on its own anytime in the near future, and so NATO will remain central to its security. Nor can Europe likely stabilize the Middle East and North Africa without closely coordinating its efforts with the United States. For these reasons among others, European leaders share a broad consensus that the United States can remain an integral partner—as long as they do not have to deal with Trump.
For more than 70 years, beginning with the Atlantic Charter, the transatlantic alliance has been the central engine of the rules-based international order. The alliance has supported international free trade, economic development, and human rights. The liberal order has, in turn, greatly benefited the West: Europe is no longer wracked by wars, although recent Russian adventurism is deeply worrying. But other parts of the world have also prospered during this period. For instance, economic development and free trade have lifted millions of people out of poverty in China.
Today, the outlines of a world without this transatlantic anchor are increasingly discernible. They suggest a United States driven by the Trump administration’s inchoate impulses as China asserts its will and Russia meddles in the affairs of other states and aggresses those on its borders. A pandemic has swept the globe, but the Trump administration has disdained to work with Europe on a global response (something Vice President Biden has called for). In short, transatlantic drift has made the United States weaker and the world more dangerous.
The transatlantic alliance has been the central engine of the rules-based international order.
The transatlantic alliance must be reinvigorated. But modern demands on the partnership outstrip its current framework and require new structures. For this reason, Western leaders should draw up a twenty-first-century version of the Atlantic Charter—call it the Transatlantic Strategic Partnership Agreement (TSPA). The Atlantic Charter laid out a vision that established institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union. Likewise, the United States and Europe now need to update their vision and establish new institutions to meet the new moment.
Among these institutions would be a Transatlantic Council, which would facilitate intergovernmental cooperation at head-of-state, ministerial, and staff levels. The council would establish structured dialogues on areas of common interest, such as particular regions or public health. The council would further oversee summits between the United States and Europe. These could be layered on top of NATO summits: on the first day, U.S. and European leaders would focus on NATO’s mission of collective defense, and on the second day, leaders from NATO and EU member states would discuss wider transatlantic foreign policy concerns. To head off future crises, the council could draw up joint policies to address climate change, for example, or help assess global trends. Under its auspices or those of the TSPA, the United States and Europe could coordinate strategies on matters of common interest, such as China, Russia, development, or cyberspace.
Ultimately, new institutions can help restore the collaborative ethos that once characterized the transatlantic relationship. At one time, the United States and Europe relied upon each other almost instinctively. Now, they have to work to restore that muscle memory. Not only the United States and Europe but the wider liberal order require a renewal of the transatlantic partnership.