Americans, the best Europeans
As Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, was having lunch with President Truman’s secretary of state - Dean Acheson, it was purported that he quipped ‘Americans were the best Europeans.’ His words could be taken as a testimonial of sorts to the United States’ bipartisan support for Europe since the second world war, best exemplified through the Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO, and the backing of the European Economic Community.
The transatlantic partnership between Europe and the United States is written in the books of history as a formidable bond, one that has withstood all tests of time. Well into the Cold War era, the US and Europe have remained strategically engaged with one another as allies and friends. In pursuit of shared security and prosperity, and to avoid geopolitical isolation, Europe inevitably found its footing as a key component of America’s geopolitical thinking. Most American presidencies agreed that a united Europe was not a rival, but a partner.
Today, however, we are beginning to see the early signs of a waning friendship. Nothing could have been made more obvious than at the Munich Security Conference held earlier this year,. Many European officials expressed concern of what they thought to be a new sentiment that was unfolding in Washington. It appeared the European Union was no longer a primary focus in America’s foreign policy agenda. The German and French presidents in particular touted the US for retreating from the world, repositioning itself away from the European Union, particularly under the current Trump administration. Afterall, it was Donald Trump, who claimed that the Union was ‘really formed so they could treat us [America] badly.’
In many ways, the suspicion that the US has retrenched politically from Europe is not unfounded. Such ambivalence towards Europe started in the Obama administration but accelerated in the Trump administration as newer issues were thrust into the forefront of international affairs, like the war on terror, the Arab spring of the Middle East, and China’s rise as a global superpower. That could also be because the European continent itself is increasingly becoming less the principal area of geopolitics that it once used to be. This was perhaps most potently described by Richard Haas in 2011 when he predicted “Europe’s influence on affairs beyond its borders will be sharply limited, and it is in other regions, not Europe, that the 21st century will be most clearly forged and defined.”
It has boiled down to major policy disagreements between the European governments and the Trump administration. For starters, they have persistently been at odds on defense spending, where the US alleges that Europe shirks in its contribution, and contributes far too little from the 2 percent defense-spending goal – especially in its costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. European leaders would argue that Washington thinks exclusively of its alliance in terms of NATO, transactional terms, or short-term goals, that simply do not encapsulate the full spectrum of their bilateral relationship. Take the trade deficit for example. It has long been an area of contention, with the Trump administration irritated that Europe exports more goods to the United States than it imports. Those in Europe are angry that the Trump administration continues to punish them with tariffs on EU exports of steel and aluminum and the threat of more to come.
Both powers also diverged over the matter of the unilateral US withdrawals from key agreements like the Paris climate accord and the nuclear deal with Iran. Add to the list the latest attempts by the US to block specific European countries like the United Kingdom in allowing access to Huawei to its 5G network, which the US has openly held reservations on, from both a security and economic lens. Moreover, European leaders were enraged at the prospect of the US having effectively paralyzed the WTO by refusing to sign off on new appointees to a crucial appeals panel, a critical element to enforce international trade rules.
Despite this downbeat assessment, there are still some that claim the description of a strained friendship is grossly exaggerated. Many countries, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, readily point out that there are still positive examples of recent US-European engagement, including the fact the US military spending in Europe has increased in the past few years.
While the future of the transatlantic partnership is still up for debate, one thing is clear – Europe’s power erosion is a historical aberration. Europe is a continent that has survived many destabilizing forces in its past and it remains a persuasive force in the world, even if the focus of attention currently centres on other existing and rising powers. Collectively, the EU’s member states make up the world’s largest single market and the largest diplomatic corps. With the highest levels of development spending, Europe has a vast and able human resource, and is technologically advanced. It sits with the ability to drive global policy and set international norms, such as it has on climate and technology.
Such power potential has not been overlooked by China and Russia, which is why, they are both actively engaging in aggressive efforts to engage certain European states. For instance, the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe are being engaged by China to form an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative. What this means for the US is that it has no better option than to revive the transatlantic partnership. The unravelling of its relations with Europe would be a geopolitical disaster for the United States, particularly in a fast-changing geopolitical environment.
For America to retain its geopolitical clout, a strong and united Europe on the world stage would be a huge boon to the United States. Therefore, the US needs a little help from its time-tested friends in Europe now more than ever. And so, perhaps it is this time we will see, it is the Europeans that are the best Americans.