What Will be of Trans-Atlantic Alliance?

by October 7, 2018 0 comments

Amidst NATO rumblings, the question is – how will the Trans-Atlantic survive? The answer may lie on the global strategic horizon.

On the global strategic horizon, the US continues to be Europe’s best bet, given their inherent overlapping values and interests, and the comfort derived from being historical partners. Lack of effective alternatives — structured differences with China and the limited global heft of other countries — limits Europe’s strategic choices. While the expectations of a future return to normal remain high due to their mutual dependence, Europe now is more aware of its strategic gaps and the follies of outsourcing its security. Strategic manoeuvring in the form of strengthening the European pillar of NATO, therefore, appears to be the blueprint for the future

Europe can no longer rely on the United States for its security; it is up to us to guarantee European security.”

— Emmanuel Macron, President of France

We won’t let ourselves be pushed around time and again; we will act.”

— Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany

These recent impassioned statements by the respective EU leaders reflect the increasing European disillusionment towards the US policies shaping the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) — an alliance that has been the mainstay of European security for half a century.

The fraying of this trans-Atlantic partnership, amid unprecedented American criticism of its European allies disproportionate “burden sharing”, is a symptom of the emerging US trend of looking at global relationship primarily through an economic prism.

US President Donald Trump has gone on record to call the European Union (EU) a “trade foe” which has been “unfairly taking advantage of America”. With politics and security being intertwined, these developments have cast a shadow on the value based trans-Atlantic security relationship.

Meanwhile, European push-back, in the form of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) that envisions Europe taking charge of its own defence, highlights a fundamental recalibration of the continent’s security mind-set.

Their emphasis on greater strategic autonomy, rooted in the fear of being forced to fend for themselves strikes at the very root of the post Second World War Western strategic consciousness.

As Europe and the US head towards unchartered territory, pertinent questions arise: What is the salience of NATO in the Trans-Atlantic partnership? What are the key emerging differences between the US and its European allies? And what are the core challenges that European countries face in their quest for greater strategic autonomy?

NATO’s enduring relevance

The American and European strategic consciousness has been shaped by a distinct modus operandi since the end of the Second World War. In return for rebuilding Europe (Marshall Plan) and ensuring its security (NATO), the US sought Europe’s support in its global projection of American power. This strategic bargain has allowed the EU to emerge as a technological and economic powerhouse while the US influenced the continent’s foreign policies and became the key pillar of its security. NATO, in this context, emerged as a vital instrument of trans-Atlantic mutual dependence.

More significantly, NATO ensures a strategic balance within Europe. The US, as a hegemon leading the organisation, suppresses the inherent tendency of European nation states to enter into a security competition and engage in a balance of power calculus with each other. Europe’s consensus on American leadership of the Western world vis-à-vis that by a European state reflects this reality.

From European perspective, the further the hegemon is from their shores, the more stable is the existing equilibrium.   

Strategic drift

Nevertheless, a strategic dissonance in the trans-Atlantic relationship has been festering for years. Taking European support for granted for pushing the US regional agenda in Iraq and the clandestine American surveillance of EU leaders have, in the past, shook the foundations of a trust based partnership. Even so, given their mutual dependence, Europe and the US have consistently found the sweet spot in their strategic outlook.

However, the tone and tenor of President Trump in questioning the very credibility of NATO has sowed seeds of doubt among the Europeans about American commitment and NATO’s reliability. The growing fissures in their shared strategic calculus, evident in their diverging positions on multiple issues, particularly where the European countries are vital stakeholders, have further muddied the waters.

These involve climate change, trade and tariff, migration, Iranian nuclear deal, American actions in Jerusalem, and threat from Russia. President Trump’s support for European political parties that endorse an-anti-EU rhetoric, meanwhile, strikes at the core of the EU integration model.

These developments, therefore, lay bare the inherent contradictions between America First and the EU multilateralism prisms. Having unflinchingly supported the US global leadership role, a growing perception of the US trying to undermine legitimate EU interests has led the Europeans states to seek a greater independent role in shaping their foreign and security policies.

It is, perhaps, not the Americans but the Europeans who feel they are being treated unfairly. The German Foreign Minister’s appeal to “build a sovereign and strong Europe” that will form a “counterweight when the US crosses the line” aptly reflects these sentiments.

This has resulted in a European clamour for forging a “new alliance of trade-friendly nations” – likely a reference to the non-Western world initiatives.

In this context, some Europeans view better economic ties with China as a hedge against disruptive American policies. Notably, a break in the trans-Atlantic unity is evident in the EU seeking to circumvent the US sanctions by setting up non-American monetary channels in order to keep alive the Iranian nuclear deal. Its success could challenge the status of the US dollar as the world’s principal reserve currency, thereby seriously undermining Pax-Americana.

Method behind the madness?

Given the salience of this mutually beneficial relationship, the ongoing friction is likely more nuanced than what meets the eye. Notably, none of the Trans-Atlantic partners have called for a complete break from NATO. In this context, President Trump’s insistence on Europe paying more for collective defence could be the US bargaining chip to gain concessions on reducing the American trade deficit.

Similarly, a stronger and more independent Europe allows the Europeans to build a balanced relationship with the US. Their “Europe First” rhetoric can compel the US to take European interests more seriously. As part of this posturing, the French President’s recent positive outreach to Russia can be an attempt to tap the institutional Russophobia in the US and to convey the message that Europe too has options in its strategic calculus. Not to mention, a strong EU also raises the continent’s global strategic profile.

Rhetoric vs reality of European strategic autonomy

However, in their quest for taking greater control of their foreign and security policies, the Europeans are confronted by multiple structural and functional roadblocks. These include lack of unanimity among its members on key issues, ranging from EU’s strategic outlook to migration, financial stability, weapons sales and emerging threat perception, and the growing Euroscepticism sweeping the continent. Decades of defence underfunding, especially on command and control and surveillance, due to their over-reliance on the American security umbrella has undermined a credible European conventional and nuclear deterrence. Any perceived weakness puts the continent in the crosshairs of Russian strategic calculus.

NATO is, in effect, a force multiplier without which the Europeans vulnerabilities are deeply exposed. The German Foreign Minister’s admission that the “organisation is indispensable for our security” highlights EU’s existing security dilemma.

Moreover, on the global strategic horizon, in its search for strategic partners, the US continues to be Europe’s best bet, given their inherent overlapping values and interests, and the comfort derived from being historical partners. Lack of effective alternatives — structured differences with China and the limited global heft of other countries — limits Europe’s strategic choices. Meanwhile, instruments of financial independence, such as making Euro the global reserve currency, which would mark true strategic independence are likely to have a long gestation period.

Consequently, the prediction of an end of the Trans-Atlantic partnership appears unlikely. As with its other global relationships, the ongoing friction has the imprimatur of President Trump’s disruptive America First policies. The US institutional mechanisms, though, appear to bet on the strategic relevance of this partnership, as evident by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’s recent reassurance to Europe of America’s “iron clad commitment” to NATO.

While the expectations of a future return to normal remain high due to their mutual dependence, Europe now is more aware of its strategic gaps and the follies of outsourcing its security. Strategic manoeuvring in the form of strengthening the European pillar of NATO, therefore, appears to be the blueprint for the future.

(The writer is a Research Analyst at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

Writer:  Rajorshi Roy

Source: The Pioneer

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