Obama and the future of transatlantic relations

Obama will be barraged with ?wish lists? from around the world following inauguration. Ulrike Gu?rot argues the case for transatlantic relations.

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow


Obama’s victory has a messianic dimension. The world hungered for a new American president back in 2004 – but it had to wait for four long years. Finally, the US is getting rid of the man who damaged America’s global reputation, its set of values and its international position more than any other president in the past.

With the same force, Obama has personified and captured nearly everything the world expects from the US: a new era of politics leading the US into the 21st century, a policy of ‘one-world’ overcoming the divide between black and white as much as between rich and poor and ‘West’ and Islam, multilateral engagement, a new tone and style in international relations. Yes, Obama has a lot to do. And as young and fit as he is, the risk of over-expectation, followed by a post-honey-moon depression, is huge.

Europe has its own ‘Obama wish list’. Political analysts have already written dozens of papers on what the world can now expect from the US; how transatlantic relations should change; and what Europe could and should do to help bring that change about.

Above all, Europeans are hoping that Obama will restore transatlantic diplomacy and make his foreign policies in ways more compatible with European taste and interest. From climate protection to Afghanistan, the Middle Eastern conflicts to non-proliferation, energy policy to Iraq – Europe’s foreign policy community is currently revisiting policies, and proposing agendas which the US and Europe could now tackle together.

Significant hurdles

This urge for a restored transatlantic partnership is all good in principle — but needs to take into account three essential realities:

1. Due to the biggest financial crisis since 1929, Obama is forced back to ‘It‘s the economy, stupid!’ He will initially need to focus much more on the domestic economy than on international relations.

2. The West is diminishing in terms of demography, power and influence – even if Europe and the US work together. By 2050, the US and Europe combined may no longer account for more than 7% of world population. A similar relative diminution is to be expected in terms of economic heft. With this will go the erosion of the ‘West’s’ ability to determine the terms and systems of global governance. A recent study by ECFR demonstrates clearly the diminishing Western influence on normative international law setting within the UN. In short: no Western initiative can any longer be assumed to carry automatic weight with some two-thirds of the world‘s people. Multi-polarity is a reality and hegemony or the myth of the world’s ‘lonely super-power’ are over. To be any success, transatlantic cooperation must reflect this reality.

3. The time has also come finally accept that the Cold War is over. Twenty years of flamboyant articles about the ‘uncertain future of NATO and its role’ have filled transatlantic journals with thoughts as innovative as they are desperate, such as pipeline protection or NATO-missions against pirates. “If you don‘t have an enemy, invent one…..Institutions don‘t die,” said Max Weber.

But NATO is no longer the most appropriate institution to carry transatlantic relations. The problem is nobody dares to say this. NATO‘s unanimity rule – with the US being primus inter pares – means that Europe cannot voice difference within the current institutional setting. Most conflicts burdening the transatlantic couple are no longer NATO issues: be it Iraq or energy policy, climate protection or Middle East, Iran or the fight against terror – none of these are topics that NATO can deal with best, or even at all. But these are the things the transatlantic tandem needs to fix.

The crux is that NATO was held together through the Soviet threat, and the Soviet threat is gone; and all efforts by American neo-cons to restore Russia as a threat in the past month and weeks – especially over the war with Georgia last August – have failed. There is a debate to be had within Europe, and across the Atlantic, about how best to deal with a difficult and assertive Russia:  but that is a far cry from the era when nothing mattered more in transatlantic relations than maintaining solidarity in the face of the Soviet threat.

How can the EU, in tandem with an Obama-led-US, overcome these hurdles?

First, the EU and the US must appreciate that NATO can no longer be the primary structure for transatlantic relations, and that US-EU relations must be improved. Many of the political goals that US wants to achieve in Europe, especially in the grey-zone of countries between the EU and Russia, the EU can deliver, but NATO can‘t.

Second, the EU should make bolder political commitments towards countries such as Turkey, Georgia or Ukraine. Taking them into NATO would provoke crises with Russia. But opening perspectives for EU membership for Ukraine or Georgia would not be contested by Russia. Europe must urgently clarify this with America

Third, the EU should take over the geo-strategic agenda of the continent – and Obama would be well-advised to support the EU on this much more than did his predecessor. It is time for a peer-relationship between the US and the EU, with the US no longer holding the balance of power in Europe. It is the task of the EU to grow out of its relations with the two countries that have formerly been the ‘external federators’ of European integration: the US as the (positive) promoter and the Soviet Union as the (negative) threat.

But whatever the solution is: the ‘West’ – if it still exists – needs a new narrative for the 21st century, and to underpin this new institutions and structures of transatlantic dialogue transcending NATO and Cold War patterns are required. To do this constructively and without nostalgia is the main task for the foreign policy makers of the new US administration and the EU.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow