October 25, 2018

Has the Transatlantic Alliance Been Irreparably Damaged?

By Jim Townsend, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Richard Fontaine and Julianne Smith

We at Foreign Affairs have recently published a number of pieces dealing with the transatlantic relationship. To complement these articles, we decided to ask a broad pool of experts for their take. As with previous surveys, we approached dozens of authorities with deep specialized expertise relevant to the question at hand, together with a few leading generalists in the field. Participants were asked to state whether they agreed or disagreed with a proposition and to rate their confidence level in their opinion; the answers from those who responded are below:

Richard Fontaine, President, CNAS

"Damaged, but not irreparably. The transatlantic allies go through a major crisis every 15 or 20 years: Suez, the Vietnam War, Pershing II deployments, the Iraq war. But strong interests and shared values glue us together. The West will survive Trump."

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Director, CNAS Transatlantic Security Program

"The transatlantic alliance has not been irreparably damaged, but it’s also not going to automatically snap back to a pre-Trump time. Although future relations may look different than they have in the past, it is possible—and important—that the United States restore a relationship that protects and advances shared interests and values."

Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow, CNAS Transatlantic Security Program

"The question and answer are much more complex than what you are asking. First, nothing in international relations is "irreparable," but what you repair might not look like what was originally broken. And one may have an image of what was broken that was more a myth and not quite the perfect object you thought it was. Consider this: traditionally, the United States aspires to be an ally that allies can trust, that has credibility and works for unity (and burden-sharing) at NATO. As the leader at NATO it tries to be transparent, consistent, and predictable. Since 1949, it has come close to meeting this somewhat unrealistic aspiration (an aspiration many allies unfortunately hold it to) but the energy it gives to meeting this aspiration ebbs and flows. During the Cold War, the United States paid lots of attention to Europe and NATO due to the Soviet threat. But since the end of the Cold War the U.S.-NATO relationship has naturally drifted apart. Every administration has done its share of accelerating this drift, with the George W. Bush and Trump administrations being the most aggressive. With Obama and Clinton, it was benign neglect. So, what's happening now is not so much damage to an existing relationship considered the "gold standard." The relationship was already drifting. (And of course change is a constant in international relations anyway.) Trump has just made harder our never ending journey to battle this drift to reach the aspirational U.S.-NATO relationship I described above. In football terms, Washington was maybe on the 60-yard-line towards meeting its "aspirational U.S.-NATO relationship touchdown," but now have lost considerable yardage due to a quarterback that didn't like being the quarterback. So there is great worry among the fans that the team will constantly lose ground and eventually lose the game ("irreparable damage"). But what I've seen after working at least since 1990 on Europe/NATO is that the country will eventually get a new quarterback, and hopefully that quarterback will want to again push the ball down the field, but the United States has to make up a lot of lost yardage first. So yes, there's been damage today to the transatlantic alliance, but its all relative, and it likely can be repaired over time given the right U.S. leadership. But the NATO we will repair will not be the NATO we just "lost" because the U.S.-NATO relationship is in a constant state of flux anyway. The United States can just try to meet that aspiration of being the leader of the alliance, and if it can just herd all the cats in the same direction towards that touchdown, that would be a great event. Trump has just made it harder."

Read the full article and more in Foreign Affairs.

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