The alliance between the United States and Europe is broken. That much became clear over three days of intensive discussions in Munich last month. To be sure, it can be fixed. But that will take a fundamental readjustment in policy and direction on both sides of the Atlantic.
Every year, top U.S. and European officials gather in February at the Munich Security Conference to assess the state of their alliance. The tone was set by conference organizers, who coined the phrase “Westlessness” as the theme for the conference. Both the world and the West itself, they suggested, were becoming less western.
Europeans embraced the notion and pointed to many reasons for the seeming decline of the West — including the rise of China, the upsurge of nativist populism and the growing challenge from Russia. But to most, the underlying cause lay not in Beijing, Berlin or Moscow — but in Washington.
“Under its current administration, our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community,” intoned German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. And he accused Washington of acting “even at the expense of neighbors and partners.” French President Emmanuel Macron agreed: “America has retreated from the world, and it is no longer cooperating with us as much.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sharply disagreed. “I am happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly overexaggerated,” he told the large gathering. “The West is winning. We are collectively winning. We’re doing it together.”
It doesn’t much matter who is right in their analysis; what matters is that these perceptions of the state of the alliance are so far apart. And it isn’t just a question of rhetoric. It’s about the fundamentals of the relationship, where there is growing distrust on both sides of the Atlantic in each other’s intentions.
Take China. American officials, led by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, repeatedly warned about China’s nefarious activities in trade, telecommunications, infrastructure and military modernization and argued that countering Beijing is now Washington’s top priority. And they demanded European allies choose between succumbing to China’s subversion or joining the United States in confronting China head on.
The immediate focus was on whether to allow Huawei to build part of the European 5G network. All Americans present, including congressional leaders such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urged Europe to reject Huawei for fear it would open up European communications to Chinese spying. But asked what alternative technologies the U.S. had on offer, their answer was that something would be developed one day. Few Europeans bought it.
Or take the European Union. For European officialdom, the EU represents all that is positive about their recent history. By working together, sharing sovereignty and integrating their economies, Europe replaced centuries of internecine warfare with decades of prosperity and peace. For Berlin, Paris, Rome and others there is no future without the EU.
But while successive U.S. administrations have backed this European project, the tone has shifted in recent years. Just days before the Munich gathering, President Donald Trump had claimed that the “European Union was really formed so they could treat us badly.” And Pompeo used his Munich speech to preach the virtues of sovereignty, using the term no less than 17 times in a 15-minute speech.
Europeans no longer shake their heads when hearing such talk. They’re convinced Washington is out to try to break up the union. The administration’s open support for Brexit is seen as but the first step. One top German official told me that Washington’s support of the “Three Seas Initiative,” which seeks to counter Russia by improving infrastructure linking the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, was really designed to split eastern European EU members from their western counterparts in an effort to destroy the union.
That reads more into U.S. actions than is there, but it reflects the tendency to think the worst. Distrust is growing perceptibly on both sides. That’s how alliances founder.
To be sure, no one wants to see a formal breakup. But the real question is whether Europeans and Americans are willing to take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening.
In Europe, that means building up the collective capacity for action — politically, economically and militarily. That requires more than declaration and speeches, or acknowledging that Europe needs “to develop an appetite for power.” It needs to develop actual power and demonstrate a willingness to use it to address growing challenges from China, the Middle East, North Africa and more.
In Washington, meanwhile, it’s high time to abandon the negative attitude toward allies and the EU. The U.S. needs to lead again, bringing together its European, North American and Asian allies in agreeing to a common strategy on trade, digital, telecommunications and, above all, on how best to deal collectively with China’s inevitable rise.
That’s what alliances are all about — the capacity for collective action to advance common interests. And collective action is what’s needed now more than ever.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.
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