Today's transatlantic relationship is the result of efforts to win the Cold War and to foster the creation of a united and peaceful Europe. But alliances aren't built on memories; they are built on common interests, aims and threat perceptions.
However, the past few years have been shaped by growing dissent between the US and Europe. The allies disagreed on how to deal with Iraq, the best way to engage terrorism and were for a long time unable to find a consensus on burden sharing in Afghanistan. There have been conflicts in the economic arena as well. There were transatlantic trade disputes, both commercial and strategic, tendencies towards offensive regionalism and growing competition on monetary and fiscal questions.
Some aspects of the transatlantic relationship have changed since Obama took office. The US has taken a more multilateral foreign policy approach, based on the principles of liberal hegemony and the recognition of mutual dependence on questions of security and economy, all of the things Europe asked for during the terms of the Bush administration. Despite all of these positive developments, so far both actors have avoided a purposeful strategic dialogue to find areas of shared interests and common aims. It seems they fear this would bring even more tensions to the surface, instead of leading to a new grand bargain between them.
This is surprising when looking at the challenges both sides of the Atlantic are faced with: growing economic competition with emerging powers, international terrorism, global warming and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction require a common approach by Europe and the US. So the current mutual ‘don't rock the boat'-mentality is very short-sighted and ultimately unsustainable.
Now is the time for Washington and Brussels to conduct a strategic dialogue: The Lisbon treaty empowered the EU to take on a greater role in international affairs, NATO is developing its new strategic concept and various transatlantic trade disputes desperately call for a solution.
The dialogue should not only involve governmental actors, but economists, academics and think tankers. To encourage broader strategic thinking, a wise men group should be appointed. The experts should publicly hold the EU and US responsible to act upon their references. Naturally conflicts will arise, but despite all the dangers of disunity and frictions, a serious debate can already have a reengaging and recommitting effect.
An initiative for deepening the transatlantic market, a goal both actors have failed to achieve, should be made a top priority. A new study for the European Commission shows the potential extra economic growth available if the remaining non-tariff trade barriers were eliminated between the US and the EU. That step could add 0.8 percent to EU GDP by 2018 and 0.3 percent to US GDP over the same period. American exports would rise by 6.1 percent and European exports by 2.1 percent. Accordingly, the OECD estimates the current inefficiencies and barriers in transatlantic trade are preventing the creation of nearly one million new jobs.
To use the advantages of deep institutional market integration, Washington and Brussels should works towards a common free trade area. In a time of a global economic power shift, a transatlantic FTA would help Washington and Brussels to retain or even increase their weight within the World Trade Organization. This would create incentives for further trading powers to support enhanced market liberalization.
Obama's presidency has raised unrealistic expectations in Europe. As a result, many Europeans were irritated about the role of the US the Copenhagen Concerence, the departed closure of Guantánamo prison and the surge in Afghanistan. Some of the doubts might be well founded, but Europeans have to keep in mind that Obama is not just a global leader, but first and foremost president of and for America.
For its part, Washington views the EU as not having responded to Obama's bid for closer cooperation. From stabilizing Iraq, preventing Pakistan from becoming a failed state, re-launching the Middle East peace process and reforming NATO, the World Bank or the IMF, Brussels has appeared to have little capabilities or even ideas to offer. An upcoming transatlantic strategic dialogue has to and will change this dynamic.
Tobias Fella studies international relations at Ludwig-Maximillians University in Munich.
Related Material from Atlantic Community:
- Robert Hutchings: US-EU Cooperation is Key to Global Governance
- Tobias Fella: Transatlantic Economic Rivals
- Kurt Volker: The "Obama Effect" Reveals Transatlantic Tensions