For decades America’s ties with Europe have produced tremendous benefits to our own welfare and our position in the world.
Europe is our largest trading partner, accounting for about one-fifth of total U.S. trade in goods and services. The U.S.-European economies generate $5 trillion a year in sales and directly employ 9 million people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economy Analysis.
But there is a high degree of turmoil today, both within Europe and in the U.S.-European relationship. As we mark the 70th anniversary of NATO – arguably the most powerful and effective alliance in history – signs of strain are showing. Europe and the U.S. will not come into active conflict, but they could grow apart as their interests diverge.
Europe is experiencing problems, including challenges to the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, the rise of nationalism and far-right parties, Russian interference in Ukraine and unchecked cyber assaults. Economic growth is slowing and there are deep anxieties about the assimilation of refugees and immigrants.
The problems are complex. Political skill of the highest order is needed to meet them, but no leader is emerging to guide Europe through this difficult period.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has played that role, serving as the center of gravity, if you will, for the continent. But she has stepped down as party leader and will be leaving office. French President Emmanuel Macron is preoccupied with domestic issues. Italy’s economy has slipped into a recession. The United Kingdom is absorbed in disputes over Brexit.
The European Union has brought closer integration to Europe since 1992, but the U.K.’s exit and the rise of nationalism is putting the EU in disarray.
The United States, with President Donald Trump and his “America First” slogan, seems not to be much interested in Europe. Trump has retreated from America’s longstanding role as a world leader and has questioned the value of the alliance itself. He differs with them on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and other key issues.
Previous U.S. leaders have urged NATO partners to pay more for their own defense, but Trump’s contempt for alliances—and his threats to withdraw from the alliance if they don’t pay more—takes the conflict to a new level. Trump hasn’t caused the sense of crisis in the transatlantic relationship, but he has exacerbated it. Europeans, by and large, don’t see him as their friend.
When NATO was founded, Europe was recovering from World War II and the Soviet Union was a rising threat. The U.S. and its allies responded effectively with solidarity.
But when NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg addressed a joint session of Congress recently, he talked about divisions in the alliance and concerns about its undoing. In this unsettling speech, he said that questions are being raised about the strength of the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic.
Europeans have begun to talk about developing their own armies, a startling proposal that turns on its head our long-established approach of integrating U.S. forces into the defense of Europe. A European army is probably a long way off, but that it’s being talked about is disturbingly significant.
Solutions to these problems won’t come easily, but the path forward is clear: re-energize the integration of Europe, bolster its defense, and reinstate its democratic norms and procedures. Europe has to put in place a comprehensive immigration strategy, including a coherent and compassionate approach to refugees and border controls.
The U.S. and Europe need to intensify economic cooperation, especially in areas like debt management and agriculture, coordinate on security issues, and together resist Russian aggression and adjust to China’s rising role in the world.
Rebirth of this partnership will return us to a period of peace, prosperity, and unity. The question is, can we rise to the challenge?
By Lee H. Hamilton