The atlantic alliance has demonstrated remarkable resilience over the past two decades. Most alliances do not outlast the dissolution of the threat that brought them into being. nato, however, not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but went on to welcome a host of new members from Central Europe and to undertake military missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. As the Cold War came to a close, few observers could have predicted that nato, twenty years later, would be in the midst of a major mission in Afghanistan while simultaneously carrying out a successful air campaign to topple the Libyan government.
nato’s surprising longevity and activism notwithstanding, the Atlantic alliance has certainly suffered its fair share of setbacks. The Iraq war of 2003 severely strained transatlantic relations and underscored the differences in approach and policy that had come into stark relief after President George W. Bush took office. The election of Barack Obama then seemed to guide the United States and Europe back into alignment — but only temporarily. Soon enough, Europeans began to worry that Obama was a “post-Atlanticist” president who would focus his attention elsewhere — on Asia, in particular. So, too, were Europeans disappointed when Obama backed away from some of his campaign pledges, unable to close Guantanamo or implement a credible U.S. program to curb global warming. For its part, Washington begrudged the eu’s sluggish response to its financial crisis and its inability to muster more coherence and capability on matters of defense.
The Western alliance has, however, admirably weathered these ups and downs, and proved wrong its many naysayers. Only a decade ago, many analysts were convinced that the transatlantic coupling was on the rocks. Robert Kagan predicted in these pages that a Hobbesian America obsessed with power and coercion was destined to separate from a Kantian Europe wedded to taming the world through law and institutions. In The End of the American Era, I foresaw a European Union whose deepening integration would gradually give it the wherewithal to chart its own course, fostering an independence that would come at the expense of Atlantic solidarity. Others, such as Ivo Daalder, the current U.S. ambassador to nato, fretted in Survival about the “effective end of Atlanticism” and a strategic drift that could result “in separation and, ultimately, divorce.”
How and why has the Western alliance been able to defy such predictions of demise? This essay examines what the skeptics got right and what they got wrong, with particular reference to Kagan’s essay, “Power and Weakness.” Kagan and many other observers of the Atlantic alliance identified key fissures in the transatlantic relationship, but also significantly underestimated its staying power. Common values and interests, which have increased in salience due to the ongoing diffusion of power from the West to the rising rest, have kept centrifugal forces at bay. The transatlantic bond has also proved durable by default; Europe and America remain each other’s best partners because there are for now no viable alternatives.
It is good news for the Atlantic partnership that most observers underestimated its resilience. But there is bad news as well. Analysts also failed to foresee what is emerging as perhaps the most serious threat to the Western alliance: the crisis of governance afflicting both sides of the Atlantic. The United States is experiencing a prolonged period of political dysfunction, one that is impairing its ability to put its economic house in order. Meanwhile, the eu’s struggle to bring financial stability to the Eurozone has exposed debilitating cleavages among its member states. Stagnant incomes and growing inequality, both of which are consequences of globalization, appear to be the main sources of this political discontent. Economic duress, recalcitrant publics, polarized legislatures, leaders bereft of popular support — these realities mean that tackling challenges within the United States and Europe is now more urgent and daunting than managing relations between them.
Looking ahead, the most significant risks facing the United States and Europe are economic weakness, political lethargy, and geopolitical introversion. This internal frailty comes at a particularly unfortunate moment — just as the two sides of the Atlantic need to collectively manage the transition to a world no longer dominated by the West. If the eu continues to fragment, it will cut an ever-shrinking figure on the global stage and fall woefully short of being the partner the United States wants and needs. Over time, Europe’s lack of geopolitical relevance will diminish the transatlantic solidarity still maintained by common interests and values. With or without Europe by its side, the United States will struggle to provide effective global leadership if the assets available to do so are shrinking and the nation’s public mind is deeply divided. As Walter Lippmann presciently warned in the 1940s, partisan division “is a danger to the Republic.” “For when a people is divided within itself about the conduct of its foreign relations,” Lippmann continued, “it is unable to agree on the determination of its true interest . . . The spectacle of this great nation which does not know its own mind is as humiliating as it is dangerous.”
The advantages of hindsight
In “power and weakness,” Kagan is on target in arguing that “On the all-important question of power — the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power — American and European perspectives are diverging.” In broad terms, Americans do tend to view the world through the lens of realpolitik and believe that “security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might.” Meanwhile, Europeans embrace a more idealist perspective and “generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion.”
Kagan is also correct that these contrasting approaches stem to a significant extent from the different capabilities that each party has at its disposal. During the 19th century, when Europe’s major states enjoyed military primacy and the United States was still an emerging power, Europeans zealously embraced polices of imperial expansion while Americans, for the most part, shunned foreign entanglements. During the 20th century, Europe was eclipsed by the United States. Europeans promptly reined in their geopolitical aspirations and readiness to use force. Concurrently, America’s ambition and willingness to project its power rose in step with the size of its military establishment. In Kagan’s words, “Americans and Europeans have traded places — and perspectives.”
Although the shifts in perspective on both sides of the Atlantic were born of changes in capability, Kagan is right that these orientations have, over time, become deeply embedded in strategic culture. Europe’s preference for persuasion over coercion is a product not just of its relative loss of military superiority, but also of its recent past. The project of European unification has successfully deployed political and economic integration in the service of taming geopolitical rivalry, turning tense boundaries, which were all too often sites of terrible bloodletting, into peaceful frontiers. This experience has given Europeans confidence in the pacifying effects of law, institutions, and interdependence. Meanwhile, the United States has been involved in a steady succession of wars since its rise to global dominance, nurturing a strategic culture more attuned to armed conflict.
To be sure, the transatlantic gap in strategic perspectives that Kagan astutely described was particularly pronounced a decade ago, when he wrote “Power and Weakness.” The imperative of responding to the attacks of September 11, combined with the ideological ascendance of neoconservatives, predisposed the George W. Bush administration to the assertive and excessive use of military force. But Barack Obama has hardly been shy about the projection of American power. Indeed, he oversaw a “surge” of U.S. troops into Afghanistan and has dramatically ramped up the use of drone strikes to combat militant extremists — a policy instrument that many Europeans deem both counterproductive and illegal. Even with Obama in the White House, Kagan’s essential insight into the differing strategic orientations of Americans and Europeans rings true.
In these respects, Kagan’s analysis has proved admirably accurate. But the advantage of a decade of hindsight also reveals that Kagan substantially overstated his case. It is true that European countries are more reluctant to use force than the United States. Their defense establishments have been shrinking, and they have yet to take the collective steps that would enable them to aggregate their individual capabilities. But the record of the past decade does not reveal a Europe that has sworn off the use of force in favor of the illusory bliss of a Kantian dream.
For the first time in its history, nato invoked its commitment to collective defense in response to the September 11 attacks on the United States. Tens of thousands of European troops have been in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade. Although a good number of national contingents have limited responsibilities due to operational caveats, many Europeans have been very much in the fight. Indeed, British troops have faced higher casualty rates than their American counterparts. Despite widespread European opposition to the invasion of Iraq, 24 European countries (including non-nato members) sent over 50,000 troops to help with the occupation. France and Britain were the driving forces behind nato’s intervention in Libya, and Europeans flew the majority of the combat missions. Europeans certainly lag way behind the United States when it comes to military capabilities. But the past decade has not been one of European fecklessness and pusillanimity.
Kagan is also mistaken in presuming that Europe’s preference for instruments of statecraft other than war is always a product of its weakness and pacifist proclivities. On the contrary, Europe’s choices are sometimes the product of sound strategic judgment. Consider the case of the Iraq war in 2003. Kagan portrays both the U.S. insistence on invasion and Europe’s opposition as “the logical consequence of the transatlantic disparity of power.” “It is generally true,” he writes, “that those with a greater capacity to fix problems are more likely to try to fix them than those who have no such capability.”
But European objections to the invasion of Iraq were based not on a limited ability to contribute to military efforts to topple Saddam Hussein, but rather on a judgment that doing so was a very bad idea. And the Europeans were right. Consider the following statements made by France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, during the deliberations at the un just prior to the invasion:
To those who think that the scourge of terrorism will be eradicated through the action in Iraq, we say they run the risk of failing in their objective. The eruption of force in this area which is so unstable can only exacerbate the tensions and divisions on which the terrorists feed.
. . . The option of war might seem a priori to be the swiftest. But let us not forget that having won the war, one has to build peace. Let us not delude ourselves. This will be long and difficult because it will be necessary to preserve Iraq’s unity and restore stability in a lasting way in a country and region harshly affected by the intrusion of force.
. . . Ten days ago, the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, reported the alleged links between al-Qaeda and the regime in Baghdad. Given the present state of our research and intelligence, in liaison with our allies, nothing allows us to establish such links.
If only Washington had listened hard to such prescient warnings instead of dismissing them as an effort by the weak to check the strong.
Kagan is likewise too quick to denigrate as “appeasement” strategies of engagement and accommodation with adversaries. With reference to Europe’s preference for a strategy of “patience and forbearance” in dealing with the Soviet Union, he writes that “appeasement is never a dirty word to those whose genuine weakness offers few appealing alternatives. For them, it is a policy of sophistication.” But, as I have documented in How Enemies Become Friends, engagement is often the policy of choice even of the strong — and can yield ample payoffs. Some of the most significant geopolitical breakthroughs of the recent past were the result of mutual accommodation, not confrontation and coercion. Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in Beijing, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik — these and other bold leaders have regularly practiced “appeasement” to very good effect.
Finally, Kagan overstates America’s tendency to rely on military power to the exclusion of other instruments of statecraft. He acknowledges that Americans “share Europe’s aspirations for a more orderly world system based not on power but on rules.” But he also insists that “Great powers . . . often fear rules that may constrain them more than they fear the anarchy in which their power brings security and prosperity” — one of the reasons why Washington often looks askance at Europe’s preference for solving problems through legalized and institutionalized mechanisms.
The United States, however, is arguably history’s most effective generator of a rules-based international order. As G. John Ikenberry argues in After Victory, the United States during the early post-World War II years willingly accepted constraints on its power and room for maneuver precisely because it wanted to lock in a liberal and multilateral Western order. Many of today’s international institutions and multilateral practices were born and bred in America. As a consequence of changes in its domestic political landscape, Washington may be less wedded to institutionalized multilateralism than it was six decades ago. But due to both its power and proclivities, the United States is still the world’s leading purveyor of a rules-based international system.
In sum, Kagan underestimates the willingness of Europeans to use force and overestimates the readiness of the United States to rely on its hard power to run the world as it sees fit. Europe and the United States share more common ground than Kagan presumed — one of the reasons that the transatlantic link is actually much healthier today than he and other observers expected a decade ago.
The cohesion of the West
The first post-cold War decade instilled optimism about the durability of the West.1 Rather than closing shop, both nato and the European Union took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to expand eastward. As Yugoslavia came apart during the 1990s, nato stepped in to stop the bloodshed and bring peace to the Balkans — albeit with a reluctance that cost many lives. The United States and Europe also teamed up on the economic front, enjoying a decade of robust growth and successfully containing the 1997–98 financial crisis that hit emerging economies. The cohesion of the West during the 1990s suggested not a fraying alliance born of convenience, but a deeper community based on a common political logic and a shared sense of purpose.
The events of the past decade, however, called this more optimistic assessment into question. During the Bush years, the United States and some of its key European allies parted ways on matters of war and peace, stretching the alliance to the breaking point. Obama’s popularity in Europe notwithstanding, significant transatlantic strains have emerged during his presidency. But in both cases, drift and estrangement ultimately gave way to repair. The history of the last ten years is in many respects a reaffirmation that a combination of efficacy and affinity endow the Western alliance with considerable staying power.
Soon after assuming power, Bush took a number of steps that convinced Europeans he was forsaking the tradition of multilateralism that had anchored U.S. foreign policy since World War II. He withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and made clear his opposition to U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. After Bush had been in office only a few months, a British journalist based in Washington expressed views that typified European attitudes toward the administration: “From here, the main voices in Washington seem to be working their way toward a host of fresh assessments: abrasive toward old enemies, mistrustful of internationalist compromise, America First when it comes to global threats, admonitory when it comes to allies.”2
The terrorist attacks of September 11, led to an initial outpouring of European solidarity with the United States. But the transatlantic rift over the Iraq War then called into question the integrity of the Atlantic partnership. Initially, many Europeans welcomed this crossroads; they longed to emerge from the shadow of U.S. power. And the Bush administration did not bemoan the discord, confident that the United States enjoyed the material superiority to act with or without its European partners; allies should follow the leader — or get out of the way.
On both sides of the Atlantic, however, minds readily changed; Europeans and Americans alike soon came to regret the consequences of a divided West. Europe found itself in disarray; the prospect of life without the American guardian was more unsettling than initially presumed. And by 2004, the United States was deeply mired in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making clear to Washington that it could not run the world on its own. The Bush administration was suddenly in search of help on every front, and Europe was the best — indeed, the only — place to turn for that help.
Soon after his second inauguration, Bush flew to Brussels to repair relations with European allies and to reaffirm America’s commitment to nato. His administration began consulting Europeans far more regularly than during the first term. European governments welcomed the overtures, and reciprocated with their own gestures of goodwill. Although Bush remained an unpopular figure in Europe, his outreach succeeded in shoring up transatlantic solidarity. The repair of relations was a testament to the resilience of the Western alliance. Even amid the rift over Iraq and discord over a host of other issues, the Atlantic democracies discovered that they remained each other’s best partners.
The election of Barack Obama then consolidated the repair of Atlantic ties. Obama’s charisma and multicultural background earned him extraordinary allure in Europe. He restored to U.S. foreign policy the multilateral traditions favored by Europeans. And a good number of his campaign pledges, such as his commitment to curb global warming and to advance the cause of abolishing nuclear weapons, were greeted warmly by Europeans. To be sure, Obama proved unable to deliver on some of his promises, and Washington’s preoccupation with the Middle East and East Asia engendered feelings of disappointment and neglect across Europe. But Obama broadly succeeded in restoring Europe’s confidence in the appeal and reliability of its American partner.
The Obama administration’s take on the transatlantic link, like Bush’s, went through ups and downs. Washington initially expected Europe to demonstrate its revived enthusiasm for partnership with America by shouldering additional burdens, particularly in Afghanistan. Obama was then frustrated by Europe’s unwillingness to do more, its embrace of economic austerity when Washington was calling for more fiscal stimulus, and an eu that seemed to be spending more time sorting out minor quarrels among its member states than addressing global challenges. Well aware of Washington’s impatience, Europeans worried that Obama might forsake the Atlantic link in favor of a “g-2” — a global condominium between the United States and China.
Such anxieties, however, readily proved unfounded. From Washington’s perspective, the prospect of a new Sino-American partnership was snuffed out by Beijing’s refusal to budge on its undervalued currency, its embrace of a regional muscularity that rattled East Asian neighbors, and its unwillingness to confront North Korea’s military provocations. Obama also faced domestic pressure — in no small part arising from unemployment and slow growth at home — to get tough with China. Washington was simultaneously having a difficult time working with Russia, Turkey, and other potential partners.
Confronted with trouble on these other fronts, Obama came to realize, just as George W. Bush did, that Europe remained America’s go-to partner. As Obama explained in a New York Times op-ed in advance of the 2010 nato Summit in Lisbon, “our relationship with our European allies and partners is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world, and a catalyst for global cooperation. With no other region does the United States have such a close alignment of values, interests, capabilities, and goals.” In May 2011, Obama spent a full week in Europe, primarily to stress the enduring value of the Atlantic link. Meanwhile, nato’s successful operation in Libya confirmed the efficacy of transatlantic teamwork — even as it revealed shortcomings in European capabilities. The transatlantic partnership thus appears to have a natural resilience — good news for Europe and the United States, but also for the broader international community, which needs a coherent West to help guide it through the coming redistribution of global power.
The crisis of governance in the West
It is reassuring that analysts overestimated the likelihood of a transatlantic divorce. But the Western alliance is not out of the woods; analysts simultaneously failed to foresee what may well be the greatest threat to the coherence of the West — the crisis of governance that is currently plaguing both sides of the Atlantic. While the Western democracies in principle appreciate the need for and efficacy of strategic solidarity, it is by no means certain that the United States and Europe, individually and collectively, will be up to the task of providing global leadership. The West has entered a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth, political polarization, and self-doubt, producing a crisis of democratic governance.
In the United States, the crisis of governability is taking the form of a partisan polarization so intense that it produces ineffectual policy and, not infrequently, political paralysis. The absence of consensus, coupled with partisan animosity, has prevented progress on essential domestic priorities — most notably restoring fiscal solvency and economic growth. Bipartisanship has been equally scarce on foreign policy, hampering America’s ability to provide steady leadership at a time of global uncertainty. In Europe, the crisis of governability is manifesting itself through the renationalization of politics. The project of European integration has begun to falter just at the moment that the collective will and capability of the European Union are needed to consolidate the transatlantic link and help guide global change. If this reversal continues and the eu’s individual nations ultimately fail to aggregate their voices and resources, they risk geopolitical irrelevance.
It is not coincidental that the United States and Europe — along with Japan — are simultaneously experiencing political dysfunction. Globalization is the common culprit. Across the West’s open societies, globalization is producing a widening gap between what electorates are asking of their governments and what those governments are able to deliver. This mismatch between the growing demand for good governance and its shrinking supply is dangerously compromising the power and purpose of the Western world.
Voters in industrialized democracies are looking to their governments to address the decline in living standards and the growing inequality resulting from unprecedented flows of goods, services, and capital. Electorates also expect their representatives to deal with surging migration, global warming, and other knock-on effects of a globalized world. But Western governments are not up to the task. Globalization is challenging state capacity by penetrating borders and rooting around the policy levers that democracies have traditionally had at their disposal. It is also shifting wealth and power from the West to the rising rest, concentrating globalization’s downsides on workers in advanced economies while denying their governments the level of control over commerce and security that they once enjoyed. The inability of leading democracies to address the concerns of their citizens only increases public disaffection, thereby further undermining the legitimacy and efficacy of representative institutions.
On both sides of the Atlantic, globalization is taking a heavy economic and political toll. In the United States, the underlying cause of political malaise is the poor state of the country’s economy. Since 2008, many Americans have lost their houses, jobs, and retirement savings. And these setbacks come on the heels of back-to-back decades of stagnation in middle-class wages. Over the past ten years, average household income in the United States has fallen by over ten percent. In the meantime, income inequality has been steadily rising, making America the most unequal country in the industrialized world. As of 2010, the richest one percent of Americans accounted for almost 25 percent of all income, compared with less than ten percent in the mid-1970s. Global competition has been the primary source of the declining fortunes of the American worker; jobs have been heading overseas.
These harsh economic realities are helping to revive ideological and partisan cleavages long narrowed by the nation’s rising economic fortunes. Ineffective governance, laced with daily doses of partisan bile, has pushed public approval of Congress to historic lows. Spreading frustration has spawned the Occupy Wall Street movement — the first sustained bout of public protest since the Vietnam War. The electorate’s discontent only deepens the challenges of governance as vulnerable politicians cater to the narrow interests of the party base and the nation’s political system loses what little wind it has in it sails. The conduct of U.S. statecraft is hardly immune to these domestic travails. Funding for diplomacy, foreign assistance, and defense are all on the chopping block, and surveys reveal a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment among the American public. Duress and division at home are hampering responsible leadership abroad.
On the other side of the Atlantic, publics are revolting against the double dislocations of European integration and globalization. Political life across Europe is being renationalized as the eu’s member states claw back the prerogatives of sovereignty, threatening the project of political and economic integration set in motion after World War II. Populism and nationalism are eating away at the sense of collective destiny upon which the European project rests. As in the United States, economic conditions are the root of the problem. Over the past two decades, middle class incomes have been falling and inequality rising in most major European economies.
The European project has arrived at a make-or-break moment. With its member states hemmed in by indignant electorates, the eu has moved tortuously toward a workable plan for salvaging the euro. Europe’s slow and timid pace fits poorly with the impatience of global markets, exacerbating and prolonging its financial crisis. The collective governance that the eu desperately needs to thrive in a globalized world rests uneasily with a political street that is becoming decidedly hostile to the European project. All the while, the eu grows more introverted and fragmented, compromising Europe’s ability to serve as the capable partner the United States seeks.
The main challenge facing the Atlantic community is not, as Kagan would have it, that Europeans live in a post-historical world while Americans man the barricades. To be sure, contrasting outlooks and a stark asymmetry in military power do persist and will continue to strain the alliance. But the most urgent challenge facing the Atlantic community stems from the economic and political weakness that has descended upon the West.
Accordingly, the top priority on both sides of the Atlantic must be to recover economic and political solvency. The West should embrace a three-pronged agenda of reinvigoration. First, the Western democracies must individually and collectively embrace strategies of economic renewal that go well beyond business as usual. When up against China’s brand of state capitalism and the potent forces of globalization, the United States and Europe need to engage in strategic economic planning on an unprecedented scale. Large-scale investment in jobs, infrastructure, education, and research will be required to revamp economies that are in the midst of far-reaching structural change.
Second, leaders across the West should rally behind an agenda of progressive populism — one intended to channel electoral discontent toward constructive ends and enable centrist voters to prevail against special interests and the political extremes. Elites must ensure that mass publics once again have confidence in the ability of democratic institutions to produce a broadly shared prosperity. A progressive activism and the mobilization of the political center offer the best hope of restoring vitality and credibility to democratic politics.
Finally, Western governments must lead their electorates away from the temptation to turn inward. Amid the economic downturn and the lengthy and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are clamoring for a respite from geopolitical burdens. Europeans are not only stepping back from integration with each other, but also with the world beyond. To be sure, restoring fiscal solvency in the United States requires cuts to defense spending and a strategic retrenchment to match. But neither America nor its main democratic allies can afford a precipitous retreat.
The Atlantic partnership faces an uncertain and unsettling era in global politics as power shifts from the West to emerging powers. The disruptions that will inevitably accompany this tectonic change can be most effectively managed by coherent teamwork between the United States and Europe. Preparation for this task starts at home; the United States and Europe need to restore economic and political solvency if they are to have the power and purpose to anchor the coming transition. The Atlantic partners have more than enough common ground and common cause. What remains to be seen is whether they have the common wherewithal to act on their shared interests and values.
1 The analysis in the remainder of this essay draws from Charles A. Kupchan, No One’s World: The West, the Rising Rest, and the Coming Global Turn (Oxford, 2012); and Charles A. Kupchan, “The Democratic Malaise: Globalization and the Threat to the West,” Foreign Affairs, 91:1 (January-February 2012).
2 Hugo Young, “We’ve Lost That Allied Feeling,” Washington Post (April 1, 2001).