U.S. and European tensions jeopardize 75 years of democracy, open markets and individual rights


It’s time to take urgent measures to head off the danger of “transatlantic decoupling,” a strategic shift that would risk more than seven decades of gains in democracy, open markets and individual rights.  

With all the recent attention to the ongoing economic and technological decoupling of the United States and China, far too little attention has been paid a slower moving, dangerously growing transatlantic divide.

Unaddressed, the result could be a tectonic, strategic shift away from the trans-continental relationship that built and defined post-World War II Europe and shaped the last 75 years globally. At a time when the global balance of power is shifting in China’s direction, transatlantic failure could be a decisive geopolitical factor. 

The damage would be far-reaching for America’s worldwide interests, for European unity and influence, and for the most significant community of democracies and open market economies the world has ever known, accounting for nearly half of global GDP.

“The challenges that we face over the next decade are greater than any of us can tackle alone,” said NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg this week at a virtual event staged by the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund. “Neither Europe alone, nor America alone. So, we must resist the temptation of national solutions.”

He launched a significant, if insufficient, first step in addressing this transatlantic danger, NATO 2030. Its aim would be to ensure that, while the alliance remains militarily strong, it would become stronger politically and globally ensure its relevance in the face of a more assertive China and a global pandemic. 

“The rise of China is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power,” he said. “Heating up the race for economic and technological supremacy.  Multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms. And increasing the competition over our values and our way of life.”

New tensions have highlighted the dangers of transatlantic decoupling.

The most recent were triggered by President Trump’s decision last week, though not yet implemented, to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany, afterward capping them at 25,000. It was less the decision that irked allies than the timing and apparent failure to have consulted allies. The withdrawal announcement came just days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision not to attend in-person the G7 meeting that President Trump had hoped to host this month.

At the same time, differences are festering between European countries and the United States about how best to manage an increasingly assertive China, particularly as Beijing-Washington tensions grow. European concerns about China have also deepened, but Washington’s rapid moves to punish China for its move to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy contrast with Brussels’ more muted response and determination to avoid sanctions.

Alongside the launch of NATO 2030 this week, another promising idea to better coordinate responses to China has emerged from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has suggested employing a “D-10” of ten leading democracies to tackle their increasing concerns about supply chain vulnerabilities and 5G mobile communications. That would augment the G-7 membership by adding Australia, India and South Korea.

This isn’t a new idea, with regular meetings of ambassadors and policy planners among those countries convened for some years by the Atlantic Council , but the coronavirus has given the idea new impetus.

Tensions aren’t new in transatlantic relations. The reason to act more decisively now is the historic moment, a new era of major power competition that will define the years ahead.  During the Cold War, the nature of the Soviet threat and a divided Europe also acted to unify transatlantic allies more than the current Chinese challenge, which most Europeans don’t believe is military in nature.

What’s increasingly clear is that China considers Europe a crucial factor in its effort to gain global influence. Far less clear is where Europe will land as the new geopolitical pieces fall into place – and what kind of Europe it will be.

The array of possible outcomes is dizzying. 

In the best of all worlds, the United States would “re-couple” with Europe, and Europe would unify and align with Washington. In the face of the China challenge, the transatlantic community would cooperate not in in a zero-sum competition with Beijing but to better manage the future together while defending democratic values. 

A middle case scenario would have an increasingly divided Europe floating untethered among major powers. U.S. global influence would continue to decline, and Europe would alternate between playing off major powers and being played by them.  That’s a recipe for volatility.

A third scenario would be that Europe, divided or not, aligns itself more closely with an authoritarian China, compromising its values out of economic interest. It would also be more compromising with Russia, due to its military weight and geographic proximity.  The outcome would be a strategic transatlantic decoupling, with uncertain consequences.    

There are countless other iterations, with as great or greater a potential to define the global future as jockeying in Asia.  

So, what to do?

Clearly, much depends on the preferences of a re-elected Trump administration or the priorities and vision of a Biden alternative. 

Until then, here are five ideas to get started:

1. Embrace and put meaning into NATO 2030’s nascent efforts to provide the alliance a stronger political and global dimension. Without such efforts, NATO’s relevance could recede faster than its advocates understand.

2. Embrace, as well, Boris Johnson’s D-10 format as a base for cooperation among global democracies.  If it works to manage urgent 5G and supply side issues, it could become a platform for other matters.

3. Build further on the foundation of the Three Seas Initiative, a forum of twelve European Union states in Central and Eastern Europe. The U.S. this year committed $1 billion, through its International Development Finance Corporation, to a fund that would finance the group’s energy, transport and telecommunications projects.

4. Revisit the decision to withdraw US troops from Germany, which in any case is facing deep opposition among Republicans in Congress. Slow any moves until Congress and allies have weighed in and US interests have been thoroughly examined.

5. Revive government and privately supported people-to-people exchanges, from students and scholars to soldiers and artists, that bonded previous generations.   

Two world wars have taught us where transatlantic neglect can lead, while the history of the past 75 years underscores the value of common cause. We forget those lessons at our peril

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.





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