by Stephen Walt
Harvard Kennedy School
August 20, 2012
Ever since the end of the Cold War, politicians and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have worried that the United States and its European allies might eventually drift apart. Such concerns help explain why NATO chose to expand eastwards in the 1990s, and why its leaders eagerly sought a new rationale once deterring a Soviet attack was no longer necessary. NATO, it was said, “had to go out of area or out of business.” Politicians, think tanks, and elite task forces continue to plead for some new initiative to ”reinvigorate” transatlantic ties, but these repeated calls have done little to reverse the slow erosion of US-European relations.
The reason is simple. The United States and Europe are drifting apart because they no longer have compelling reasons for close strategic cooperation. They are unlikely to become rivals, of course, and will undoubtedly continue to trade extensively and invest in each other’s economies. There may be some discrete moments of strategic cooperation, as in the recent “war” that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But the high-water mark of transatlantic security cooperation is now behind us, and both Americans and Europeans should start getting used to it.
During the Cold War, Europe was the centerpiece of American grand strategy because it was the biggest geopolitical prize: had the Soviet Union managed to subjugate Europe’s industrial might, it might have tipped the global balance of power in Moscow’s favour. To prevent this, the United States kept several hundred thousand troops in Europe (along with several thousand nuclear weapons), and paid close attention to political developments there. Western Europe was also a key economic region, both as an investment and trading partner but also as an important player in managing the world economy. Transatlantic cooperation was also reinforced by a sense of history: America owed its origins to European colonization and most Americans traced their ancestry back to one or more European countries.
These conditions are either gone or of declining importance. The Soviet Union imploded more than two decades ago, and Europe no longer faces any conceivable military threat that it cannot handle on its own. NATO’s European members spend six times more on defence each year than Russia does, which means that the threat of external invasion is presently nil. Not surprisingly, the US military presence in Europe has been declining steadily ever since the 1st Gulf War in 1991; there simply isn’t anything for US forces to do there anymore. It also explains why European countries spends an average of 1.7 percent of GDP on defence; they simply don’t face any serious military dangers.
Moreover, the attempt to give NATO a new strategic mission has not gone well. NATO did help end the civil wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, but the effort took longer, cost more, and produced more ambiguous results then one might have hoped. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended up being costly defeats, and are unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Had these adventures all gone swimmingly, popular support for NATO’s role as “global policeman” might have been strengthened. Instead, Americans resent having had to bear most of these burdens in these wars, while Europeans question the faulty judgment that led the United States and its allies into these quagmires in the first place.
Europe’s economic importance is also declining, at least in relative terms. The EU produced about 29 percent of gross world product in 2010, but a recent study by the European Commission projected that its share will fall to only 15-17 percent by 2050. Europe’s population will decline and its average age will rise significantly, further reducing its overall weight in world affairs. Meanwhile, Asia’s economic rise and the emergence of China as a possible peer competitor have led the Obama administration to “pivot” toward Asia, and subsequent US administrations are likely to continue this trend. Because Europe is unlikely to play a significant role in future efforts to balance against Beijing, the importance of transatlantic security cooperation will decline even more.
Finally, the historical roots that tied Europe and America together may be fading as well. Third and fourth-generation Americans no longer feel strong attachments to the “old country”—if they ever did—and the non-European percentage of the US population is gradually increasing. The importance of this trend should not be overstated, but it suggests that Europe will have to compete for Washington’s attention in ways that it never had to before.
The good news is that the United States and Europe are not going to become enemies. Indeed, they will continue share intelligence, cooperate on counter-terror and counter-proliferation policies, and favour broadly similar political values. Americans and Europeans will still visit each other in large numbers, and their respective governments will undoubtedly seek each other’s support when the need arises. But leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should not expect the same sort of attention and reflexive coordination that was the norm from 1950 to 1992. Nor should they try to preserve intimate institutional relationships that no longer reflect underlying political realities. For wise leaders recognize and adapt to history’s currents, instead of engaging in a futile struggle against them.