The World Order in Disarray: Why Saving the Transatlantic Partnership is Crucial

Read a synopsis of the May 8th panel discussion co-hosted at the German Marshall Fund in Washington


The World Order in Disarray? : Why Saving the Transatlantic Partnership is Crucial

Two years and four months after the inauguration of the current U.S. President, nationalistic "America First" policies have radically impacted the foreign policy of the United States, drawing into question the global leadership role it has held – and helped create – eight decades ago. Long-standing bonds of trust with friends and allies have been damaged to a degree that will require time, patience, and strength to repair. And this planet faces enormous climate and energy problems which can only be solved in a collaborative, cooperative, and inclusive world order. These challenges have an urgency that contemporary politics is unable and unwilling to address. How can this new world order be understood?

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Washington Office was pleased to present a moderated panel discussion at the German Marshall Fund of the United States featuring Dr. Volker Perthes, Chairman of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs; Ian Lesser, Vice President for Foreign Policy and Executive Director of the Transatlantic Center at the German Marshall Fund; and Kim Dozier, CNN Global Affairs Analyst.

As a departure-point for the panel, the discussants considered the world order of the past 80 years, and the relationship between current politics and the apparent breakdown of the extant order. The United States assumed the primary leadership role in the world following World War Two, serving as a symbol and actor for a collection of values; above all, for peace and prosperity, and an economic order that did not benefit only its own interest. This leadership and order now seems unstable. In Europe, Germany has yet to take a consistent leadership role, and Europe as a whole must come to terms with the changing world order in which it must find and assert its economic and security roles lest other actors fill the void. 

Can U.S.-European relations survive the Trump Administration?

Kim Dozier began the conversation with one of the fundamental questions of the current Transatlantic relationship: can U.S-European relations survive the Trump Administration? Volker Perthes replied that “they have to. [And] we have to do something about it”, thereby placing the onus to act on European partners in response to two years – and possibly as many as eight years – of the Trump Administration.  Ian Lesser suggested that the structure of the Transatlantic partnership was not going to change, but that – through Trump and his administration – the style of the relationship has already changed. “We [the United States] are not in Europe because we’re a charity, we are there because it is in our interest” Lesser argued. Of course, the Transatlantic relationship is more than U.S. presence in Europe based in U.S. interest, but there is no denying the geostrategic importance and historical precedent this interest has played. The importance of the Transatlantic partnership remains a positive necessity removed from dispute, but the nature of the Transatlantic relationship is a source of disagreement. The Trump Administration issues not just a stylistic challenge to the established order – to say nothing of treatment of Allies and friends – but also presents ideological challenges. Perthes cited the example of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s December 2018 address in Brussels where in his derision of the European Union he “…declared war on what was perceived as European values, calling for exercises of national ‘sovereignty’ over Eurocrats in Brussels. That’s an ideological statement.” This tension in trying to separate a noticeably confrontational style from the Administration’s ideologically divergent substance was a recurring theme in the discussion, and perhaps can most succinctly characterize the primary challenges to the Transatlantic partnership since the election of Donald Trump.

“The world is changing as we disagree”

Perthes continued the discussion, asserting that “the world is changing as we disagree!” Opportunities for western allies to continue to influence and lead the world are being squandered as disagreement results in inaction. On the subject of defense and strategic autonomy, it was argued that the European pillars of NATO should be strengthened, and Europe should exercise its responsibility in its strategic environment and in its own defensive self-interests. This expertise and responsibility for the strategic environment should be viewed as a contribution to the alliance.

Multilateralism and Foreign Policy: Opportunities Taken and Opportunities Missed

Opportunities both taken and missed were also discussed with respect to the challenges of multilateralism in trade, China policy, and Iran policy. The collapse of TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) negotiations was, as Lesser put it, “a missed opportunity” for an EU-US trade deal, in part because European publics were critical of the partnership. But following the suspension of talks and the election of Donald Trump, the EU concluded trade agreements with Japan as well as Canada that were substantively similar, yet more readily accepted than TTIP ever was. US divergence thus created an environment that made convergence and agreement more palatable.

Another example of U.S. divergence with even more disappointing results was the departure from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the “Iran Deal”. Perthes remarked that the Trump Administration should notice “that despite their many differences, Berlin, London, and Paris are so close on the JCPOA that you couldn’t put a sheet of paper between them”; they remain utterly in agreement on Iran. But the loss of support from the United States has resulted in the breakdown of the Deal: Iran has announced suspended compliance with parts of the JCPOA. In what amounts to another opportunity missed, the U.S. permitted the JCPOA – a nuclear arms control and non-proliferation deal – to effectively collapse, something which will not be simply reconstructed or reset with a new administration.

In looking towards the future with an optimistic gaze, the topic of combating climate change was cited as a policy area dependent on multilateral action that could be reinvigorated as soon as a change in U.S. administration takes place: the Paris Climate Agreement, unlike the JCPOA, could be reset. And, as Perthes noted, it is also possible to act multilaterally with governments below a national level: state-level cooperation is already taking place on climate policy, one need only look at California and the 23 other states in the United States Climate Alliance acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with Paris Agreement guidelines and goals. The U.S. side of the Transatlantic Partnership is more than the Trump Administration; it is the states, it is the Congress, and it is also the American people.

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