Europe and the U.S.: Withering Together?

With the presidential election come and gone the time has come to speculate about its potential impact on the transatlantic relationship. Today, the Brookings Institute hosted an interesting panel discussion on this very subject entitled “The Next U.S. President and Europe: Thriving Together or Withering Apart?”

Here are some of the key points made by participants: The so-called Asia pivot that many Europeans seem to be so worried about is largely a rhetorical tool designed by the U.S. to mask its disengagement from Afghanistan. The focus on Asia and China in particular is nothing new. It occurred long ago and Europeans are looking to Asia as much as Americans do.

It is true that the Obama administration had tried to broaden its horizon in his first term. The President looked for new friends to add to his traditional European allies, but the forum that he hoped would help him to move towards that goal, the G20, failed to deliver. In the end, he has rediscovered it European friends because it is easier to deal with them and because the euro crisis has turned the old continent into a global problem that even jeopardized to thwart his efforts to get reelected. The election is won, but the potentially devastating impact of a worsening euro crisis still exists.

However, the economic challenges in the U.S. and Europe will have an adverse impact on foreign policies. Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations pointed out that he does not expect this alliance to do much in the next four years. According to Dr. Kupchan, these “will be four years of transatlantic retrenchment.” In other words not much activism is to be expected. The weak economy will, according to him, sap all the energy of American and European politicians. He even expressed skepticism about the U.S.’ ability to deal with the fiscal cliff, pointing out that the makeup of the political forces that should deal with that challenge is still the same that caused gridlock before the election.

Overall there was a sense that there will be reluctance on both sides of the Atlantic to look for foreign policy challenges. Of course, all of the conferences participants agreed on the fact that a military intervention could be forced upon the U.S. by Iran. In that case, the rather exhausted alliance could face some severe stress. Teheran and its nuclear program have the capacity to act as an abrupt wake up call.

If therefore appears that the answer to the central question posed at the conference is neither will we thrive together nor wither apart. The answer is in fact that we will likely wither together.

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