Danger from Within: Today’s Threats to the Transatlantic Relationship

Peter Sparding

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Peter Sparding is a transatlantic fellow in GMF’s Europe Program in Washington, DC, where he works on issues related to the transatlantic and global economy. In particular, Mr. Sparding’s work focuses on the consequences of the Eurozone crisis on the transatlantic economic relationship and the global economy. He also works on issues related to transatlantic trade and global economic governance. A native of Germany, Sparding previously worked in GMF’s Berlin office. He holds a master’s degree from Free University in Berlin and has also studied at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

There is no doubt that the transatlantic relationship is facing one of its most difficult tests since the days of the Marshall Plan. For most of this time, the most serious challenge to the relationship came from the outside, namely from the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Today, while there is continued outside pressure from old and new rivals, the main danger facing the transatlantic relationship seems to emanate from within the countries that form it.

This danger extends past the current moment and present electoral prospects of right-wing populists in Europe and the United States. At the foundation of it is a lack of political ideas and will. In the absence of a common foe in the Soviet Union, the transatlantic partners have struggled to define and describe why the relationship is essential to the lives of their citizens. Even worse, as Robert Keohane and Jeff Colgan note in a recent Foreign Affairs article, “the disappearance of the Soviets undermined social cohesion and a common sense of purpose”[1] in both Europe and the United States. The notion of “shared values” (such as the rule of law, individual liberties, and democratic processes), connecting the societies across the Atlantic is strong, but has taken a serious hit on both sides. The Iraq War, debates about the prison in Guantanamo, and torture in the 2000s, the Snowden revelations in 2013, as well as the election of President Trump in November 2016 have left many Europeans wondering how deep the values they purportedly share with Americans still reach. Yet, at the same time, politicians with illiberal tendencies have been elected in several European countries and have come close to gaining power in others, so that one might ask more generally whether the transatlantic values really are as deep-rooted in our societies as Sunday speeches have led us to believe (or whether they are different ones altogether).

These developments have been accompanied by a series of crises that have further accentuated existing societal fissures and at the same time constrained policymakers’ ability to respond to them, starting with the financial crises and moving to the crisis in the euro zone, the situation in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis in Europe. At this moment of a seemingly perpetual malaise (especially in Europe), the Trump presidency will likely infuse further instability, confusion, and unpredictability into transatlantic relations (even though some pundits and commentators continue to see the supposed “normalization” of Trump just around the corner).

It thus seems evident that the current turmoil in transatlantic relations is more than a short-lived phase, after which things will “snap back to the way they were.” More likely, we are witnessing longer-term shifts or at best an extended period of uncertainty. While the formal institutions of the transatlantic partnership, like NATO, are likely to remain in place, it seems doubtful that the transatlantic relationship in five or ten years will look similar to the one today. The goal for this transition period should be to develop more resilience and self-reliance to deal with internal and external shocks, especially on the European side, and to keep the underlying foundation for transatlantic cooperation intact as best as possible, so that it can be built upon again.

At the same time, it will be necessary now to develop real transatlantic policy responses and alternatives that go beyond small and marginal fixes and instead address the momentous challenges of our time. This will be especially important in the realm of economic policy, where thirty years of there-is-no-alternative-thinking (TINA) and a narrowing of the political-economic discourse have diminished our ability to conceive of alternative ideas. In the face of systemic challenges that includes a thinning middle class, a looming transformation of the way we work (or whether we will work at all?), rising inequality in some countries, and stagnating wages, it will be time to think of systemic answers instead of incremental changes and marginal fixes.


[1] Jeff D. Colgan and Robert Keohane 2017: “The Liberal Order Is Rigged. Fix It Now or Watch it Wither”, in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 96, Number 3, p. 42

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.