Transatlantic Relations after the Midterms

A Fresh Start or Further Decline?

Since President Trump began implementing his vision of “America First” two years ago, European partners have been concerned whether a more unilateral and transactional U.S. perspective on the world is the new normal. While some European commentators point to the Democratic takeover of the House as a new opportunity for engagement with the U.S., others worry that President Trump might double down on his “America First” agenda in the more polarized environment. In a recent AICGS seminar, Dr. Niklas Helwig presented his findings on how the U.S. midterm election results would affect the transatlantic relationship.

Key arguments

1. The midterms showed that the permissive consensus in the U.S. in support of the transatlantic alliance is vanishing

  • Permissive consensus – during and after the Cold War, the American public passively approved of the transatlantic alliance
  • Since Trump, alliance has become a political issue
    • Growing partisan divide (gap between Republicans and Democrats) in views of cooperation with U.S. allies
    • “allies take advantage of the U.S.” – 80% of Republicans agree, 28% of Democrats agree
  • Minnesota – trade policies played a role – defying traditional logic that foreign policy does not play much of a role in elections
    • Streel tariffs helped to flip some Minnesota districts to Republican party
    • Minnesota was representative of other broader trends we saw this midterm election
      • Democrats did quite well in the suburbs
      • Nationalization and personification of elections
      • “Two-thirds of voters say their vote in today’s congressional election is about Donald Trump” – CNN
      • Indications that foreign policy has much more become an issue of political debates and voting

2. The new Democratic majority in the House will agree with Europeans on principles, but disagree on substance

  • Europeans generally perceive a Democratic House as positive
  • Democrats that flipped the House
    • Diverse group of people – 34 flips, 21 women, many veterans, minorities
  • What does this election mean for foreign policy?
    • More Veterans may be good for foreign policy, because they may have more experience in international realm, but it is unclear whether or not they will focus on foreign policy, because easier to run on ‘kitchen table’ or local issues
  • Much will depend on the dynamic between the moderate and progressive Democrats. Many progressive women have already taken activist approaches toward issues such as climate change – will they also take this attitude toward foreign policy?
  • Substantive input on foreign policy of new house members is not expected, leadership is still very much old, white, and male. Many new committee chairmen appear to ascribe to a moderate/establishment foreign policy agenda.
  • Key transatlantic issues that will likely be of interest in coming years (and examining if and where the Democratic House could have an impact)
    • Iran Nuclear Deal
      • This is the domain of the president and House will have little influence or impact on the substance of U.S. Iran policy
      • Democrats are also cautious to touch this issue, because do not want to appear too friendly with Iran
        • Will shy away from any vote on the issue
    • NATO – Burden Sharing
      • Many ranking Democrats are critical of the ballooning U.S. defense budget – so this budget issue may become more of a political issue in coming years
      • Democrats do not want to appear unpatriotic or undermining the military, but want to address the budget issue
      • Style is different, but still want Europe to share more of the spending for defense
    • Russia
      • Mueller probe and potentially more of an investigation into the Helsinki meeting between Trump and Putin
        • Democrats may want to push for greater sanctions on Russia; new sanction bills are already in the pipeline
      • Questions: will they go after Russian sovereign debt? Will NordStream II become more of an issue?
        • Potential to cause some clashes with some European partners, France and Germany

3. How Europe adapts to the new legislature

  • Mixed reactions – some enthusiastic, some hopeful, some cautious
  • Will Europe opt for strategic autonomy or strategic patience?
    • French position tends to leans toward autonomy, while the German position tends to be closer toward strategic patience waiting for U.S. political situation to change, though it has shifted some toward strategic autonomy.
  • How should Europe adapt to the new politics of transatlantic relations?
    • Reach out: use new dynamics in Congress to start strategic dialogue
    • Language is important: concepts like “European army” or “strategic autonomy” are easily misunderstood
    • Pick your battles: the Iran Deal has a significant symbolic value for Europe, but is currently on life support
    • Share the burden: smart and joint investment in defense
    • Focus on the issues: not every challenge has an institutional fix

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