America’s European Problem: Friends or Strangers?

By Daniel Durgavich

U.S. paratroopers train with European forces for Operation Saber Junction 2019
Image Credit: Sgt. Henry Villarama/DVIDS

This was not how the 21st century was supposed to progress. 

A new millennium that began with optimism, and maybe a little anxiety, has spiraled rapidly out of control. In few places is this clearer than the rapid fracturing of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

The bedrock of the post-war order and the foundation upon which the liberal international order was made is now strained in the worst way in decades. While there were always clear areas of divide between the United States and its European allies in the past (how to properly intervene in Vietnam coming quickly to mind), the partnership was perceived to be stalwart.

Yet, recent activity has called into question the longevity of this partnership. While most experts in the field may not bet on the decline to be anything serious, the scope of its challenge and the rise of new threats make examining the current fault lines important for understanding the future of the great power game.

American leadership seems split on how it means to proceed in Europe. While commitment to Europe and NATO is certain, how that will manifest itself is not yet settled. President Biden seems intent on restoring the relationship as it was, but Secretary of Defense Austin issues more measured statements that indicate a desire to let Europe take the lead. 

These two seemingly contradictory views only deepen the confusion in Europe. Yet, this is the precise moment when the United States needs Europe the most. The present global competition is as much one of principle as it is of territory, and the United States needs as many partners as possible dedicated to the values which uphold the peace. 

While it is clear from the creation of AUKUS that the United States and the United Kingdom will continue to work together, the latter’s exit from the European Union means that its aid is not quite as relevant in maintaining trans-Atlantic relations as before.

The first major aspect of alteration is the recent straining of relations with France. While the immediate fallout of the French’s ire at the creation of the AUKUS partnership has died down, France has by no means meekly returned to the fold. Macron continues to preach about European strategic autonomy, a phrase which to him means a discreetly French-led effort to reestablish a strong Europe. 

This includes working to arm other European nations, such as Greece, in an effort to bolster French influence in their affairs. It also means continuing to hold the United States at arm’s length, even while new efforts are made to rebuild trust. While France is not foolish enough to believe it can fully strike out alone, it also sees no clear reason to fully submit itself once more to the strategic vision of the United States, especially as tensions continue to build in the Pacific.

Working parallel (but separately) from this French effort is the European Union’s recent efforts to return to the question of a European military. President Ursula von der Leyen, herself a former Defense Minister of Germany, has consistently stood behind the idea, as a means of bolstering European defense should a crisis emerge on the continent. 

This effort is not without resistance even from her own bloc, but is certainly also viewed with caution from abroad as well. The decision would almost certainly add strain to all aspects of the present state of Europe, from the continuing disputes with Britain to the bellicose activity of Russia

While many in the EU parliament continue to stress the importance of NATO to the continent, a separate European military would further complicate that relationship and may even lead some to push for Europe to revisit its terms of membership.

These two changes come as Russia and China both make new moves to increase their influence in the continent. For Russia, this influence comes both in the form of cooperation and competition. The former is defined by expanding influence among the Eastern European countries, especially through continued economic efforts. 

The recent completion of Nord-Stream 2 demonstrates both how much influence Russia retains in Europe and how much American influence has declined, given opposition to the pipeline had been a policy of the United States for many years. Despite these more positive actions, Russia is also continuing to support separatist movements in Ukraine, and even recently broke off communication with NATO in a formal manner. These actions speak to a more belligerent Russia, which can only be properly countered by a strong trans-Atlantic partnership.

China is also working to expand its influence on the continent, mostly through trade and technological exchange. The expansion of Huawei’s 5G network in 2020 was a particular example of this rising relationship, especially as it was done over United State objections. While Chinese physical presence is limited, and not all nations in Europe are as accepting of it, it is still worth noting how it benefits from a Europe strategically disentangled from the US. 

An untethered Europe now becomes a neutral party to any contest between the United States and China, further weakening the United States’ position on the global stage. Moreover, it also means that China can further leverage its position as an economic power to alter the global stage to its benefit, a fact which comes at the cost of the values of the post-war international order.

How then can the United States best reaffirm the relationship with Europe? One solution may lie in working to first reaffirm the scope of the relationship. A source of conflict between the United States and Europe has often been the contributions both make to the strategic partnership. 

While the United States wants even investment across the board, Europe often wants to alter that investment to suit their unique interests, with only a handful of states meeting their funding goals for NATO as an example.

Rather than continuing to force this arrangement, the United States should proactively seek a summit with Europe to make clear the goals. Such a summit would serve two main purposes. The first is it would bring the European partners to the table to express their views before known disagreements spiral out of control. This would hopefully allow the differing visions to engage with one another, not through withdrawn ambassadors but active discourse. The second purpose would be to use this known moment of division to reestablish the fraternal relationship. 

Despite the differing strategies and goals of several European states and the United States, many values are still shared between them which need to be protected and upheld. By making more clear what areas are in common, a new plan of operation can be devised which addresses European concerns and American goals.  

The exact nature of such a partnership is less easy to predict, but by opening that conversation, the United States demonstrates its care for its European partners as equal members of the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Regardless of the form the solution takes, the United States cannot leave its present relationship with Europe in its current state. Washington must work to rebuild the ties that sustained peace in the post-war era, so that such peace may be maintained in the years to come. 

While there may be times when the United States feels it can stand alone, it can only be to America’s advantage to keep Europe close. Any future strategy is more complicated if Europe fades into a neutral position on the global stage. 

Daniel Durgavich holds a B.A. in Foreign Affairs and a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of Virginia. His thesis focuses on the challenges of the Sino-Russian partnership in Europe.

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