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The State of the Transatlantic Relationship: Are We Really Drifting Apart?

By Jillian Laux, Transatlantic Community Analyst


Since the post-WWII years, it has become increasingly common, if not expected, for the U.S. and Europe to act in concert on a range of issues. They have even gone so far as to solidify their partnership through the creation of a host of international organizations, most notably NATO. The historical roots of the relationship, and its functional depth, have convinced many on both sides of the Atlantic that it is a fixture of the international order. Yet others have noted how often the partners disagree, and how the past decade has been especially wrought with disagreement and frustration as the U.S. and Europe have strategically and ideologically bumped heads over a wide-range of complex issues. The relationship has fluctuated so wildly that the idea of a deteriorating relationship among the allies is increasingly entering discussions.

Many attribute the events of 2001 onwards as the beginning of crisis for the relationship. In particular, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq sparked bitter controversy. Discontent ran rampant  as both American and European publics took to the streets to protest each other’s positions, and discourse from policymakers grew increasingly cold, if not hostile, at times. Many hoped that the election of a new U.S. president and the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East would repair the fracturing relationship. However, the election of President Barack Obama, twice over, and the steady removal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to solve the problems of the past decade; instead, they have served to highlight new and complex challenges facing the partners. Indeed, it seems as if for every issue the allies agree on these days, there are three that polarize them, spanning every realm of international affairs; from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to the International Criminal Court and international law in general, to global environmental issues.

While arguments are never fun, they are not necessarily indicative of a failing relationship, particularly if the relationship in question is one that has known its fair share of dispute. Historically speaking, the transatlantic relationship developed in the aftermath of WWII due to the necessity of managing Soviet and German power, and to create a framework within which European nations could rebuild. Although formed out of necessity, the relationship blossomed and produced an alliance in which the partners benefitted from standing together. The ease of the relationship is often seen as resulting, not just from global circumstances, but also a common vision shared by the U.S. and Europe of how the world works, and should work. Despite their alignment of interests, the relationship was never as harmonious as some believe. Indeed, almost immediately, the vitality of the partnership was tested by challenges such as the Suez Crisis in 1956 and the Vietnam War. Similarly, while the immediate post-Cold War years ushered in a period of prosperity and stability for the partners, even these relatively uneventful years tested the bonds of friendship as the allies disagreed over how to properly handle matters such as the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Given this history, the events of 2001 onwards seem little out of the ordinary for the transatlantic partners. Indeed, there are still many successes to boast about. Despite crippling recessions on both sides of the Atlantic, the transatlantic economy remains the largest and wealthiest in the world. Furthermore, the U.S. and Europe are still one another’s most important market and economic relations are only expected to deepen over the course of the next few years with the commencement of negotiations on a long-awaited free-trade agreement. And despite disagreements in the face of global challenges, the U.S. and Europe have proven that they are still capable of speaking with one voice. From the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, to the civil war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program, these challenges have shown that there are still issues on which the allies present a united front. Similarly, their military alliance, NATO, has long outlived its initial purpose and proven its relevance in the post-Cold War era.

It is unreasonable to presume that the U.S. and Europe will always agree on every issue. They never have, and most likely never will. While it is clear that the relationship needs work on forging a common vision on issues such as climate change and NATO’s future, the fact that they still work together on a wide range of challenges and are in the process of deepening transatlantic economic ties is worth noting. In this light, the past decade and current disagreements are less worrisome than many think.


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