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The US and Europe – in sickness and in health

The importance of the Transatlantic Alliance

The venue: an estate close to New York. Our mission: to develop initiatives to help save the transatlantic relationship between the US and Europe. The participants: 40 movers and shakers from the countries involved.

I arrived full of optimism and left in despair because every action we came up with was dismissed as being unworkable due to domestic political agendas. Populism is the curse of our time.  Somewhere in the Trump/Marine Le Pen/Brexit intersection lie the forgotten remains of a transatlantic relationship that forged the post WWII liberal economic and political order.

Those who argue that its day is over, that we must accept and forge ad-hoc alliances amidst constant accommodation with our enemies, are misguided. Although returning to an earlier era is impossible, the West’s strength is dependent on its unity. “All good habits need to be practiced regularly and the Alliance is losing the habit,” in the words of one participant of the Ditchley Foundation’s weekend retreat at the Greentree Estate on New York’s Long Island.

When US President Barack Obama warns the Syrian regime not to cross a red line which it then crosses; when the West is reduced to asking Russia to “show mercy” to Aleppo residents, in the words of the UK’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson; when there are so many crises and flash points in the world, then the need for a reinvigorated transatlantic partnership becomes critical.

In one area, the relationship is working: NATO. Russia’s actions have forced the US to reconnect with the Continent and forced rearmament in Europe, with President Barack Obama’s 2009 “pivot to Asia” reduced to a distant memory. Ties between the European and American military are exceptionally strong, while the relationship between the UK and European NATO members have the friendliness and cooperation absent from the economic and political sphere.

Yet European leaders no longer focus on world order but on internal political stability, even as the continent is surrounded by a ring of external instability, from the Baltics to the Ukraine, the Balkans, Turkey and North Africa. For the UK, Brexit was yet another step in this isolationist direction. For the US, isolationism is the sleeping ogre in its history.

Challenges facing the Transatlantic Alliance include:

1. CHINA Managing the rise of China. The Chinese are “eating us for breakfast and lunch,” according to one participant. Note how badly the Chinese are now treating foreign companies in their own country, even as they buy up our companies and other assets, and transform the South China seas into their own domain. Their policy-makers speak of the New International Order led by a resurgent China and barely pay lip service to the idea of a multi-polar world.

The West’s only opportunity to counter their strength is through strategic unity, not apparent at the moment, and unlikely to surface. The Europeans are hungry for Chinese investment and prepared to overlook cyber-attacks and industrial espionage in the interests of GDP growth and jobs in their low-growth economies. The Americans, as the declining world power, are more combative towards their only serious rival.

2. REFUGEES German Chancellor Angela Merkel took in over a million refugees, a policy that has seen her popularity plummet. Due to families being allowed to re-unite, Germany will probably end up having to take in another 3 million.

The squabbling and disunity in the EU around the problem is no excuse for the US not to get involved in accepting a share. It would be a gesture of solidarity towards its European allies and a nod to the US/West’s role in the Middle East’s bloodbath. However, when Presidential candidate Donald Trump does so well in the polls with an anti-immigrant/Muslim message, it would be politically impossible for Hillary Clinton (if elected President) to welcome Muslims. Not only will the many Americans who vote for Trump still be around and very vocal, but the makeup of Congress may well impede any controversial policy. The massive displacement of populations due to war and the effects of climate change is, according to experts, bound to continue if not increase.

3. RUSSIA Reasons for Russia’s aggression include a declining population, the strategic nightmare of a 4,000 kilometre-plus frontier with China, jihadist problems on its borders and a shrinking economy. Not to mention a sense of humiliation post-the Soviet era and a corrupt, power-hungry President Putin who relies on creating a sense of outside menace to keep his popularity ratings high. In early October Russia launched a three-day civil defence exercise involving 40 million civilians to protect against a supposed US nuclear, biological or chemical attack – a large enough exercise to inspire paranoia in the most sensible Russian.

4. TRADE Global trade growth has decelerated notably since the financial crisis, both a consequence and a reason for lower world economic growth. The relatively simple Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada (pop. 36m) and the EU (pop. 510m) nearly failed because the Walloon (pop. 4.2m) Parliament rejected it. CETA was finally passed a few days later with amendments to satisfy that region of Belgium.

The much more complex Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the US and Europe should be left quietly ticking over in Geneva in the hope that in a few years it could be resuscitated. Now, the coalition of interests arraigned against it is insurmountable. The lack of new trade deals is much more serious than it looks. Trade experts point out that like a bicycle, trade must move forward through new deals or else it collapses. On the transatlantic front, rows over multi-million US fines on European banks, and European Commission attacks on US giants like Google, look likely to continue. Meanwhile, protectionism is on the rise.

5. THREAT TO COMMON VALUES. The spike in hate crimes in the UK after the Brexit vote, especially directed at eastern Europeans, is still above pre-referendum levels. In the US, Donald Trump’s insulting language and behaviour towards Hispanics and women, among others, continues. The anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform of the National Front in France looks likely to see the party emerge as the second strongest in France in elections next year. Western societies have made huge advances in recognising the right to respect all individuals, whatever their race, gender and sexual orientation. Yet this basic tenet, one that unites both sides of the Atlantic, is nevertheless being eroded.

There is only so much time to act. The younger generation in the US are internationalists for whom Europe is “just another place full of cathedrals and museums,” as one eminent Harvard professor told us. Contrast this to a previous generation: within three weeks of taking office, President Nixon headed to Europe. The new generation are more prone to turn towards a growing, ever-more powerful Asia.

In the shorter term, the less we focus on our similarities and our combined strengths, the more we risk tiptoeing into a Third World War.