Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

While the path may be rocky in the short term, the longer-term fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship remain strong.

Summary

  • The rhetoric of the 2016 US election campaign and the evidence of President Donald Trump’s first year in office both point to the reality that, in the short term at least, European policymakers will need to take into consideration an uncertain, populist and conflictual US government that is focused on its narrow definition of America’s national interests to the exclusion of those of its long-standing allies.
  • Over the past year, Trump has taken multiple policy positions that are antithetical to those of most European powers. He has signalled the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement, questioned the viability of NATO, disavowed the Iran nuclear deal, and, most recently, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
  • In Europe, meanwhile, significant attention and political energy has been taken up with maintaining the credibility and coherence of the EU while managing the intended exit of the UK. This risks diverting focus and capacity away from common global concerns. Compounding this has been the rise of populism and nationalism in many states, which has increasingly challenged the supranational and internationalist ethos of the EU, and has restricted the scope for political leaders to act in accordance with its long-held principles.
  • In this environment of significant political uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic, is the relationship between the US and its European allies at risk of long-term divergence, or do recent areas of apparent policy difference reflect more cyclical trends that can be ridden out? This report – the culmination of a three-year research project by the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House – explores the long-standing and fundamental drivers of US and European policymaking, and sets out recommendations to address the key structural factors that threaten the durability of transatlantic relations.
  • Drawing on insights from a series of scenario workshops and case studies, the report examines the major influencing factors in recent US and European foreign policy decision-making. Of these, three sets of critical factors – demographics, access to food and energy resources, and the integrity of international institutions – are identified as structural and, in that they affect the transatlantic partners differently, as likely to lead to long-term divergence if not managed carefully.
  • A number of additional factors could cause divisions between the US and Europe – such as economics, differing capabilities (particularly military capabilities), leadership personalities and political polarization. However, while these factors may cause real and meaningful shorter-term disruptions, they are more transient in nature and thus pose less of a long-term threat to the transatlantic relationship.
  • During the current period of political uncertainty and flux, progress on specific transatlantic goals (from free trade to environmental protection) may halt or even go into reverse, particularly if they are dependent on senior government leadership. In some cases, there may still be room for manoeuvre through traditional bureaucratic channels. In others, however, transatlantic coordination will best be led by other interests, be they cities, regional state leaders or non-state actors.
  • The report makes the case that while the transatlantic relationship may currently be traversing a period of divergence, this need not lead to a structural split over the longer term. Notwithstanding the present choppy waters, the fundamentals in relations between the US and Europe remain strong, and the prospects are mostly positive. It will be important, however, that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic maintain their focus on the structural drivers of potential convergence and divergence, and take steps to mitigate the risks of long-term divisions – chief among them:
    • Valuing transatlantic cooperation as a goal in and of itself.
    • Supporting transatlantic immigration.
    • Reinforcing transatlantic energy flows.
    • Rebuilding and strengthening institutions and norms.
    • Better assessing – and balancing – US and European capabilities.
    • Conducting joint analysis.
    • Promoting transatlantic bridges between non-state actors.
    • Engaging more often in transatlantic public debate. 

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Further reading

Discover the 5 things you need to know about the state of the transatlantic relationship.