27 August 2015
If the US and Europe drift apart, there will be grave consequences for Western global leadership.
Xenia Wickett

Xenia Wickett

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


An American flag flies in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the US embassy on 7 July 2014 in Berlin. Photo by Getty Images.
An American flag flies in front of the Brandenburg Gate, near the US embassy on 7 July 2014 in Berlin. Photo by Getty Images.


Is there a ‘crisis’ in the transatlantic relationship? Although the US and Europe are not irresistibly diverging, there are indications that governments and their populations on both sides of the Atlantic are becoming less aligned in their thinking and actions. And it is happening just when they need to become closer.

The ‘rise of the rest’, in which new emerging markets are coming to the fore, is creating a more competitive international environment. And the West is not putting on an adequate response. Unless the US and Europe want to relinquish leadership on building global norms and standards on key issues, their leaders once again need to work more collectively together.

Divides in the Atlantic community

The structures put together in the first half of the 20th century by the Atlantic community (such as NATO, the UN, the WTO/GATT, the IMF and the World Bank) provided the architecture and norms by which everyone functioned – and thereby primed the international context in their favour.

However, these institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional or unfit for purpose, and are increasingly ignored (like the UN) or replaced (as China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank [AIIB] is arguably attempting to do). That contextual advantage has gone. And there are many other good reasons to be concerned.

Shared values are a notable aspect of the strong and longstanding relationship between the US and Europe. But now, although the US does appear to be coming closer to Europe on some measures (Pew polling suggests America is becoming less religious and more liberal on gay rights and recreational drugs, for instance), there is clear evidence that differences of opinion are becoming more entrenched.

Policy divides between the US and Europe are commonplace, but recently the list of differences (and the degree of difference of opinion) appears to be growing. The split over joining the AIIB is the most recent of these, being a visible symptom of a larger fundamental difference of opinion on Asia. But other issues that divide include actions in Libya in 2011, Syria today, Russia, support for NATO, energy independence and what to do about climate change.

The study on elite perceptions conducted by Chatham House’s US Project in 2014 made clear how important Europeans perceived America’s traditional values to be, but also raised the concern that the US was losing sight of them (citing, for example, the lack of universal healthcare and attitudes towards the death penalty and gun laws). The visceral response of the German public to the Snowden revelations is a stark example of the divide in attitudes.

Special relationships

Anecdotally, the evidence is also not good. Over the past four years the general tone of conversations in Europe about the US has changed, due to huge uncertainty about whether the US is going to continue to play the same role it has in the past or whether it will leave Europe to face its challenges alone. Meanwhile, in the US the conversation around whether Europe will step up (particularly in security) has heightened tremendously. Four years ago, no one thought to question the transatlantic relationship. Today, on both sides, there is a lack of confidence.

The US-UK relationship has a special part in this – it has long been and still remains the centre-point of the transatlantic relationship. From a realpolitik perspective, the US sees the UK as valuable for three principal reasons: A) its role in the EU promoting common UK/US interests; B) the assets it brings to the table (particularly defence and intelligence); and C) its external perspective and its support internationally (ensuring the US is rarely alone). However, in the coming years A might go away and B is declining with falling defence spending, leaving only C. And a weak US-UK relationship could cause significant trouble for the wider US-Europe relationship.

It is all too easy to forget the importance of the transatlantic relationship. For many it is increasingly irrelevant – the emerging powers such as China and Brazil are far more interesting. And for others it is just an ever-present reality – the Atlantic allies have been so close and through so much that nothing can change it.

Neither of these is right. The transatlantic relationship is vital part of addressing global challenges and it is something that, if continued to be treated either with either contempt or ignorance, will be lost before we know it. For these reasons, the US Project is beginning new research that looks at the transatlantic relationship and asks whether there is a rift. If yes, we hope to explore what can be done to mitigate it – before it is too late.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback