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Is the transatlantic partnership in decline?

written by Carl Michel Reischel, Sciences Po Paris


Transatlantic relations have considerably shaped international relations in the post-war international system. Their economic, political and military interactions are considered as the backbone of the international system1, but recent events, such as the 2016 election of Donald Trump seem to have fundamentally changed this principle.2 Conflicts in trade and security issues seem to increase3 and a certain divergence in policies, values and positions is also emerging.4 Some scholars argue that this downturn trend has been noticed since the end of the Cold War. John Ikenberry, professor at Princeton University, points for example to a strong divergence in interests, institutions and shared identities created by the different crises of the last decades.5

In this essay, I will discuss If the transatlantic relationship is in decline, based on the three branches of international relations theories mentioned by Ikenberry: Structural Realism, Constructivism and Liberal Institutionalism. I will also underline my arguments with concrete examples, emphasising the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as the key institution governing the security relationship of the US and Europeans.

Realists argue that states seek to survive in an international system characterized by anarchy. Military power and strong alliances are the keys to strengthen the position in the international system, leading states to seek allies and balance threats.6 In the scope of this theory, the strengthening of transatlantic relationships, and the creation of NATO, after WW2 can be explained as a way to balance Soviet threat. During the cold war, the EU and the US shared a common threat perception towards Soviet Russia and joint interest to contain it.7 With the fall of the Soviet Union, some scholars argue that the main security institution of the relationship, NATO, has outlived its original purpose.

Europeans are still reliant on US security because of Russia’s new assertiveness, but they have also started to increase their defence spending in the last years. Europeans have pushed for new initiatives such as the Permanent-Structured-Cooperation, the European Intervention Initiative and the European Defence Fund.8 Some scholars have pointed out that a strengthening of European autonomous defence capabilities might lead to a duplication of military capabilities threatening NATO in the long term.9 The US withdrawal of Northern Syria and Northern Africa has also raised questions over the continuous military engagement of the US. Trumps unilateral decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint- Comprehensive-Plan-of-Action and Trump's rapprochement to Israel do also threaten transatlantic ties in the region. The rise of China could also potentially lead to further divergences, as Europeans and Americans do not share the same threat perception in East Asia. Europeans are not considered as a strategic actor in the region and the US and Europeans do not coordinate their policies, for example in the South China Sea.10 A new security dynamic, growing divergencies and a lack of common threat perception are putting NATO and the Atlantic partnership at risk.

Liberal Institutionalism suggests that states seek to maximize their interests by focussing on cooperation through institutions rather than through conflicts. Based on this theory NATO does not only reflect the distribution of power but also shapes common interests and stabilizes transatlantic relations.11 William Hitchcock argues that fiver former crisis has revealed serious differences and values. German rearmament (1950-55), the Suez crisis (1956), DeGaulle (1960s), the Bosnia war (1990s) and the Iraq war have shown profound differences and disagreement in core interests. Under Donald Trump, another crisis of NATO might be looming, but Hitchcook argues as well, that even though differences are increasing NATO has adapted to all crisis through flexibility and resilience.12

Benjamin Schreer underlines this fact by showing that Donald Trump has not caused any long-lasting or terminal disruption to the security alliance, despite his “America First” policy. 13 Contrary to the assumption, US-policy towards NATO has been strengthened. The Pentagon’s defence budget for US forces in Eastern Europe has increased from 1,7 billion to 6,5 billion USD, NATO held the largest training exercise since the end of the cold war and US bases in Germany have been updated equipment-wise.14 Thus, an abandonment of NATO seems to be unlikely and Trump's policy might be considered less disruptive than previously thought.15

Constructivists argue that the transatlantic relationship is not only held together by a common threat perception or through “sticky” institutions but that they can be defined as a security community, built on common values and identities.16 Thomas Risse argues for example that certain preferences are changing and that disputes over the treatment of topics are increasing. 17

The absence of the US in the Eurozone crisis and the immigration crisis has led European elites to further alienate from the US.18 Differences in the views over Democracy, the welfare state and nationalism also seem to become more present. Nevertheless, different approaches do not necessarily point to a decline, as core values are almost identical in questions regarding the support for human rights, political equality, tolerance and rule of law. Economic interdependencies are still strong between both partners19 and a deep shift in core values has not yet been noticed.20

Many scholars and different schools of thoughts have tried to answer If the transatlantic relationship is in decline or not. Whereas a realist approach suggests that divergences in threat perspective are growing, especially towards China, Russia and the Middle East, an

institutionalist approach suggests that different crisis has shown deep institutional divergences but that transatlantic institutions are quite resilient. Constructivists would argue that both partners are increasingly inward-looking, and the view of certain key issues are diverging but core values remain the same.

I would argue, that a decline and growing divergence is noticeable in all three of John Ikenberries spheres: interests, institutions and shared identities.21 A critical-juncture breaking the relationship apart has not yet been noticed and crisis and policy-divergencies might be resolved and overcome in the next upcoming years, but could also diverge further.22 Either way, both sides need to rebalance their relationship and strengthen their links further, as the EU and the US need each other mutually.23

1 Marianne Riddervold and Akasemi Newsome, “Transatlantic relations in times of uncertainty: crises and EU-US relations”, Journal of European Integration, 40:5, 2018, p. 517. 2 Ibid., 518. 3 Ibid., 505. 4 Ibid., 518. 5 John, G. Ikenberry, “Explaining Crisis and Change in Atlantic Relations”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 3. 6 Barry Posen, “European Union security and defence policy: response to unipolarity?” Security studies, 15 (2), 2006, p. 154. 7 Ibid., 152. 8 Marianne Riddervold and Guri Rosén, “Unified in response to rising powers? China, Russia and EU-US relations”, Journal of European Integration, 40:5, 2018, p. 566. 9 William I. Hitchcock, “The ghosts of crises past: The troubled alliance in historical perspective”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 53.

10 Richard Maher, “The rise of China and the future of the Atlantic Alliance”, Orbis, 60, 2016, pp. 366-381. 11 Hitchcock, “The ghosts of crises past: The troubled alliance in historical perspective”, p. 53. 12 Ibid., 2. 13 Benjamin Schreer, “Trump, NATO and the future of Europe’s defence”, The RUSI Journal, 164:1, 2019, p. 16. 14 Ibid., 13. 15 Ibid., 16. 16 Thomas Risse, “The transatlantic security community: Erosion from within?”, in Riccardo Alcaro, John Peterson, and Ettore Greco (eds), The West and the Global Power Shift: Transatlantic Relations and Global Governance, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, p. 23. 17 Ibid., 37. 18 Ibid., 35. 19 Ibid., 37. 20 Dieter Fuchs and Hans-Dieter Klingemann, “American exceptionalism or Western civilization?”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, p. 262.

21 Lisbeth Aggestam and Adrian Hyde-Price, “Double trouble: Trump, transatlantic relations and European strategic autonomy”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 57, Annual Review, 2019, p. 124. 22 Ikenberry, “Explaining Crisis and Change in Atlantic Relations”, p. 3. 23 Aggestam and Hyde-Price, “Double trouble: Trump, transatlantic relations and European strategic autonomy”, p. 125.


Sources Barry Posen, “European Union security and defence policy: response to unipolarity?” Security studies, 15 (2), 2006, pp. 149–186. Benjamin Schreer, “Trump, NATO and the future of Europe’s defence”, The RUSI Journal, 164:1, 2019, pp. 10- 17. Dieter Fuchs and Hans-Dieter Klingemann, “American exceptionalism or Western civilization?”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, pp. 247-262. John, G. Ikenberry, “Explaining Crisis and Change in Atlantic Relations”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, pp. 1-27. Lisbeth Aggestam and Adrian Hyde-Price, “Double trouble: Trump, transatlantic relations and European strategic autonomy”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 57, Annual Review, 2019, pp. 114-127. Marianne Riddervold and Akasemi Newsome, “Transatlantic relations in times of uncertainty: crises and EU-US relations”, Journal of European Integration, 40:5, 2018, pp. 505-521. Marianne Riddervold and Guri Rosén, “Unified in response to rising powers? China, Russia and EU-US relations”, Journal of European Integration, 40:5, 2018, pp. 555-570. Richard Maher, “The rise of China and the future of the Atlantic Alliance”, Orbis, 60, 2016, pp. 366-381. Thomas Risse, “The transatlantic security community: Erosion from within?”, in Riccardo Alcaro, John Peterson, and Ettore Greco (eds), The West and the Global Power Shift: Transatlantic Relations and Global Governance, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 21-42. William I. Hitchcock, “The ghosts of crises past: The troubled alliance in historical perspective”, in Jeffrey J. Anderson, G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse (eds), The End of the West?: Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008, pp. 53-81.


Carl Michel Reischel is pursuing a master’s degree in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris – where he is the president and co-founder of the European Horizons chapter. He previously studied at Saarland University, Université de Lorraine and Sciences Po where he received a degree in German & French Studies and a certificate in European Studies. His main academic interests include EU Trade and Foreign Policy, EU-China Relations and Brexit.

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