Obama and Merkel
Credit: Pete

Since the aftermath of World War II, foreign-policy practitioners have seen trade agreements as good for security regardless of their content. They were confident that trade deals strengthened political ties and ideological ties, made security agreements more credible, and made conflict less likely. Anything that tied pro-Western democracies to each other, and other countries to them, was thus good.

Read the entire U.S.-Europe trade symposium here.

During the Obama presidency, officials made this argument while unsuccessfully negotiating the Transatlantic
Trade and Investment Partnership, a sweeping would-have-been U.S.-Europe trade agreement. Today, security strategists make similar claims in encouraging the Trump administration or its successor to keep trying for a deal.

Yet the core logic behind this argument has fallen apart. The past 20 years of globalization, including trade deals, have raised inequality and insecurity in the United States and Europe. The post–Cold War explosion in economic activity was distributed unevenly within economies, going to elites and urban regions to an unprecedented degree. That has spurred frightening levels of cynicism about democracy and support for extremist politicians in both places, putting immense strain on the democracies we intended to secure. In other words, the extreme narrowness of the economic gains of post–Cold War globalization is destabilizing the planet. Promoting these kinds of deals is thus a form of security malpractice. Instead, policymakers should work with Europe to redefine security—with the goal of reversing both threats to democracy at home and the decline in transatlantic engagement.

The next administration (or even this one) should open or expand discussions with Europe across new economic and technological domains. They should look to identify how we shape common interests and a common identity while supporting our military security, but also the health of our democracy. Rather than reigniting struggles over economic traditions such as agricultural subsidies, as current transatlantic trade negotiations do, these discussions should focus on industries that have a proven impact on security and a clearer impact on growth.

President Trump has defined security as synonymous with the strength of domestic heavy industry and the jobs that go with it. But his approach has failed to improve economic security and made no appreciable dent in China and Russia’s military gains. Instead, we should focus on cultivating a “small yard” of high-tech research, development, and manufacturing, where data suggests it will be possible to grow and sustain high-wage jobs in the future. Europe and the United States can collaborate to protect this limited number of military-relevant or
cutting-edge technologies, particularly developments in artificial intelligence, from theft or copying by China or others, on the grounds that they provide both the U.S. and European economies and militaries with irreplaceable advantages.

What kinds of initiatives might that entail? Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity expert at New America, has argued for international standards to govern collaborations on artificial intelligence, limiting China’s ability to acquire technology it uses to oppress its Uighur minority and then sells to other governments and movements that want to track opponents. The research partnership NordicWest Office has proposed a transatlantic accord on data sharing and privacy as a core element of defining and defending shared values. Such negotiations would be every bit as challenging as a traditional trade deal. But by paving the way for high-tech and high-value industries to remain and grow in Europe and the U.S., they would create more good-paying jobs in both regions, fighting inequality and bolstering the middle class.

In addition, U.S. and European planners need to find a way to deal with pressing environmental concerns. Military experts have made it clear that a warmer planet will lead to escalating security risks, as people are displaced en masse by natural disasters and forced to fight over frighteningly scarce critical resources like water. But while American security thinkers have gotten into the habit of genuflecting at climate change, they have done so without really addressing the question of what a strong response demands we do differently. The new European Commission, by contrast, has pledged to impose a border tax on imports from countries that don’t have a price on carbon in place. This poses a fundamental challenge to current WTO rules, and so U.S. policymakers might consider partnering with the commission to propose WTO reforms.

Alternately, the U.S. and the EU could both join an effort to eliminate all barriers to trade in green goods and services. Either way, American security would be better served by progress on these issues than by pressing European political systems to open their health-care systems further to American drug companies and their food to the GMOs and chlorine-treated chicken that are so neuralgic for European publics.

The way to rebuild strong U.S.-European security ties is not to gin up another U.S.-EU trade agreement with side provisions on the environment, labor, or anything else. Instead, it’s to identify the issues that challenge security on both sides of the Atlantic—the use of technology by autocrats to undercut democratic society, the growth of inequality that undermines faith in democracy, and the devastation of unchecked climate change—and work directly on them. Doing so will produce stronger democracies and better cooperation in the economic and military realms.

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Heather Hurlburt directs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America and has worked in foreign policy and communications roles at the White House and the State Department, and on Capitol Hill.