What the Next President Can Do to Save Our Alliances with Europe

Here’s how to immediately repair the relationship.

The transatlantic relationship has suffered a series of near-fatal blows in recent years. President Trump has openly questioned America’s Article 5 commitment to defend any attacked NATO member, dubbed the European Union a “foe,” and repeatedly disparaged some of America’s closest allies—for example, calling Germany “captive to Russia.” The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. France and Germany, instead of joining forces to chart a future course for the European project, have spent years trapped between President Emmanuel Macron’s unbridled desire to lead a more assertive Europe and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s caution and paralysis.

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

Meanwhile, Russia and other adversaries have become increasingly creative in finding ways to undermine transatlantic unity and resolve. And populist forces on both sides of the Atlantic are bringing new leaders to power who lack an interest in or exposure to Europe and America’s shared history and values. While it would be premature to issue last rites to the transatlantic relationship, there’s no question that it is ailing.
The next U.S. president will need to revitalize this critical partnership—it serves far too many of America’s political, economic, and security interests to allow it to deteriorate further. Over the last 70 years, the United States and Europe have established the rules-based order through an array of multilateral institutions and alliances, from NATO to the United Nations, that have protected and promoted shared values. We have, at different times, tackled global challenges ranging from Ebola to climate change to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. While the U.S. brings the most military assets to the alliance, Europe’s contribution is substantial; its economic might is hefty; and it invests disproportionately in diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and other forms of “soft” power.
Breathing fresh life into the relationship won’t be easy. Electing an American president who refrains from name calling, supports the rules-based order, and brings stability to the alliance would be a good start. But that won’t be enough to put the transatlantic partnership on a more sustainable and constructive course and restore America’s credibility.

There are certain steps, however, a new president could take to begin the rebuilding process. In the first 100 days, he or she should travel to Germany—the country that has been perhaps most relentlessly and unfairly criticized by Trump—and deliver a public address. The normal framing for such a speech is to tick off all the ways in which the two sides of the Atlantic can create a shared agenda. This speech needs to be different. Instead of promising cooperation, the president should redefine the transatlantic agenda around the concept of defending democratic values given the surge in authoritarianism globally. The target audience would be both Europe, which is experiencing its own illiberal slide, and China, which is increasingly brazen in its efforts to promote its political model and values.

In the longer term, the new U.S. president will need to focus on two separate tracks. The first involves fortifying the traditional building blocks of the transatlantic relationship. Inside NATO, that means issuing a promise to uphold our Article 5 commitments and bring fresh ideas to the table, such as a joint NATO-EU summit—the first of its kind. In addition, the new president will need to reassure Europeans that he or she doesn’t see the EU as an enemy but as a partner.

At least some Europeans will listen to such statements with skepticism. Many Americans will too. It wasn’t that long ago when President Obama—a president most Europeans adored—tried to negotiate an ambitious trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, with the EU. They never got there. Convincing both Europeans and Americans to give it another go will be challenging. Instead of opening a new front, the next president will need to arrest the deteriorating U.S.-EU trade relationship and stop the tariff wars both sides have been waging for the last few years. In doing so, the new U.S. president should remind Americans and Europeans that one of the best ways for Europe and the United States to compete with a rising China and to set global standards is to strengthen their collective hand.

That’s not to say the next administration should focus only on repairing existing damage and preventing future blows. It will also have to think about preparing transatlantic partners for the future. The president should discuss how mass migration will shape our shared agenda, future elections, and economies. He or she should explore if we need new institutions to thwart attempts to undermine our democracies, and how Europe and the United States can both harness and manage a wide array of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence.
But that’s a long list, especially for a president who will be consumed with an equally long list of pressing domestic priorities. Europe will have to assist. Now would be a good time for European leaders to start thinking about where they are willing to lead and how they can help. The American people may very well put a president in the Oval Office who wants to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords and try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, two decisions that Europeans would no doubt celebrate. But that same president will also likely ask our European allies to commit more to defense spending and to stand up to China. Europe should be prepared.
When Democrats talk about revitalizing the transatlantic relationship, they aren’t talking about returning to the pre-Trump era. They are looking to rebalance the relationship for a new era. Let’s hope we’re all up to that
challenge.

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Julianne Smith

Julianne Smith is a senior adviser to the president at the German Marshall Fund and is a former deputy national-security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden.