The U.S.–Europe relationship is too important to the world to founder over China or trade issues.
Anniversaries and new years are always a good time to take stock of one’s blessings and make favorable resolutions for the months to come. At the start of 2020 and a new decade, the transatlantic relationship is changing, but it remains as indispensable as ever.
In Brussels a new European Commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, is beginning to hit its stride. In Washington, attention is turning toward the elections coming in the fall. Amid all this, officials on both sides of the Atlantic should take the time to make one key resolution for the year ahead: The U.S. and Europe will not make each other into strategic competitors.
The United States and Europe are longtime allies and friends, but today, as global economies realign and adjust to the business, security, and moral challenges posed by the Chinese government, leaders must guard against gaps and divisions that threaten to separate the United States from Europe.
Over the past three years, the U.S. government has affirmed that the world is once again in a period of sustained big-power competition. In the words of the U.S. National Security Strategy, this requires “the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades,” especially regarding international actors such as China. While an increasing number of officials in Washington have articulated the view that Europe is becoming a battlefield in this competition, one on which Europeans themselves should lead, too many European leaders have responded with hedges and half statements. Equally unfortunate, within the U.S., too many politicians continue to view Europe as a post-historical region for which Brussels can manage lingering trouble spots without active American diplomacy.
The potential danger for the U.S.–Europe partnership stems from the changing nature of the U.S.–China economic relationship. Despite the large volume of trade between the U.S. and China, leaders in both countries see benefit not in further economic interdependence but in selective decoupling — particularly in areas of advanced and emerging information technologies. Trade and investment between the two countries has contracted, and disagreements over security risks posed by Chinese technology have risen to become priority areas in American foreign policy.
America’s increasingly blunt warnings about Chinese investment have met with a mixture of reactions across Europe. What’s troubling for the U.S. is that China is using its version of state-led mercantilism to target strategic loans and investments toward Europe. China has established a “17-plus-1” format between itself and cooperating central and southern European states to facilitate its political influence in the region and expand its Belt and Road project to increasingly connect Chinese exporters to European consumers.
For the transatlantic relationship to continue maintaining strategic cohesion, the U.S. and Europe cannot move in different directions on China. Much of the responsibility for leading on this question will fall to European Commission president von der Leyen and her self-proclaimed “geopolitical” commission. Von der Leyen is a committed Atlanticist, but she is faced with a number of competing priorities — both in EU foreign policy and on issues of internal cohesion.
The commission, including the newly elevated vice president “for the Digital Age,” Margrethe Vestager, and Thierry Breton with his super-portfolio covering European industrial and internal market policy, will face pressure to support EU “super companies” that will compete not only against Chinese industry but against American businesses as well. If European leaders cannot distinguish between genuine market-based competition from across the Atlantic and state-connected Chinese business, with its many examples of rule-breaking, the U.S. and Europe will be taking the first step down a pathway of strategic divergence that will serve neither party well.
Likewise, American observers have been too quick to dismiss new efforts to promote joint European defense procurement and develop an open European defense market, with new regulations helping European companies cooperate across borders. Through such efforts Europe can address the inefficiencies that result from having different military organizations, reducing duplication and waste while gaining value. Such efforts at the European level can help NATO member states reach their defense-investment pledges and be more capable partners for the U.S., so long as these new regulations do not raise new barriers that exclude U.S. companies.
Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction from too many in Washington was a negative one. Recent U.S. administrations all shared a key point of contention with Europe: lack of defense spending and the perception of free riding off the U.S. It is ironic that the U.S. is crying foul now that Europe is trying to act to spend more on defense.
If U.S. leaders cannot accept Europeans’ desire for a commonsense defense-funding approach, this will be another blow to the transatlantic alliance, just as we enter a time when the stakes for this alliance couldn’t be any higher.
Concern about a strategic rupture in the transatlantic relationship isn’t confined to elected officials or business executives. Such a divergence appeared in a public poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations earlier this year. The results were alarming. It found that if the U.S. and Russia or China were to enter a conflict, majorities in European countries would choose to support neither side. The poll found support for a strong Europe, but those respondents defined a strong Europe as a Europe strong enough not to take sides. This trend is, in turn, being perpetuated by the widening partisan gap in the U.S. on how the European Union is perceived. According to a recent Pew Research study, while Democrats maintain a constant 65 percent positive rating of the European bloc, Republicans viewing the EU positively are at 39 percent, just a couple of points above the historic lows following the 2003 Iraq invasion.
These signs of a possible divergence remain, for now, warnings of a road neither the U.S. nor Europe wishes to go down. Still, the new year presents an opportunity for leaders on both continents to reaffirm the enduring partnership, find common ground, and unify the transatlantic approach toward China and the other challenges that loom in the decade ahead.
Scott Cullinane is the executive director of the U.S.–Europe Alliance. Ryan Meilak is the European Parliament Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.