The Transatlantic Relationship

When Barack Obama was running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, he wrote that he would “rebuild our ties to our allies in Europe”[1]. The transatlantic relationship had, he argued, become severely weakened by America “bullying” and “belittling” its partners[2] and so a new approach was needed. America would not play the dominant, overbearing power constantly, but rather it would embrace respectful multilateralism with all its partners, old and new, to avoid the diplomatic disasters of the past. European publics and their leaders were excited by this prospect of such a break from before and so heralded a new era of American diplomacy. Yet many argue that this approach has been unsuccessful, for reasons to be outlined. However the problems facing the transatlantic relationship were not limited to diplomatic style, but centred on “structural differences and national interests” which “prevented a more coordinated approach to many major issues affecting global security and prosperity”[3]. Therefore the question is whether the transatlantic relationship has been weakened, and if so then how it can be mended.


Due to Obama’s strategy of broadening the USA’s alliance base, it has been difficult for him to maintain the historically close contact with Europe. Despite initial enthusiasm for this new style, European governments soon began to fear strategic abandonment by Washington[4]. Britain felt this most keenly, especially due to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s strategy to maintain and perpetuate the ‘special relationship’ so eagerly cultivated by Tony Blair. However Obama is not like Clinton or Bush who accepted and responded well to Blair’s ‘hug them close’ strategy. At the UN General Assembly in 2009 the British government was embarrassed when they unsuccessfully requested a private meeting between Brown and Obama five times, even changing a policy (matching the USA’s swine flu vaccines to Africa) in the process, only to be turned down. Brown had to force a 15 minute conversation in a kitchen[5]. Similarly in 2009 Brown’s first visit to the White House had the usual gift exchange but it ended in embarrassment for the British Prime Minister when his gift of a pen holder – carved from HMS Gannet, which served anti-slavery missions off the coast of Africa – was matched by Obama giving him 25 DVDs. Of course every leader has the occasional diplomatic faux pas, yet this has been a repeated pattern for him as has been seen with his relations with the leaders of Britain, Israel, China, Russia, Germany and France[6] with whom he has consistently had icy dealings.

Despite this, “most European leaders…are very comfortable with Barack Obama spending another four years in the White House”[7] because they would rather his approach than that of the unilateralist, blundering hegemon they perceived in the Bush years. Indeed Niblett claims that “despite differences, the transatlantic relationship is still on a firmer diplomatic footing than it was four years ago”. [8]This is partly because they know themselves that their strategic outlook must change, and that clinging to the US is not a sustainable foreign policy strategy. That is not to say that America is dispensable, for it is still the key player in international relations. But its European allies are keen to expand their own global partnerships[9], hence why Cameron’s government is somewhat more relaxed about the US-UK relationship than the previous Labour government. Therefore the main problem here is communication: the intention is not a neglect of America’s allies but in pushing them down the list of priorities it creates the impression that they are being ignored, and this needs to be worked on to strengthen the alliance.

Europe’s weakness

Despite this, the main issue with the current state of the relationship is structural-based in being linked to the on-going economic woes affecting the Western world. Walter Laqueur gives a dismal assessment of Europe in terms of foreign and defence policy, arguing that Europe is much weaker now and that other states are much more prepared to oppose it, like on the human rights agenda where it does much talking but less action: for example other states like Egypt were prepared to back the President of Sudan Omar Al Bashir in defiance of the EU and the ICC and not arrest him[10]. This can also be seen on the Iranian issue where Europe has pushed for a mixture of sanctions and negotiations, but anything more is unthinkable in EU circles which Laqueur says means that it has clearly accepted the likelihood of Iran getting to nuclear weapons capacity- a serious threat to Western and global national security[11]. Moreover there never was or has been a full desire for a unitary defence force because the whole concept of the EU was that there would not be a need for one, and there is already NATO.[12] Britain and France in their 2010 common defence treaty aimed to cover this defence hole, but due to defence cuts their capacity for action is limited (see appendix 2 and Libya section)[13]. Therefore European defence capabilities are very much weakened.

Moreover Jakub Grygiel highlights trends that are worrying for the transatlantic relationship. Primarily is the fact that European states’ foreign policy is being driven more by “domestic economic concerns than by cold, geopolitical assessment of external threats”[14]. He argues that this is causing a less unified Europe and a less confident Europe and it is these fundamental weaknesses that “likely will lead Europe to oppose US foreign policy, especially in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East”[15]. In essence, “weak allies are unreliable allies”, and so Europe is more likely to become a hindrance to the US because weakness provides a good incentive to avoid confrontation[16]. While there is merit to this analysis one can provide counterarguments: it was Britain and France who pushed for action in Libya and who have been the strongest proponents for Western intervention in Syria. However Grygiel’s points about a lack of European unity on security concerns ring true, in ways which are damaging to the transatlantic relationship. For example France and Germany have both made large-scale arm sales to Russia in recent years because the economic incentives for them outweighed the security risks, and this has caused a response from Poland and Finland who are now purchasing missile defence systems in the absence of European or American protection against short and medium range missiles[17]. Thus America now contends with a much more unstable Mediterranean and a much less secure Europe, and currently appears to be unsure of how to respond, which has negative consequences for the future of the transatlantic alliance.

Libya: leading from behind or not leading at all?

Structural weaknesses were demonstrated in the 2011 Libya operation when, in order to protect mass opposition and civilian bloodshed Western powers intervened in the Libyan Civil War by enforcing a no-fly zone. As aforementioned, the Obama administration’s aim is to rekindle the transatlantic relationship, but it is also to demand greater burden-sharing between the US and Europe[18]. Indeed in 2009 Vice-President Biden told NATO allies that in return for this spirit of cooperation, the US expects more from its European partners on the defence front[19]. Yet in the run-up to the Libya operation this did not occur. European defence spending has been in steady decline since 2001 and when Obama announced the 2009 troop surge European governments realised it was just an alibi for a short term exit, so they did not respond with similar surges and began preparing for their own exits[20]. When the fighting began, the Europeans found that their resources were being stretched and limited by economic capacity. Italy had to remove its carrier Garibaldi due to budget cuts and Norway pulled out altogether during the mission[21]. NATO quickly discovered that although it should have been able to launch 300 air sorties a day, it was only able to launch 150 because of “an acute shortage of targeting specialists”[22]. This meant that even against relatively weak opponents the military might of NATO struggled. Moreover throughout the entire mission there was a lack of leadership. What many characterised as burden-sharing was actually a severe lack of leadership with “only 14 out of 28 members” contributing military assets and only 6 states contributing to the actual strike mission (Britain, Italy, France, Norway, Belgium and Denmark)[23]. This was because America calculated that Libya was not crucial to its national security and that due to its new strategic global outlook (and domestic economic problems) it was not prepared to lead from the front, as has been the pattern of its wars in the past 50 years. The fact that the run-up and delivery of the mission was so complex meant that for the parties involved “it reinforced the weariness of investing in shared military capabilities”[24]. Therefore although many laud the Libya operation for its supposed successful burden sharing (indeed the US has highlighted it as a model for future operations), it actually seems to confirm “NATO’s trend towards becoming a more fragmented alliance, with member states increasingly taking an ‘a la carte’ approach to their alliance responsibilities”[25]. For the transatlantic relationship, this is problematic because it is not a sustainable model, as we have seen, which means there will be great strains on the defence relationship in the more complex wars which could come. Military weakness and a leadership vacuum do not bode well for the future of the alliance.

[1] Barack Obama, ‘Renewing American Leadership’ in Foreign Affairs , Vol. 86, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2007), pp. 2-16

[2] Ibid.

[3]Robin Niblett, ‘Europe’ in Xenia Dormandy (ed), ‘The Next Chaper: President Obama’s Second Term Foreign Policy’. Chatham House, 2013.

[4] Hans Binnendijk, ‘Pivoting on a new Partnership with Europe’ in the San Francisco Chronicle, 2012.

[5] Tom Leonard, ‘How did Barack Obama and Gordon Brown spend 15 Minutes in a UN Kitchen?’ in the Daily Telegraph, 2009.

[6] Mark Landler and Peter Baker, ‘Extending a Hand, Obama Finds a Cold Shoulder Abroad’ in the New York Times, 2013.

[7] Op cit. Robin Niblett, 2013

[8] Ibid.

[9] Derek Mix, ‘The United Kingdom and US-UK Relations’, Congressional Research Service, 2013

[10] Walter Laqueur, ‘After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent’. Thomas Dunne Books, 2012.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jakub Grygiel, ‘Europe: Strategic Drifter’ in The National Interest, 2013.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ellen Hallams and Benjamin Schreer, ‘Towards a post-American alliance? NATO burden-sharing after Libya’. In International Affairs, 2012.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Clare O’Donnell and Justin Vaisse, ‘Is Libya NATO’s Final Bow?’. Brookings Institute, 2011.

[23] Op cit. Hallams and Schreer.

[24] Op cit. O’Donnell and Vaisse.

[25] Op cit. Hallams and Schreer.


By Joel Salmon

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