THE ATLANTIC OCEAN is starting to look awfully wide. To Europeans the United States appears ever more remote, under a puzzling president who delights in bullying them, questions the future of the transatlantic alliance and sometimes shows more warmth towards dictators than democrats. Americans see an ageing continent that, though fine for tourists, is coming apart at the seams politically and falling behind economically—as feeble in growth as it is excessive in regulation. To Atlanticists, including this newspaper, such fatalism about the divisions between Europe and America is worrying. It is also misplaced.
True, some gaps are glaring. America has abandoned the Paris climate accord and the nuclear deal with Iran, whereas Europe remains committed to both. Other disagreements threaten. President Donald Trump has called the European Union a “foe” on trade and is weighing up punitive tariffs on European cars. Trust has plummeted. Only one in ten Germans has confidence that Mr Trump will do the right thing in world affairs, down from nearly nine out of ten who trusted Barack Obama in 2016. Twenty years ago NATO celebrated its 50th anniversary with a three-day leaders’ summit. Fear of another bust-up with Mr Trump has relegated plans for the alliance’s 70th birthday party on April 4th to a one-day meeting of foreign ministers.
Past intimacies are not enough to keep warm feelings going today. Europe inevitably counts for less in American eyes than it once did. The generation that formed bonds fighting side-by-side in the second world war is passing away and even the cold war is becoming a distant memory. Meanwhile, America is becoming less European. A century ago more than 80% of its foreign-born population came from Europe; now the figure is only 10%. Surging economies in Asia are tugging America’s attention away.
Yet, through its many ups and downs, the relationship has proved resilient. Trade flows between the EU and the United States remain the world’s biggest, worth more than $3bn a day. Shared democratic values, though wobbly in places, are a force for freedom. And, underpinning everything, the alliance provides stability in the face of a variety of threats, from terrorism to an aggressive Russia, that have given the alliance a new salience.
At the heart of this security partnership is NATO. By reaching its 70th birthday the alliance stands out as a survivor—in the past five centuries the average lifespan for collective-defence alliances is just 15 years. Even as European leaders wonder how long they can rely on America, the relationship on the ground is thriving. As our special report this week explains, this is thanks to NATO’s ability to change. No one imagined that the alliance’s Article 5 mutual-defence pledge would be invoked for the first, and so far only, time in response to a terrorist attack on America, in September 2001, or that Estonians, Latvians and Poles would be among NATO members to suffer casualties in Afghanistan. Since 2014 the allies have responded vigorously to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. They have increased defence spending, moved multinational battlegroups into the Baltic states and Poland, set ambitious targets for military readiness and conducted their biggest exercises since the cold war.
In America polls suggest that public opinion towards NATO has actually grown more positive since Mr Trump became president. In Congress, too, backing for the alliance is rock-solid, reflected in supportive votes and the presence at the Munich Security Conference last month of a record number of American lawmakers. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, has extended a bipartisan invitation to NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, to address a joint session of Congress on the eve of the 70th anniversary.
NATO’s success holds lessons for the transatlantic relationship as a whole. To flourish in the future, it must not just survive Mr Trump, but change every bit as boldly as it has in the past.
First, this means building on its strengths, not undermining them: removing trade barriers rather than lapsing into tariff wars, for example. Mr Trump is right to badger his allies to live up to their defence-spending promises. But he is quite wrong to think of charging them cost-plus-50% for hosting American bases, as he is said to be contemplating. Such matters should not be treated like a “New York real-estate deal”, a former vice-president, Dick Cheney, told the current one, Mike Pence, last week. Those European bases help America project power across the world (see article).
Second, realism should replace nostalgia. Europeans should not fool themselves that America’s next president will simply turn the clock back. Instead, to make themselves useful to America, Europeans need to become less dependent on it. For instance, in defence, they have taken only baby steps towards plugging big gaps in their capabilities and avoiding wasteful duplication. Their efforts should extend beyond the EU, whose members after Brexit will account for only 20% of NATO countries’ defence spending.
A more capable Europe would help with the third and biggest change: adjusting to China’s rise. America’s focus will increasingly be on the rival superpower. Already China’s influence is making itself felt on the alliance, from the nuclear balance to the security implications of, say, Germany buying 5G kit from Huawei or Italy getting involved in the infrastructure projects of the Belt and Road Initiative. Yet the allies have barely begun to think seriously about all this. A new paper from the European Commission that sees China as a “systemic rival” is at least a start.
If the allies worked hard on how best to pursue their shared interests in dealing with China, they could start to forge a new transatlantic partnership, with a division of labour designed to accommodate the pull of the Pacific. This would involve Europeans taking on more of the security burden in their own backyard in exchange for continued American protection, and co-ordination on the economic and technological challenge from China. Today the leadership to do this is lacking. But Europeans and Americans once before summoned the vision that brought decades of peace and prosperity. They need to do so again.