Good Old American Guest: The Persistent Value of Transatlantic Relations for Europe in Today’s Multipolar World

By Niklas Luksch | 21 December 2016

To quote this document: Niklas Luksch, “Good Old American Guest: The Persistent Value of Transatlantic Relations for Europe in Today’s Multipolar World ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 21 December 2016,, displayed on 02 June 2023

Unlike the title of Johnny Cash’s 1982 tune suggests, long gone are the times that Europeans are overly enthusiastic about their American partners. In fact, the scholarship is indicative of a transatlantic rift that has been taking place over the past two decades (Wallace, 2002; Oswald, 2006; Cox, 2008; Hampton, 2013; Nielsen, 2013; Stefes, 2015). Despite this, this article contends that strong transatlantic relations remain of military, economic and strategic importance for Europe. Europe continues to depend on US security guarantees even as their value ceases for the other side, and has much to lose but only limited capacity to act on its own in an increasingly multipolar world. On the one hand, the US is indispensable as a provider of Europe’s external security. On the other hand, Europe benefits from the US as an economic partner that allows for Europe to exercise its proudly claimed normative power in the first place. The article concludes by suggesting that Europe is well advised to find ways in which it can become a more useful partner for the US in the long run. Yet, in the end, America’s withdrawal from the Old Continent and European weakness as a result of this are two sides of the same coin. 

The US as Europe’s external security provider 

Europe looks to the US as its first partner in foreign policy and defense. This is, however, a necessity more than a luxury. Far from being in a position to offer support to their US allies, Europeans are increasingly dependent on them. The need for America’s engagements in Africa and Europe’s own neighborhood are indicative of this. European military interventions in Libya and Mali, for instance, may have appeared successful at the start, yet while the former remains torn among several rival groups, the Malian crisis has at best been postponed rather than solved (Kuperman, 2013: 193-198; Charbonneau and Sears, 2014). Indeed, in both cases European armed forces were crucially dependent on their US counterparts for air transport, refueling and surveillance (Menon, 2013: 11). Similarly, even though both the United States and its European partners decided very early on that they were unwilling to go to war over Ukraine, its pro-Western government nonetheless heavily relies on American technical and security assistance (Morelli, 2016: 31-33). Moreover, in the course of the crisis, the US found itself at a point where it, albeit reluctantly, had to demonstrate its NATO commitment by securing the alliance’s Eastern flank (Brattberg, 2014). That significant US support persists to prove necessary not only highlights the shortcomings of America’s ‘leading from behind’ strategy, but also demonstrates that Europe is far from mustering the capability to take care of most of its own security. Notwithstanding the fact that US power alone is no longer sufficient to guarantee security in a multipolar world, Euro-American partnership and NATO in particular continue to serve as a tool for Europeans to delegate regional security responsibilities to the United States.

     In fact, while the United States is set on reducing its military footprint in Europe to attend to more urgent challenges in other strategic hotspots, most prominently in Asia, Europe appears unable to step up the measures necessary for its inner security. The average defense spending of America’s NATO allies was 2.0 percent in 2000 before it decreased to a mere 1.5 percent by 2007 (Rasmussen, 2013). Taking place well before the global financial crisis hit, increased European military dependence cannot be explained in terms of acute economic distress only. Instead, it implies that Europeans might have become comfortable with free riding on US military power (Wivel, 2008: 301). Against such background, Europe indeed should have very little interest in moving to a post-American world order any time soon.

     Whether incapable or unwilling to police let alone to integrate its own neighborhood, either way the future of Europe’s political and security order will ultimately depend on Washington’s willingness to pay equal attention to Europe and Asia at the same time. At their very core then episodes like the Ukraine crisis are about negotiating the future role of the US as Europe’s security guarantor (Techau, 2015). The real negotiations over European security therefore are not going to take place in Brussels or Ukraine, but on Capitol Hill – a fact that under President-elect Donald Trump, who called NATO “obsolete” during his presidential campaign, might well play an increasingly important role in shaping European-American relations in the long run (Sevastopulo and Dyer, 2016). Thus, while American security guarantees remain indispensable to Europe, this increasingly no longer appears to be the case for the other side. 

The US as economic and strategic partner 

For almost a decade now, Europe has been grappling with the aftermaths of the economic crisis (Petmesidou and Guillén, 2015; Hérnandez and Kriesi, 2016). Indeed, even before that, its share of world trade has been declining while that of emerging powers such as China and India has been growing (Gnesotto, 2010). Europe’s population is declining and aging (Diaconu, 2015: 51-54). These trends in turn herald a decline of Europe’s standing among the great technological powers in terms of innovation and competitiveness (Freyberg et al., 2013). In addition to this, Europe finds itself in an alarming state of energy dependency on three highly unstable zones in the world – Russia, the Middle East and Africa (Bilgin, 2009; Charles et al., 2009; Papava and Tokmazishvili, 2010; Casier, 2011; Mason and Kumetat, 2011). Taken together, these developments reinforce the continued importance of transatlantic relations for Europeans in at least two additional ways. 

     First, even though security represents an important cornerstone of transatlantic relations, the density and magnitude of Euro-American economic links remain its genuine bedrock. Even though the transatlantic share of overall global trade doubtlessly has decreased as a consequence of rapidly growing economies, especially in Asia, transatlantic trade continues to be massive in absolute terms: It still makes up about half of the world’s GDP and, if combined, EU and US produce a quarter of all global exports and receive a third of all global imports (Andersson, 2013: 7-8). Germany, France, the UK and Italy send around 10 percent or more of their exports to the US (Hamilton and Quinlan, 2010: 54-66). Hence, especially in light of continuing economic and financial marginalization, there is no doubt that transatlantic commercial links are indeed critical for European economic welfare and that holding on to them in the future is going to remain atop of the European agenda. 

     Secondly, strong economic relations to the US remain the base for Europe to exercise its proudly claimed normative power in the first place. Indeed, the narrative of ‘normative power Europe’ may be flawed from a theoretical and policy standpoint (Lagadec, 2012: 157-158). What matters for the present discussion, however, is that the mere act of credibly claiming some supposed European attractiveness as a leverage in today’s complex cultural environment becomes increasingly difficult if Europe’s economies remain uncompetitive. In fact, due to its relative military impotence discussed above, possessing the ability to credibly claim some normative power may be of particular importance to Europe does it want to remain a standard maker rather than standard taker. Underpinning, if not reviving, the West’s liberal economic order that has come under massive pressure from newly emerging markets, particularly in China, hence is crucial for Europe in order to sustain its political influence and remain of geopolitical importance (Dempsey, 2015). The most recent developments surrounding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), now seriously put into question through the emergence of President-elect Donald J. Trump on the stage of world politics, might constitute a significant setback in this regard. Europe today has very little capacity to actively define the newly emerging world order. The scope it might gain by sustaining a strong transatlantic relationship with its American allies in the economic sphere, therefore, Europe needs to protect and use wisely. From this perspective, precisely in an increasingly multipolar world, transatlantic relations continue to be of strategic relevance to Europe in the long run. 


Overall then, a strong transatlantic relationship remains of military, economic and strategic importance for Europe. It continues to depend on US security guarantees even as their value appears to cease for the other side and has much to lose but only limited capacity to act on its own in an increasingly multipolar world. Indeed, Europe will need to invest in its instruments to become more self-sufficient and useful as a partner for the US. Yet, for the United States, too, the transatlantic relations are worth the cost (Stavridis, 2016). It has vested interests in the European project it so long supported. America has always relied on its network of European allies. Despite all its imperfections, NATO’s shared values, high-technology militaries and deeply intertwined economies make it the most formidable pool of partners the US has. Aggregate output of US affiliates in Europe reached about $650 billion in 2008, laying the ground for profits of an impressive $196 billion in 2010 (Hamilton and Quinlan, 2010: ix). 

     At the same time, and regardless of their final outcome, the negotiations surrounding TTIP and the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be understood as the attempt of a response to Europe’s and America’s relative decline in terms of their economic, political and normative power in general and to the economic rise of China in particular. Perhaps the real lesson to draw from the above analysis is that in today’s multipolar world an American withdrawal from the Old Continent and a weakened Europe as a consequence of this are two sides of the same coin. Whether European leaders and the Trump Administration, of course, recognize this remains to be seen.

Aller plus loin


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