ISSN 2330-717X

Trends In The Transatlantic Alliance – Analysis

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By Ankita Dutta

After the tenuous Trump Presidency, the Biden administration brought stability in transatlantic relations with its clear intentions of strengthening ties with its European allies. This was witnessed in the United States recommitting itself to multilateralism and President Biden’s visit to the continent in 2021. However, the unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and the declaration of AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) led to concerns over the health of the alliance. The year 2022 opened a new chapter for the transatlantic alliance with an unprecedented series of political and economic churnings. The crisis in Ukraine has emerged to be a critical test of resilience for the allies. It has led to the emergence of a host of issues, including military and humanitarian support for Ukraine, debates around the security architecture of Europe, the economic impact of the war, amongst others. This article looks at some of the critical trends that were present and have emerged in transatlantic relations in the past few months. It also looks at the recently released Transatlantic Trends 2022 to analyse public opinion on issues of importance to the alliance.

Key Trends

Following are some of the key trends in transatlantic relations:

Outlook towards Russia and reaction to the Ukraine Crisis: One of the most critical outcomes of the Ukraine crisis has been the reinvigoration of the alliance and its coordinated response towards Russia. The transatlantic unity has been remarkable in this crisis, which has been exemplified in the extensive sanctions against Russia; military, economic, humanitarian, and political support to Ukraine; and efforts to reduce European energy dependencies. As the allies put in place their new round of sanctions, support for much stronger economic sanctions (71 percent) as well as a ban on oil and gas imports at the cost of price rise (62 percent) is visible in the recently released Transatlantic Trends 2022. Similarly, public support for Ukraine remains high, especially in their support for its membership of both North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Whilst there is general consensus on the increased economic (69 percent) and military support to the country (66 percent), the idea of NATO in Ukraine does not find optimum resonance in public opinion. These opinions highlight the general positive attitude of the public towards their national government’s response to the crisis.

Renewed Security Debates: The Ukraine crisis has emerged to be a critical moment for the European security architecture. While discussions on European security are not new, this crisis has changed the strategic outlook of many EU member states.

It has been witnessed in the past few months that many European allies have stepped up their defence investments considerably, with Germany being the most important example. It has not only established a 100-billion-euro fund to upgrade its armed forces but has also re-committed itself to meet the 2 percent-of-GDP goal that allies had set after the Crimean crisis in 2014. Similarly, several other member states have also declared their intentions of increasing their defence spending such as Belgium has increased its spending from 0.9% to 1.54% in the next eight yearsPoland and Latvia plans to increase their budgets by 2.5-3% respectively. Whilst there is a renewed commitment by the national governments to contribute more to European defence, the security debates in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis have enhanced the public support for an increased US involvement in European defence with 72 percent wanting Washington to be ‘somewhat (38 percent) or greatly involved (34 percent)’, according to the Transatlantic Trends 2022. The US’ inclusion in the European security architecture can be perceived in two ways—firstly, through US military presence in the continent, which has been requested by the Baltic countries as well as Poland; and secondly, through enhancing transatlantic military capacities through NATO.

Similarly, according to Transatlantic Trends, NATO has become more favourable with 78 percent of respondents calling the alliance ‘important’ as compared to 68 percent in 2021. However, one of the most critical trends that emerged is the prospect of NATO’s expansion to include Sweden and Finland – making all the Nordic countries a part of the alliance. The crisis in Ukraine has changed the security discourse in both the Nordic countries. The inclusion of these two countries marks the end of the neutrality that both Sweden and Finland has followed for a long time. There is also increased support in Europe (73 percent) for both countries to join NATO.

Threat perceptions: In terms of threat perceptions, there is a fundamental difference in what is perceived as a threat among the allies. Initially, some of the European member states like Poland and the Baltic states viewed Russia as the primary threat, while others, mainly France and Greece, were concerned with the threats emerging from the Mediterranean, and Germany was more concerned with climate change. On the other hand, the US was mostly focused on China and Asia, which did not necessarily fit in with the threat perception of European countries. This trend changed with the crisis on the continent. According to the data released under Transatlantic Trends, climate change (18 percent), Russia (17 percent), and war between countries (17 percent) emerged to be the top three, followed by immigration (14 percent) and cybersecurity (7 percent). However, the severity of the threats varied among the countries—for example, 34 percent of Italians perceived climate change as the most serious threat due to the severe weather conditions the country faced in the recent summer; and 27 percent of Romanians perceive war between states as the most important threat given its proximity to Ukraine. Similarly, as they are closer to the Russian borders, for 42 percent Lithuanians, Moscow is the most important security threat and immigration is the top challenge for 37 percent of Turkiye, which has been at the receiving end of migration in the aftermath of the Syrian crisis. For the American respondents, climate change (14 percent), war (13 percent), immigration (11 percent), and Russia (10 percent) were the main challenges.

Relations with China: Relations with China remain one of the most important agendas for transatlantic ties. There are expectations that the Biden Presidency will follow a tough stand against China, like the EU has taken in the past few months with the implementation of several safeguards against the acquisitions of strategic assets by Chinese companies in Europe. Apart from questioning the economic practices and technology transfers by China, issues related to security law in Hong Kong, human rights issues in Xinjiang, and the debate over 5G technologies are expected to come to the forefront. President Biden’s idea of China as a “special challenge” fits with the EU’s idea of China as a “systemic rival, a competitor and a partner”, thereby, giving the allies common ground to formulate a coherent transatlantic approach towards the country. The Ukraine crisis has not overly altered views on China; rather there is a transatlantic consensus on taking a tougher approach towards Beijing. The complexity of relations with China was highlighted in public opinion in the Transatlantic Trends, which pointed out that 29 percent of respondents said that, “they do not know whether China is a partner, a competitor, or a rival to their country”. While 25 percent viewed China as partner, 29 percent and 18 percent viewed it as a competitor and rival respectively. On Taiwan, in the event of a Chinese invasion, the majority of the respondents favoured their countries to only take diplomatic steps. According to the survey, 35 percent of respondents supported only diplomatic measures, 32 percent favoured sanctions, and 12 percent wanted their country to take no action. Only 4 percent and 2 percent wanted their country to send arms or troops to Taiwan respectively—highlighting little appetite for a new conflict.

Turkiye in Transatlantic Alliance: While its relations with the EU have been spiralling in the past few years, especially due to issues in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkiye has found itself in a unique position in the Ukraine crisis. Ankara and Moscow have emerged to be close partners in the energy as well as security sphere. On the other hand, it has developed a partnership with Ukraine, including in the defence sector. So far, Turkey has managed to preserve its partnership with both Moscow and Kyiv and has avoided joining Western countries in imposing sanctions on Russia, thereby, assuming the role of a key mediator between Russia and Ukraine. An independent approach (56 percent) towards the conflict and in managing relations with Russia is also visible in public opinion. The majority of Turkish respondents are also reticent in taking action against Russia; 70 percent were against banning Russian oil and gas while 58 percent were against prosecuting Russians for war crimes. Similarly, while there is increased support for Nordic countries joining NATO, this sentiment does not find resonance in Turkiye where 49 percent disagree, highlighting its grievances with Sweden and Finland for supporting Kurdish militant groups, which it deems to be terrorist organisations. This might also be why Ankara is yet to ratifySweden and Finland’s NATO bid.

Conclusion

The year 2022 is emerging to be a challenging one for the transatlantic alliance. The above analysis summarise key trends in transatlantic relations and how strategic thinking is evolving in Europe on issues of immediate and core concerns. One of the most important outcomes of the Ukraine crisis has been the reinvigoration of the alliance. The transatlantic unity has been further exemplified by the renewed debate on the capacity of the alliance members to address their strategic aspirations, coordinate their positions on Russia and China, consolidate and implement NATO’s enhanced presence, and, most importantly, end the crisis. While the transatlantic unity has shown resilience so far, these trends are going to impact the relations in the coming months.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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