US-EU Relations: A Dim Future – Analysis


By Mehmet Yegin

There is no serious difference of opinion between both sides of the Atlantic about the expansion of NATO to Asia and its becoming a global actor. Yet Europe is not comfortable with the idea of using military force and the containment of China.

When talking about U.S.-EU relations, the points that first come to mind are common values and political culture. More than half a century of partnership along with these similarities form a strong base for bilateral relations. On this basis, Jeremy Ghez claims that transatlantic relations have reached the level of “natural alliance” which is the highest level in its classification. However, just the improvement of common values is not enough for the continuation of the alliance.

Although the U.S. and EU have a cluster of common values, the framework where the alliance will operate has seen quite significant changes recently. We have seen the decline of both sides in the global power equation. Interests in transatlantic relations are no longer overlapping and easily defined as in the Cold War period. Europe does not want to carry the burden of following the U.S. anymore. On the other hand, the U.S. does not consider the system to be in such danger that it requires devoting itself to the protection of Europe.

Furthermore, the number of areas of tension between the U.S. and EU in foreign policy tools, on using military force, and in the philosophy of designing a global economic system tends to increase rapidly. So it’s not impossible but very difficult to ensure coordination in security and economics, and to maintain perfect relations in the alliance as in the Cold War era without determining a common vision.

NATO’s dim future

NATO is still an important defense institution for both sides of the Atlantic, both leaders and the public assure that. In transatlantic trends, there is no serious difference of opinion about NATO becoming a global organization. The EU is not as willing as the U.S. but at least does not oppose NATO playing bigger roles. There are even disputes about EU countries suggesting NATO expansion to countries similar in values like Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. But we see serious differences of opinion about the tools NATO will use and about Europe’s contributions.

The EU side doesn’t want NATO to be a combatant power in accordance with their own foreign-policy approaches. If we look at tables of transatlantic trends, we see that the U.S. and EU do not share common grounds about the use of military force in Afghanistan and Iran. So EU countries do not seem to approve of offensive operations in Asia and using NATO in the containment policy toward China, even if NATO is reconfigured as a global power.

On the other hand, contrary to the EU, the U.S. does not want NATO to just be a soft power conducting peace operations, but rather be a military power. That is why the U.S. seriously criticizes European countries about their lack of military power with the capacity to conduct global operations, because this situation also limits NATO’s capabilities.

Moreover, the U.S. is uncomfortable with the shares European countries allocated for their defense, which do not exceed 2% of their respective GDP, except for Britain and France. Under the effect of the global crisis, European countries began cutting defense budgets and transferring sources to the areas that they consider more important. In consequence, the U.S. complains that members of the EU take advantage of NATO security without contributing, so all the defense burden rests on the U.S. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ criticism of the transatlantic alliance that presupposes a dim future is admonitory. In this framework, the U.S. may prefer an alternative defense structuring with Britain and France independent of the EU, if it fails to achieve the goals expected from NATO.

Will the alliance continue in Asia?

In the transatlantic alliance there are also disputes over major power politics in the future. For EU countries, a security threat that may arise from Asia is not as scary and critical as it was in the Cold War era. The EU is more concerned about economic issues rather than security. Besides, the EU is more focused on “soft power” as an instrument in solving crises in that region. So it seems that the EU will try to solve crises of the region with tools other than military intervention, just like in the Iran and Afghanistan issues.

At this point, European countries’ expectation from the rise of China is an alliance between the U.S. and China that won’t exclude them. Not opposing the idea of a “Second Bretton Woods System” that will be formed by the U.S. together with China, Brussels wants to be included in that system. In a multilateral alliance with China, the EU will not feel excluded; and will also have an impact on China. In a similar way, the U.S. will increase its impact on China, too. That is why the EU strongly opposes a G-2 style alliance between the U.S. and China.

For the U.S., on the other hand, the security problem is an important issue that requires an urgent solution. Asia is a region that could not achieve stability like Europe. That’s why the Pacific holds the risk of major conflicts. Accordingly, the U.S. needs a security institution that will create security and stability for the region and have the ability to conduct offensive operations. At this point, the U.S. does not exclude the probability of having to pursue containment policies toward China. Being aware of the extreme interdependence with China, the U.S. questions how much it needs the EU in an alliance if formed. Because what the EU can contribute to the Asian equation and its capacity to transform the region is limited.

As a consequence, despite the common political culture of the U.S. and EU, both parties of the transatlantic relations are changing, as is the world. Diverging especially with respect to the use of military force, both parties give negative signals about the future of NATO. If the two cannot develop a mutual approach toward Asia, the focus may slip from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Turkish version of this article was firstly published in USAK’s monthly journal ANALİST.

*Translated by Nihal Cizmecioglu.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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