Facing 21st Century Challenges to Democracy through Strong U.S./Transatlantic Relations

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December 20, 2023

By: Neamat Nojumi

The U.S./European relationship –a formidable platform for democracy and global stability since the end of World War II –  fell to its lowest point when then-U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “What good is NATO?” while declaring the E.U. as “worse than China, only smaller” and suggesting it had been set up to “take advantage of the U.S.” On the surface, Trump’s tweets and statements were extreme, but not unusual. While many argued that these tweets and statements reflected Trump’s particular affinity to ethno-nationalist sentiments and ideologies, they nevertheless revealed an uncomfortable fact: that U.S./transatlantic relations have been historically dominated by narrow sets of elite personal or political interests without viable connections with domestic institutions and local communities. This is why the substance and outcomes of formally organized U.S. and E.U. interactions via forums such as the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), the Transatlantic Consumer dialogue (TACD), the Transatlantic Policy Network (TPN), the Transatlantic Environmental Dialogue (TAED), and the Transatlantic Legislators Dialogue (TLD) barely or not at all trickles down into the mainstream perspectives held by American and European citizens. The underdevelopment of citizens’ participation in U.S./transatlantic relations has left both American and European citizens largely ignorant of each other’s achievements in furthering common goals of social progress, democratization, and transparency in governance at home, although they have been the leading promoters of democratic values in other parts of the world. Because the U.S. and European democracies are currently challenged from within by the rise of ethno-nationalism, fascism, and religious extremism at home and growing contentiousness in the wider world, this paper will briefly trace aspects of U.S./transatlantic relations with Europe to highlight their significance within a multipolar international order. Specifically, it addresses the question of what more U.S./transatlantic relations with Europe can offer its citizens to fortify democracy at home and on the global stage.

How We Got Here

U.S./transatlantic relations since World War II can be divided into three historical periods: the bipolar era of the Cold War, a unipolar era in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a multipolar era that developed in the wake of China’s rise, the reemergence of Russia as a military threat, and the global impact of fast-growing economies in India, Brazil and South Africa.

U.S./transatlantic relations evolved within a bipolar world after World War II where the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were rival superpowers that both focused on Europe as central to their geostrategic interests. Even though defending Europe against Soviet aggression was a key U.S. national security objective, overall relations with Europe were often influenced by personal and political opinions of their established elites. This trend intensified after the U.S. became the sole superpower in the world when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. During this period the dominance of American political elites over transatlantic relations was characteristically assertive and sometimes displayed little concern about the opinions of their European partners.  At times the views of American presidents caught the European political elites off-guard and produced waves of protest.  For example, President Reagan’s announcement in October 1981 that the U.S. was willing to engage in a tactical nuclear war against the Soviet Union in Europe blindsided many European political leaders.  The German SPD disarmament expert, Karsten Voigt, accused Reagan of fueling the fear of “the possibility of a limited exchange with tactical atomic weapons.”  Evidence of how much damage this did to the alliance was still apparent in May 1985 when Reagan was booed while addressing the Special Session of European Parliament in Strasburg, where one-third of the parliamentarians walked out in protest. Only later did the Reagan administration initiate a growing effort, led by Secretary of State George Shultz, to sustain a more proactive relationship with the E.U. as an essential component in the bipolar global order.

The unipolar period began with the collapse of the Soviet Union during the George W. H. Bush administration. Although the administration proactively supported the reunification of Germany, members of his national security team were more doubtful about the expansion of the E.U. eastward and the creation of a single currency. However, with the arrival of Bill Clinton to the White House, Washington viewed the E.U. as “the essential partner.” This evolving vision led to the formation of the New Transatlantic Agenda as part of Clinton’s “Democratic Enlargement,” which gained fast-growing support for the formation of a single European currency and larger European Union. In 2001, the rise of neoconservatives to positions of power in Washington under the George W. Bush administration, tipped the American domestic debate into support for expanding NATO eastward. However, as Kenneth Waltz earlier argued in 1998, the neoconservatives saw this expansion “simply as a means for lengthening America’s grip on the foreign and military policies of the European States.” Leading neoconservative politicians within the Bush administration defined the new unilateral global order as one under the domination of the United States that provided a strategic opportunity to internationalize what was perceived of as “American democracy.” Toward this end, they saw America’s vast resources, and particularly its military might, as the most significant instrument. Neoconservative thinkers pushed for a globalized NATO in alignment with Washington’s foreign policy. This militarized approach aimed to undermine the very important role of the United Nations in mitigating local and regional conflicts and gained prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (with the NATO deployment in Afghanistan). Despite growing anti-Iraq war sentiment in Belgium, Germany and France, NATO became instrumental in toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya, and in supporting armed opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. This militant U.S. foreign policy fractured the traditional American relationship with the E.U. as the atrocities in Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and growing instability in the Middle East and southwest Asia all damaged the U.S. global image.

France, Germany and Belgium rebuffed the United States for a third straight day, rejecting a watered-down U.S. request for military assistance from NATO in preparation for a war with Iraq in 2003 – Reuter

 

For many Europeans the arrival of the Obama presidency in 2009 opened a welcome new chapter in international relations and helped to repair America’s reputation .  However, Obama’s strategic pivot toward Southeast Asia and a growing attention toward the formation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in response to China as a rising power excluded U.S./transatlantic relations and reduced the E.U.’s strategic priority. During Obama’s second term in office, positive European sentiment toward the U.S. was left unexploited and unresolved barriers in sensitive areas of defense, trade, and partnership cast uncertainty over the future of the relationship. If one views the Clinton era as a love affair in transatlantic relations and the Obama presidency as a honeymoon, then the Trump administration’s response to the E.U. and NATO resembled a nasty divorce.

President Trumps’ contentious discussion with EU leaders – Reuter July 7, 2017

 

Trump’s negative rhetoric toward the E.U. and NATO influenced the views of millions of Americans that had long been sympathetic to isolationist political appeals, particularly within Republican Party constituencies.  At times, Trump alluded to his desire to see the total withdrawal of the U.S. from NATO and labelled “the European Union as a foe.” Senior officials from his administration became cozy with anti-democracy movements and far-right populist political leaders in the U.K., France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Holland and beyond. In July 2018, for example, the Daily Beast reported that key Trump strategist Steve Bannon planned to “hijack Europe for the Far Right” while other reports suggested that Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka was associated with the black-vested Hungarian Guard, a group inspired by Nazi-era ideologies.

Although the current Biden administration recommitted the U.S. to Europe, particularly after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, many still viewed the fractures created in U.S./transatlantic relations during the Trump administration as having reached a point of no return. Indeed, Biden’s proclaimed good intentions in regard to working more closely with NATO allies were immediately contradicted by his hasty troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 without consulting his NATO allies, leaving many across Europe with a mix of disbelief and a sense of betrayal. Similarly, Biden’s August 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) that allocated $369 billion to subsidize the purchase of electric cars turned into a point of tension between Brussels and Washington because it limited the availability of these subsidies to cars made in North America, excluding those made in Europe. Thus, the future of U.S./transatlantic relations with the E.U., particularly once the war in Ukraine is settled, remains more uncertain within an emerging multipolar global order.

The Remaking of U.S./E.U. Relations

There is no doubt that U.S./transatlantic relations with Europe formed the central column of global democracies that stand for human rights, economic development, and a rules-based international order. Even though the U.S. national security objective is global, the E.U. is a key artery of global trade for the U.S., reaching $1.30 trillion (2021) in mutual trade. The U.S. and E.U. are also each other’s largest sources of foreign investment, worth a total of around $5 trillion. Yet despite this massive commercial and financial interdependency, domestic politics in the U.S. has long viewed its post-World War II transatlantic relations primarily in political and military terms in which European states were deemed free riders taking advantage of American taxpayers. This is why many Americans accepted Trump’s grandiloquently negative view of the E.U. and NATO. As long as U.S./transatlantic relations are limited to national level geopolitical requirements set by elites in Washington and European capitals, they will inevitably be unstable because the political and economic interests of these decision-making elites can change unexpectedly.

 

American politicians rarely pay a domestic price for such policy changes (at least in the short term) because the relationship lacks a missing third tier: people-to-people interactions (other than tourism and very limited student exchange programs). It is the absence of such people-to-people interaction that has generated a strategic gap in U.S./E.U. relations. Filling this gap will offer current bilateral relations, regardless of their flaws, the needed strategic depth that is essential to global security. This can be best accomplished by empowering citizens’ partnership at the local levels (utilizing lessons learned from each other’s gains and successes) that would sustain political support at home with an inspiring global narrative for freedom and democracy. There is no doubt that U.S. and Europe are very diverse and dissimilar in terms of political culture and ways of life, yet they “share more in common than they do with people in other parts of the world.” Promoting citizens-to-citizens engagement via a transformative democratic process within U.S./transatlantic relations offers European political elites the possibility of a fairer relationship with the United States and a stronger role on the global stage.

The E.U.’s Emerging Global Role

In December 2021, the E.U.’s Global Gateway, a $339-billion-investment plan to support the development of emerging projects ranging from green energy, education, digital networks, and healthcare to roads outside of Europe, particularly in Africa and Asia, was a bold commitment, stemming from the E.U.’s growing interest in accessing China’s markets via Eurasia. The desire of the E.U. to be a major player in the 21st-century international order is viewed as in alignment with those of Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Helmut Kohl, who envisioned the formation of a “United States of Europe” following World War II so to “dwell Europe in peace, in safety, and in freedom.” Indeed, in a globalized world, no region nor country – regardless of their national wealth – can live in peace and safety in isolation. The Global Gateway seeks to sever Europe from its colonial past and enhance the E.U.’s commitment to influencing the world in a more tangible way by using financial incentives, institutional preparation, and confidence-building measures at home and abroad.

In furthering this approach, the E.U. breaks out of its post-World War II limitations in order to play a more influential role in the relationship between the U.S. and China that is will be essential in attaining more settled relations with Russia. On April 2023, during a three-day visit to China, Emanuel Macron openly stated, “Europe must resist pressure to become America’s follower,” particularly with regard to escalating conflict against China. In his explanation, Macron described Europe as the “third pole” to counterbalance China and the United States. Macron’s positioning the E.U. autonomously from the U.S. resulted in angry responses from American politicians like Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida. Some European politicians also viewed seeking a strategic autonomy for Europe after the war in Ukraine in which the U.S. has played a decisive role as coming too late, while others suggested that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has undermined the ability of Europe to become a third power within the emerging global order. In Germany, for instance, Norbert Röttgen, a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician who sits in the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, accused the French president of being involved in “a PR coup for Xi and a foreign policy disaster.” Reinhard Butikofer, a Green Party politician who chairs the E.U. parliament’s China delegation, called Macron’s “strategic autonomy” a “pipe dream.” Ironically, however, Macron’s visit to China was accompanied by Ursula von der Leyen, the “German” president of the European Commission, and took place soon after a visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.  Other European leaders, such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, have already met with Chinese President Xi, and more are scheduled to meet him. Additionally, Germany’s National Security Strategy, a first-ever publication that was released on June 14, 2023, also presents a distinctive view from that of the Biden administration toward both Russia and China.

 

 

A recent study of the Europeans’ public opinion by the European Council on Foreign Relations stated that a significant number of people embraced Europe’s closer relationship with the U.S. but wanted to rely less on American security guarantees. The new German NSS strongly emphasizes the technological advancement and power projection of the country’s military in different regions of the world. This can be understood as the underpinning desire for a greater E.U. role within an evolving global order. This suggested that Macron might be saying publicly what many Europeans believe privately. As Benjamin Haddad, a member of the French Parliament, wrote to the Foreign Policy Journal in April 2023, “A self-reliant E.U. is a better partner [for the U.S.] than a dependent one.” Yet the E.U.’s emerging role as the third pillar of a multipolar global order depends on overcoming numerous predicaments at home, including ending the war in Ukraine, settling relations with Russia, mitigating slow economic growth, austerity politics, rising ethnic-nationalism and populism, authoritarian tendencies, growing religious extremism, the economic and political impacts of Brexit, and migration crises.

Challenges from Within

Donald Trump’s presidency offered the European political elite a wake-up call and showed European citizens the true face of a populist leader. It revealed the narrow mindset of far-right groups and personalities and exposed the hypocrisy of conservative religious groups rallying around immoral politicians. Europeans witnessed how far-right charlatan leaders hijacked the American Republican Party and saw their willingness to use violence against other party leaders and their own fellow citizens while launching attacks against the very foundation of American democracy. Trump’s “America First” approach shook the traditional reliance on the U.S among European elites. This rattling reality, in part, has encouraged many in Europe to perceive the E.U. as a major center of power vis-à-vis the U.S. and China.

Still, the change of administration in Washington and the survival of Europe’s union-experiment from Brexit has proven the resiliency of the democratic foundations in both the U.S. and Europe. Yet unchecked legitimate grievances across diverse populations in the U.S. and E.U. have given space to renewed populist movements dominated by far-right ideologies marching to seize power. In the U.S., Trumpism emerges more and more as a authoritarian vision aimed to consolidate the Republican Party for electing him to the White House in 2024. In Europe, Neo-Nazi groups are spreading in Austria, while extreme-right groups form alliances in Sweden and Finland. The electoral victory of Geert Wilder’s Party of Freedom in Holland, and AfD’s winning a district council that was followed by gaining ground in Bayern and Hesse opens the way forward to greater victory in Germany, are alarming reality of an emerging political field. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s government has embraced more the Mussolini era sentiment than post-World War II liberal democracy. In France, Marine Le Pen’s rise to power grows as increased disfranchisement among the populace becomes more obvious. The far-right Vox Party in Spain recently came close to ousting its center-left coalition government. This steady rise of far-right groups into the mainstream political process in the U.S. and E.U. resembles “the same kind of attacks that happened in the Weimar Republic,” argues Samuel Salzborn, professor of political science at University of Giessen.

Yet the global network and shared spread of far-right ideologies via social media across the Atlantic and transnationally make these anti-democracy movements much more serious now.  According to Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, the shared ideologies, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and propagandas across numerous platforms –  translated into local languages – form a powerful anti-democracy narrative.  The utility of a digital revolution in communication has enabled charlatan politicians to employ fringe groups to engage in mass disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories, influencing a largely dissatisfied population, forcing many traditionally conservative groups to adopt policies analogous to that of the far-right fringe, and supporting populist leaders in the process.

 

 

Democratic Domestic Crisis

Prominent economists, social and political scientists, and law makers agree that growing deindustrialization across major population centers in the U.S. and E.U. due to outsourcing of production systems combined with the larger accumulation of massive amounts of wealth in the hands of a few, ever-growing income inequality, and troubling social justice are all contributors to an era of democratic crisis similar to that of the 1922 post-World War I Weimar Republic and the 1930 Great Depression where populations under stress were influenced by formerly fringe ideologies such as fascism/Nazism and racism. The point here isn’t to suggest that history is repeating itself, but to recognize an important point of reference attesting to the urgency of mitigating structural flaws in Western democracies. The enormity of this democratic crisis convinced Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, to conclude that the U.S. desperately needs a “New Washington Consensus,” since extreme capitalism has hollowed the U.S. industrial base, while leaving too many of its citizens in a struggle to survive even though they live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

“Corporate power makes no practical sense in a democracy,” said Sheldon Whitehouse, the U.S. Senator from Rhode Island, and yet this overriding corporate influence has been casting a dark cloud over a representative democracy in America since the 1980s. Granting unfettered rights for corporations to fund political candidates and lobbyists has been a central component in creating a powerful plutocratic minority imposing its own narrow viewpoints in setting both domestic and international policies.  American civil society, union organizations, civic activists, progressive legislators, and thousands of small businesses and institutions are in fierce competition against the influence such corporate elites wield over all three branches of the U.S. government and national politics more generally. They call for urgent mitigation of this structural weakness to prevent the rise of unpopular fringe groups with anti-democracy ideologies that seek to gain political power to impose ideologies opposed by a large majority of their fellow citizens.

Americans march in the snow through Lafayette Park, outside the White House against the January 21,2012 Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Citizens United – Agence-France-Presse 

On the E.U. side, the public has benefited greatly from a multi-party proportional democracy, greater regulatory protection of the public interests of citizens, and access via affordability to public health, public education, and public transportation. However, the proportional representation in Europe versus a majoritarian political order in the U.K. and U.S. opens an alternative door for extremist groups once they are part of the power structure. Even though different in terms of origins and application, trends of democratic crisis in the E.U. similar to those highlighted by Sullivan in the U.S. have left the majority of Europeans with high costs of living, stagnant incomes without any improvement in some key sectors in many decades.

The worsening democratic crisis put the E.U. on a knife-edge path toward inflation and possible recession with an accompanying reduction in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). In most cases, an upward frustration of the populace has rapidly reduced confidence in the public institutions. A growing mistrust of local governance in the U.S. and across the E.U. is shaping into a resembling political trend. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, 64% of Americans, 17% of Swedes, 21% of Czechs, 30% of the Dutch, 44% of Poles, and 46% of the Spanish said the government does not run for the benefit of all people. The economic and governance underperformances have created a dangerous credibility gap between the public and governing institutions wherein charlatan politicians and radical fringes have found a foothold. This trend represents a large-scale lack of confidence in local and national governance due to worsening economic conditions that made it unusually tough for very hard-working populations to achieve their expected outcomes. The American and European democracies are experiencing crises that are attributable to the popularity of the anti-democratic fringe groups engaged in highly charged emotional campaigns of fear, hate, and political bullying – all rallying around a single socio-cultural issue without any agenda to improve local conditions.

Managing the crisis of democracy at home demands much bigger platforms than party politics or a symptomatic law enforcement response for domestic security. The facts that fewer than half of eligible voters actually voted in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the majority of Europeans (6 out of 10) distrust their governments conclude that the populace do not support far-right and extremist groups, but instead have been disengaged from the established political process. They often view the promises of “government of the people and for the people” or democratic legitimacy in Europe as badly in deficit. Fixing democratic problems at home is a necessary requirement for sustaining peace and freedom within the emerging international order as we ascend deeper into the 21st century.

The Way Forward

Democracies are not defenseless when challenged by those that seek their destruction, but they must enter the political fray and not stand on the sidelines when ideologues attack them.  Below are four proposals that can make that happen.

  1. Emboldening a Transformative Process of Democracy: Investing in citizens-to-citizens interactions within the U.S./transatlantic framework with Europe would offer local communities access to the know-how of gains and achievements in social, political, and economic experiences. Bottom-up, citizens-to-citizens interactions offers U.S./transatlantic relations the needed strategic depth that has been neglected in recent decades, as well as a multiplying capability in support of local governance and partnerships across institutions. It also will boost investments, trades, productivity, and job creation both locally and transnationally. Such a transformative process transmutes the success of the past to current endeavors with tangible results and can offer tremendous opportunities for the citizens to further democracy on their own terms.
  2. Revitalizing Key Historical Achievements: Americans’ reaffirmation of democracy and equal rights was demonstrated by the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement against racism. As an extremist ideology, racism held considerable social support in the U.S. during the 1920s and 30s, mainly because the majority of white Americans were not engaged in a transformative political process of change. The Civil Rights Movement became effective only once the unengaged majority of the white population stood with Black Americans, offering a victory against racism, and represented a transformational democracy adopted by governing institutions from the top and complemented by swelling population support from bottom. In the case of Europe, a flourishing democracy enabled Europeans to recover from the brutality of Nazism, fascism, and communism, and build a thriving union on the ruins of World War II that eventually saw a reunited Germany. Sustaining a single currency and common-market economy across communities and nations with distinct diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds is an evolving phenomenon of our time. These successes are the thriving examples of democracy over the past 70 years with an inspiring impact on the global level. Revitalizing these achievements via citizens-to-citizens engagements at the local levels offers both the U.S. and E.U. a fortification of democracy at home.
  3. Seizing the Unseized Opportunities: There are endless opportunities for American and European citizens to take advantage of each other’s gains and achievements as convincing points of reference for uplifting local conditions at home – expanding the number of student exchanges, investing in organizations aimed to bring about citizens-to-citizens dialogues, and operationalizing the effectiveness of sister cities’ and states’ relations, cultural associations and business clubs and institutional partnerships at the local levels. Seizing on these unseized opportunities can arm local citizens and institutions toward enhancing the quality and standard of living, investing in local priorities, marketing local products, and accessing tangible alternatives in creating jobs within a democracy.
  4. Inspiring Public Debate on Differences: There are differences of opinions and perspectives on shared areas of interests between Americans and Europeans that can be explained more effectively via citizens-to-citizens programs so that a foundational narrative for democracy can be emboldened. Differences in understanding essential areas of U.S./transatlantic relations with Europe demand broad-spectrum civic interaction, rather than narrow transactional relations between the political elites or corporate bosses. Investment in engaging the public in key transatlantic issues and priorities enables governing institutions to solidify positions in improving growing concerns about climate change, environmental protection, consumer health and safety, data privacy, antitrust issues, geopolitical violence, refugee crises, global income disparity, improved law and order, good governance, and the enhancement of human rights. Enabling citizens to engage in a transformative process of democracy within U.S./transatlantic relations with the E.U. can offer the American and European governing institutions the needed strategic depth for a grand democratic fortification strategy within a 21st century multipolar framework.

is a strategic thinker, author, and public speaker. He is a Senior Fellow on Transatlantic Relations at the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Services and the Executive Director of International Cooperation Trust LLC. Nojumi is researching diverse issues relevant to international security, global governance, public and foreign policy. He worked as a research professor at George Mason University, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, and a senior advisor within the U.S. government. He is the recipient of awards and recognitions from world leaders and national and international institutions.

This article is based on a broader research and interviews with respected scholars and practitioners in the U.S. and in the E.U. The article was reviewed and commented by experts. 

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