For nearly two centuries before the end of the Second World War the differences between Europe, representing the “old world” spreading its influence through expansion and colonialism, and the US as the emerging “new world” building a “city upon a hill” for the rest of the world to see and follow, had been striking. Twice coming to the rescue of Europe and providing it with a security umbrella, including a nuclear one, made the US the leading partner in this alliance, especially during the Cold War.
If the end of the Cold War caused any confusion, or doubt, about the importance of the transatlantic alliance, a serious of wars and political and economic crises left no one in any doubt that defending and promoting Western liberal democracies depended on a strong alliance between Europe and the United States. Both sides of this partnership also reinforce each other’s economies. The volume of trade in goods and services between the US and the EU has crossed the $1.1 trillion mark. The EU countries, together, rank first as an export market for the US, and also as the second-largest source of imports to the US, not to mention being the single most important region for American foreign investment. If at the end of the Cold War it seemed that the transatlantic alliance, led by the US, was destined, by the combination of hard and soft power, to be the principal power in world affairs, this expectation turned out to be short-lived. China, India and a resurrected Russia, among others, started challenging the authority and influence of the US and Europe in different regions and on a range of issues.
An American political system engrossed with its own divisions and a Europe deeply divided on the entire EU project are endangering one of the main stabilizers of global affairs.
However, there have been also issues of deep contention within the transatlantic alliance, and nowhere more so than in relation to the Mediterranean basin, and especially the Middle East. The invasion and dismantling of Iraq was a key moment for both sides of the Atlantic. With the exception of the UK, the US and the EU took diametrically opposite views of a major international event that proved disastrous not only for Iraq and the region, but also for the international community. The growing upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring highlighted differences across the Atlantic in interests, let alone in approach, toward such crucial international developments. The instability of the region that consequently induced a refugee and migration crisis and created further space for extremism to spread left the US and Europe with many questions to deal with but no adequate answers. Europe, due to its proximity and being the home of larger communities originating in the Middle East, was more affected, and it found cooperation with Washington on these issues almost impossible.
The lack of a co-ordinated transatlantic strategy has been the opposite of what is required to deal with challenges of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean. This has been exacerbated since Donald Trump became president last year. At a recent workshop in the European Parliament in which I participated, it was not too difficult to recognize the combination of dissatisfaction and puzzlement vis-à-vis Washington’s policies in dealing with Mediterranean region. There is a genuine fear that #MakeAmericaGreatAgain and #AmericaFirst, have encroached their way from political rallies into the heart of the current American administration. This makes it almost impossible for the decision-makers in Brussels to coordinate policies with the White House, or have any level of certainty of what the future holds in terms of joint strategies for crucial issues such as the conflict in Syria, dealing with the spread of Islamist extremism, migration across the Mediterranean, Iran’s expansionist tendencies, or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. All these issues are also related to the barrage of attacks by Trump on NATO. For Europeans, NATO has been since its formation in 1949 a source of security, a commitment to guaranteeing the freedom of individual states as well as the European Union as a whole. In an astonishing act of either irresponsibility or ignorance, the president declined to publicly reaffirm US commitment NATO’s Article 5, which is the heart of the 1949 NATO treaty in which allies agreed “an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all.” Without this commitment, the alliance could be declared null and void.
For Europe, the Southern Mediterranean and the Middle East are on its doorstep and whatever happens there has considerable implications for it. If the US, as it should, still values the transatlantic alliance that serves both, it should advance and coordinate action plans to stabilize the region. It needs to support programs such as the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aims to work jointly in key priority areas, including the promotion of democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and social cohesion. The transatlantic alliance is suffering from developments on both sides of the ocean. An isolationist US, with a political system engrossed with its own divisions and infights along Pennsylvania Avenue, and a Europe that is also deeply divided on the entire EU project while ultra-nationalism creeps in, are endangering one of the main stabilizers of global affairs and protectors of the free world — the transatlantic alliance.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.