Workmen fly American and British national flags on the Mall ahead of the visit by US President Barack Obama on May 23, 2011 in London, England. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

Workmen fly American and British national flags on the Mall ahead of the visit by US President Barack Obama on May 23, 2011 in London, England. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.

The Future of the Transatlantic Partnership


  • In-depth view
  • 20 Nov 2019
  • 6 min read


The United States and Europe have traditionally been bound together by three main things: historical ties (until the 1960s, the bulk of US immigrants came from Europe); common security needs (the US was compelled to return to Europe three times in the 20th century); and of course, economics and economic interest.

Indeed, for all the chatter about drift and decoupling in what some have prematurely called the ‘new’ Asian century, the transatlantic economic region remains the axis around which the international economy continues to rotate.

As one recent report pointed out, the region is not just the most integrated in the world; the US and Europe together ‘remain each other’s most important markets’, generating between them some $5.5 trillion in total commercial sales a year and employing up to 16 million workers in mutually “onshored” jobs on both sides of the Atlantic’.

Yet despite this, never has the relationship seemed so fragile, and the reasons seems clear: President Donald Trump.  Indeed, some imagine that if Trump were not in office denouncing the European Union, informing NATO that it might be obsolete and that Brexit is a very good thing, then all would be well.

But the relationship is much more complicated. Whatever Europeans may think of Trump – and most do not think very much of him at all – the underlying foundations of the relationship have been much less disturbed by his policies and words than might be guessed from the headlines.

Take NATO. Trump rarely has much good to say about the Alliance. But whatever he may say against NATO, and however much he wishes to move closer to Vladimir Putin, the fact remains that the overwhelming bulk of Europeans and Americans still see it as the guarantor of peace and security. If anything, Putin's Russia has done wonders for the Alliance. NATO may be somewhat frayed around the edges. But thirty years since the end of the USSR it still looks to be in good shape. 

Nor has Trump done much to get Europeans to do what they have been promising to do for years: pay more for their own defence. The issue of 'burden sharing' is hardly a new one. Yet consistently over the years, both before and since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have consistently failed to step up and decrease their military dependency on the United States.

When former President Barack Obama took office in 2008, the US accounted for well over 70% of NATO spending. It is about the same today. Trump might do a good deal of talking about getting the Europeans to invest more in their own security. But few think they will, and it is not even clear that this would be favourable to the US, if increased European capacity led to more independence from US defence policy.

Trump’s apparent indifference to Europe is also not as much of a change as it seems. Barack Obama may have been popular in Europe. But according to most Europeans at the time, Obama's tilt towards Asia looked very much like a tilt away from Europe. And it is worth remembering that, however united the West may have looked in the wake of 9/11, by the time of the Iraq war in 2003, many writers were talking in animated terms of a deep ideological war within the West as much as they were of a war against terror. Indeed, even the idea of such a ‘war’ provoked outrage in many European capitals.

Yet the relationship persisted, and there is little to suggest it will not continue in the future.

There are differences to be sure. Europeans are more likely to look to the UN to sanction the use of force than Americans. Americans are more likely to act unilaterally than the Europeans. As Robert Kagan pointed out many years ago – and long before Trump was elected – because the US is the hegemon with vast military capabilities it looks at the world through a different set of lenses to those of Europe. It was true then, and it remains true today.

It is clear that Trump’s presidency has caused enormous disquiet amongst America's friends and allies in Europe. His indifference to alliances in general, not to mention his stance on a whole set of policy issues from climate change to the nuclear arms deal with Iran, have made for a notably prickly relationship.

Europeans also do not much like being told by Trump that if they do not adhere to his various sanctions policies (of which there are now many) then they themselves will be in trouble.

Yet, there may be less to be concerned about over the longer term. Trump is not America. Nor will he be in office forever. And nor does he represent the beliefs and values of the majority of those whose long-term professional job it is (in Hans J Morgenthau's words) to defend and promote the American 'national interest' in an increasingly dangerous world where having allies standing beside you is a lot more reassuring than when they are not.