Atlanticism’s Revenge?

December 11, 2013

On the heels of the announced shift in American commitments and resources toward Asia, 2013’s “Summer of Snowden” has placed the transatlantic relationship under a degree of strain reminiscent of the period surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ironically, Snowden’s revelations have highlighted intense and largely effective transatlantic cooperation in intelligence collection – but at the same time placed that very cooperation, along with transatlantic security and economic ties, under increased (negative) public scrutiny. Is this community of shared values and interests, with NATO at its heart, worth maintaining? What are the main drivers of perceptions of the relevance or irrelevance of transatlantic cooperation?  And, is there a link between Atlanticist convictions and defense efforts?  If so, what can the United States do to support Atlanticism among its European allies?

We define Atlanticism as  the perception that NATO, with active American leadership, is the central institutional component of European security. Concerns about the decline of Atlanticism abound. At a time when Americans and particularly Europeans are expressing decreased confidence in democratic institutions, the Snowden affair has presented challenges to political legitimacy in both Europe and the United States. Endless Casablanca-referenced dismissals (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that [intelligence gathering] is going on in here!”) notwithstanding, significant portions of both the general public and the policy elite within the Atlantic community have expressed dismay at U.S. practices in Europe, and trust in the U.S. has declined among allies.

Trust matters, and it is not free. Atlanticism is not in itself as poorly off as many have suggested recently, but failing to recognize the effects of foreign policy decisions on the domestic legitimacy of the U.S.’s closest allies risks damaging transatlantic solidarity.

Of late, some commentators, such as A. Wess Mitchell & Jan Havranek, have expressed concerns that Atlanticism is on the wane among Europeans. Europe’s “ever-shrinking band of true Atlanticists” has found the NSA scandal to be decidedly unhelpful. These concerns seem to be rooted in an extraordinarily wide array of factors, ranging from fears of abandonment to worries about U.S. adventurism with an intelligence apparatus whose democratic accountability has come into question even within the United States—and which is certainly not accountable to the European publics who are affected by its actions.

However, European Atlanticism seems to remain grounded in a profound sense of what Karl Deutsch called a “pluralistic security community,” with 56% of Europeans reporting in this year’s Transatlantic Trends poll that NATO represents “an alliance of democratic countries that should act together.”  This response captures European support for both the values (“democratic”) and interests (“act together”) holding the transatlantic security community together.

A systematic analysis of 95 national security strategy documents from 24 NATO member states suggests that Atlanticism among the elites who formulate these articulations of national strategy has been slowly rebounding since reaching a low point in 2003, when the United States’ decision to attack Iraq intensified cleavages within Europe, and between Europe and the United States. A perception of U.S. abandonment—fed by a rebalancing of U.S. strategic commitments and resources and combined with the perception of U.S. perfidy associated with the NSA leaks—risks undermining European support for transatlantic cooperation at a time when confidence in democratic institutions in both the EU and its member states is historically low.

Lately, a growing number of voices in Europe have expressed concern about the potential geopolitical impact of a much less prominent U.S. role in Europe. European security expert Sten Rynning has argued that

The disengagement of the United States will not strengthen, but weaken Europe.  Left behind will be an unfinished project of political unification which Germany feels compelled to complete, which Britain will not join, and which France will not be able to lead and therefore in some measure will resent. 

Such destabilizing effects in Central Europe have also been noted by Mitchell and Havranek,  who argue that “The combination of faltering Euro-Atlantic institutions, struggling democracy and resurgent Russian influence could lead to bad outcomes for U.S. strategic interests down the road.”

Among Americans, unequal burden sharing has been a consistent challenge in the transatlantic security relationship.  From Senator Mike Mansfield in 1961 to former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates in 2011 and current SECDEF Chuck Hagel in 2013, Americans have consistently chided Europeans for not bearing a sufficient share of the collective security burden. This perception drives both the perpetual U.S. burden sharing complaint as well as the hope (or expectation) that the European Union will become sufficiently cohesive to allow the United States to abandon its leading role in the alliance. These sentiments are decades old, but are often dressed up in new clothing to suit the style of the times.

In many ways, this problem is not surprising: NATO is always fighting a collective action headwind.  In an alliance of democracies, national leaders will attempt to provide the highest level of security for their nation at the lowest possible cost.  For the United States, NATO’s largest single economy and generally the alliance’s most ambitious foreign policy actor, the cost imposed by smaller allies is their reliance on whatever defense efforts the United States is willing and able to maintain.

This perfectly logical tendency among smaller allies to free-ride has been significantly mitigated, however, by a strong sense of Atlanticism among European allies. The Snowden affair risks undermining this sense of Atlanticism, which affects American security in a fairly direct way: the more European NATO members articulate their national security strategy in Atlanticist terms, the more likely they are to allocate resources to military operations. This effect occurs because states articulating such an Atlanticist strategic approach share the United States’ conception of a stable, sustainable, international order, and are willing to devote resources to maintaining that order, even when their own immediate territorial security is not at risk. In other words, sharing the same values and interests appears to increase the willingness to share the costs.

This phenomenon suggests that even, and perhaps especially, as the United States engages in a strategic rebalancing toward Asia, a strong transatlantic bond is crucial to American, European, and global security.  The policy implications for the United States are legion: the need to maintain a sufficient presence in Europe to legitimize the U.S. commitment to continued defense cooperation; to intensify pursuit of a new transatlantic trade pact; to avoid gratuitous affronts to allies that can erode confidence in domestic and transatlantic institutions; and to weigh carefully the benefits against the costs of intelligence activities which, if made public, could undermine mutual trust among allies.

Atlanticism’s revenge may come as Europeans increasingly recognize that the United States, as irritating as it may be from time to time, still needs to play an important role in Europe’s geopolitical balance; and, as Americans discover that the NATO allies, as feckless as they may seem at times, are still among the best friends that the United States has.


Jordan Becker is an assistant professor of international relations at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in international security policy for the Congressional Research Service. Since then, he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.  Both are War on the Rocks contributors. The views expressed here are their own and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army or any part of the U.S. government.


Photo credit: Medill DC