The Atlantic Alliance Had Preexisting Conditions. The Pandemic Will Worsen Them

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The novel coronavirus is clearly a big deal — economically, politically, and socially. Students of the transatlantic relationship, like everyone else, are naturally taken with the effort to understand the possibly dramatic changes this pandemic will inflict upon the world. The problem is that we do not yet know how long the crisis will last, how bad it will be, or how it will play out.

Most global crises, even severe ones, do not fundamentally change — and rarely reverse — the course of world politics. Crises more often serve as accelerators, highlighting existing fissures and widening them. Just as patients with underlying conditions are more vulnerable to the disease, pre-existing geopolitical fault lines will likely be exposed by the coronavirus crisis.



From this point of view, the transatlantic relationship should definitely self-isolate. Long before the coronavirus appeared, the relationship was in intensive care: wracked by European anxiety about U.S. leadership, U.S. resentment about defense burden-sharing, fissures in solidarity within Europe, and rising populism and anti-globalization feelings on both sides of the Atlantic, exacerbating differences over trade. Unfortunately, however the coronavirus crisis plays out, it is likely to exacerbate all of these trends. Just as with the virus itself, it will be up to leaders and citizens to act boldly to prevent the worst.

Questioning U.S. Leadership

One trend the crisis seems likely to reinforce is the Trump administration’s well-earned reputation in Europe as an unreliable ally. During Trump’s first three years in office, many of his policies seem designed to undermine transatlantic solidarity. Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement; questioned the sanctity of NATO’s Article 5 defense guarantee; withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal; pulled U.S. troops from Syria without consulting European allies; carried out the targeted killing of an Iranian general in Iraq (again without consulting European allies); and undermined U.S. “soft power” in Europe by attacking democratic institutions, appointing unqualified family members and political donors to top positions, and coddling dictators.

Europeans were slow to acknowledge the real implications of “America First” — preferring to “ignore the tweets” as long as they could. After three years, the path America has taken is impossible to overlook. Recent polls have shown that confidence in Trump to “do the right thing in global affairs” has fallen (from over 70 percent in Barack Obama’s last year in office) to just 32 percent in the United Kingdom, 21 percent in Spain, 20 percent in France, 18 percent in Sweden, and 13 percent in Germany. French President Emmanuel Macron thinks NATO is undergoing “brain death,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Europeans have to take their fate into their own hands, and a majority of Germans now believe Berlin should strive for greater independence from the United States in defense matters, even if it means more than doubling defense spending. At the Munich Security Conference in February of this year, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lamented that the current U.S. administration “rejects the very concept of an international community,” and that “thinking and acting this way hurts us all.”

Europeans once might have expected the U.S. president to lead the world in a coordinated response to such a disease — as President George W. Bush did on the AIDS crisis and President Obama did with Ebola. Instead, Europeans have noticed that the United States is now home to the world’s largest number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths from the virus — in part due to the administration’s egregious mismanagement. They have been angered by un-coordinated U.S. moves to buy protective masks and equipment headed to Europe, by reports that the U.S. government was trying to buy a German firm working on a vaccine and move its research wing to the United States, and by Trump’s March 12 announcement of a travel ban on 26 European countries that no Europeans were given notice about in advance. Top European officials and politicians denounced the travel ban and pointed out that “this isn’t the hour for the will of the strongest to prevail, but for solidarity and cooperation.” “When it comes to solidarity and unity,” the French analyst Benjamin Haddad concluded, “the United States is failing the coronavirus test.”

Exacerbating Burden-Sharing Debates

The crisis will also exacerbate longstanding debates about burden-sharing within NATO, an obsession for Trump. To some degree, the urgency of the issue was alleviated over the past two years, as European defense spending rose somewhat, allowing Trump to claim (falsely) that he had persuaded allies to contribute “hundreds of billions” more to the alliance. But with European budgets under extraordinary pressure from their devastated economies and the social and stimulus spending made necessary by the pandemic, future European defense budgets are more likely to be cut than increased.

Europeans will likely argue now more than ever that burden-sharing should be defined not in narrow military terms, but by considering contributions to global development, the environment, and global health. Especially with neighboring regions so vulnerable to the pandemic, Europeans will likely devote relatively greater resources to supporting those neighbors than to long-term military investment.

Some have suggested that rather than dividing the United States from its NATO allies, the crisis might bring those allies together, given the common nature of the threat and NATO’s logistical capabilities. One analyst even suggested the COVID-19 crisis should have been used to trigger the alliance’s Article 5 defense guarantee.

As with some previous crises, however, the notion of expanding NATO’s mission far beyond collective defense seems to stem as much from the question of how NATO can help resolve a new challenge as how a new challenge can be used to help NATO demonstrate its worth. If NATO has capabilities that can be used to facilitate the distribution of assistance to member states or others, those capabilities should by all means be used; but the alliance is not well-equipped to play a major role in handling a global health issue, and it is wishful thinking to imagine that the threat posed by COVID-19 will lessen — rather than exacerbate — deep transatlantic differences over burden-sharing, at least so long as Trump is in office.

Dividing Europe

The pandemic did not create the tensions within the European Union, but it has clearly reinforced them. The 2010 financial crisis revealed a divide within Europe between frugal northern states, including Germany, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands, and more indebted southern states, particularly Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. Northerners blamed the south’s spendthrift ways for causing the crisis, while Southerners accused their northern neighbors of a lack of solidarity or even cruelty when they attached onerous conditions to financial bailouts. Neither charge was precisely accurate, but both sides presented their case as morality tales that then became embedded in European politics. A similar dynamic emerged between the east and west of Europe during the refugee crisis of 2015. Eastern countries like Poland and Hungary simply refused to take refugees and accused their Western neighbors of trying to dilute their Christian heritage. Westerners increasingly viewed them as authoritarian and xenophobic.

The coronavirus hits precisely the same fault lines. The economic crisis caused by the lockdowns means that once again the south, particularly Italy and Spain, needs fiscal help from the less indebted north. They’ve demanded so-called corona-bonds, essentially sharing the debt burden coming from the crisis, as a test of European solidarity. Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte has even claimed that a lack of response might put the entire E.U. project at risk. Germany and the Netherlands, among others, blame the southern states for insufficient savings in good years and worry that guaranteeing their debts will only enable more poor fiscal discipline in the future. To date, they’ve agreed only to a fiscal bail-out package that comes with conditions on how to spend the money. Italians are so angry that one Italian newspaper removed the Netherlands from its weather map. All this is reminiscent of the financial crisis bailouts of 2010-12 that imposed austerity and caused such bitterness with the European Union.

Meanwhile, the governments in Hungary and Poland, which are thus far less affected by the virus, have used the occasion to further impose authoritarian controls and to blame migration and multiculturalism for the greater incidence of the virus in the West.

As this crisis unfolds, Washington is absent. But in a moment of crisis, Europeans have often needed active American encouragement to retain their cohesion. The United States, for example, played an important role in ensuring that internal European tensions remained within bounds during the financial crisis. The clear recognition that they now must find their own compromises will perhaps encourage greater European responsibility. But it will also certainly increase the sense that the United States no longer cares about the European project.

Trade Tensions

The coronavirus crisis will likely also exacerbate transatlantic trade tensions. Such tensions are nothing new, but they have deepened dramatically since Trump took office. Europe, according to Trump, “treats the US worse than China” and “was set up to set up in order to take advantage of the United States.” Accordingly, Trump has imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on Europe and threatened automobile tariffs, claiming they threaten U.S. national security. His administration has demanded that the European Union agree to a new trade bargain with the United States that will expand U.S. manufacturing or face further trade restrictions. Europeans have threatened retaliation in kind and demonstrated their own intent to maintain their manufacturing bases.

The effect of the crisis has already been to reinforce these anti-globalist and nationalist tendencies on both sides of the Atlantic. When Trump banned travel from Europe, he justified the action by blaming the European Union for failing to take “the same precautions,” and initially even announced on national television that the ban would also proscribe “trade and cargo” before correcting himself the next day. White House trade advisor Peter Navarro and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio have both called pandemic a “wake-up call” regarding U.S. vulnerabilities in a globalized world. That call will likely reinforce the existing movements on both sides of the Atlantic to “onshore” key industries and to reduce interdependence. The national security justification used to put limits on steel and aluminum imports will now likely extend to medical equipment, vaccines, and even medical research and development, measures that could lead Europeans to follow suit.

Trade bans in the heat of a pandemic are not surprising. But in the transatlantic context of increasing populism and pre-existing trade tensions, we can expect that the lack of solidarity displayed during the crisis will translate to further conflict even after the virus fades away.

Elections Matter

As president, Trump has shown a shockingly impressive capacity to find the petty irritants in America’s relations with its allies and to turn them into full-blown crises. In transatlantic relations, as in the response to the coronavirus, Trump rarely causes the problems, but he almost always makes them worse.

A Democratic victory in the U.S. election in November would create opportunities to reverse these trends. Former Vice President Joe Biden is a longstanding proponent of transatlantic cooperation and has said he would seek to “place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.” But Biden’s commitment to transatlantic relations will not magically reverse the trends that contributed to Trump’s election in the first place — populism, anti-globalization, and resentment of the costs of U.S. leadership — and that have driven the two sides of the Atlantic apart in recent years. A President Biden will need to walk a fine line between providing more support for European allies and insisting that they take on greater responsibilities — for defense, for security in their region, and for internal European cohesion.

If Trump is re-elected, the prognosis for the relationship is clearer — and darker. If returned to office after the way he has governed and conducted foreign policy for four years, Trump will conclude that he has a mandate to move forward even more boldly with an America First agenda and to apply it to Europe. America’s European allies will conclude from the election result that the American people solidly support that approach and assume it reflects a new reality that will continue into future presidencies. The type of special relationship the United States has maintained with Europe for some 75 years will be over. There will be a new one, but there will be little special about it.



Philip H. Gordon is the Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served at assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs and White House Coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration and is an informal, outside adviser to the Biden campaign.

Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he worked at the Brookings Institution and at the Department of State. 

Image: White House (Photo by Shealah Craighead)