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Interview with Dr. Daniel S. Hamilton: “A reinvented transatlantic partnership will demand more, not less, of Europe”
This year’s edition of the Munich Security Conference, the main international event in the month of February and the last with direct participation before the COVID-19 pandemic being fully acknowledged, was defining for the way Europeans and Americans see the world and the transatlantic relationship. The setting of the stage (the event focused on „Westlesness”), the American and European representation (Great Britain absent and Germany not represented by its chancellor) and the views exposed led to a couple of conclusions. Firstly, the US focus on the great power competition and its calls to the European allies to join it against China, in exchange for reassurances on the transatlantic bond. Secondly, the lack of EU unity and cohesion (the only representative leader was Emmanuel Macron, who presented a vision of Europe that was more French than European) that could translate into an even weaker European voice on the international stage, especially after UK leaving the Union.

Dr. Daniel S. HAMILTON

10/10/2020 Region: Global Topic: Geopolitics

Dr. Daniel S. Hamilton, the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, offered an insight into the challenges facing the European Union and the transatlantic relationship, in the interview he gave to Geostrategic Pulse Magazine.

Geostrategic Pulse: The unfolding great power competition, currently accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to change the nature of international relations in the coming period. In your view, what are the main challenges that the European Union will face in the light of the above?

Daniel S. Hamilton: The first is for EU member states to stand together rather than apart when it comes to ensuring their societies and economies are safe and healthy as COVID-19 continues its unprecedented ravages. The EU’s recovery package and related multi-year budget agreement were positive signs, but they have yet to be supported by the European Parliament, and delays cost lives and money. It is still unknown how EU members will work together once a vaccine is developed and is ready for broad distribution.

The second priority is for the EU and its member states to ensure that they can ride the wave of technological changes that are sweeping the globe, rather than being overwhelmed by them. Europe must unleash innovation to ensure that European societies stay at the technological frontier, rather than try vainly to wall itself off from such developments.

The third priority is for the EU to hold together at a time when the European experiment, while still ground-breaking and attractive in many ways, has lost a good deal of its cohesive, transformative power. For more Europeans, “ever closer Union” is neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable, the “Europe of institutions” seems unprepared to tackle down-home challenges, and the slogan “more Europe” prompts more questions than answers. A European Union whose societies are once again defining and delineating themselves from each other is not one willing or able to integrate additional societies knocking on its door.

Being aware of Great Britain’s military and economic power, as well as its internationally recognised influence, how do you think the European Union, in this post-Brexit context, will be perceived - and dealt with - on the international stage by relevant actors like China, Russia, Iran, Turkey?

That depends entirely on whether the EU and the UK prove capable of creating new arrangements that harness their collective strengths, or allow bickering to dominate their relationship. Brexit will diminish the UK’s role in Europe, its importance to the United States, and its role in the world. The EU will also feel the UK’s loss. British firms have played a disproportionate role in areas such as defense, aviation/space, new technologies, education and services that are strategically important to the EU’s ability to play a role beyond European shores and to remain globally competitive. The UK alone accounts for almost half of the EU’s military transport aircraft and airborne early warning and control planes. The loss of the UK’s command, control, intelligence, reconnaissance, diplomatic and power projection capabilities will render the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy less capable and the Union less able to combat terrorism and transnational crime. The UK’s departure could weaken the resolve of remaining EU states on Russian sanctions. The loss of the City of London as the EU’s global financial center will affect the availability and cost of financial services and capital. Brexit not just diminishes EU capacity; it is one more factor contributing to a Europe that could become even more fractured and anxious.

How do you see the transatlantic relationship in this environment? In what domains should Washington and Brussels work more together in order to restore trust for an enhanced cooperation?

If Donald Trump is re-elected he will continue to treat the EU as a foe, seek to play EU member states off against each other. He is likely to further hollow out the NATO Alliance. The agenda will not be about restoring trust, it will be about limiting the damage from certain divorce. 

If Joe Biden is elected the US and the EU have an opportunity to build a true strategic partnership that can address the unparalleled damage wrought by the coronavirus, the fissures that have opened up within and between our societies, the assault on our principles and our institutions being waged by revisionist powers such as Russia and China, and challenges of global scale that no country, no matter how mighty, can deal with effectively alone. Those include climate change, restoring a functioning trading system, dealing with conflicts across the broader Middle East, and other topics. On all of these issues, the EU should be America’s partner of first resort. It is unclear whether the EU will be ready, however, should a U.S. President reaches out his hand in partnership with an EU that will be asked to do more, not less, as America’s counterpart, not its counterweight.

How will NATO’s agenda and priorities be influenced by the strategic rivalry between the three major powers – US, China and Russia?

While Beijing and Moscow still have some long-standing differences with each other, they are collaborating on a range of issues that raise security concerns for NATO. They have stepped up the frequency and scale of joint military exercises, including in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas, and deepened their defense cooperation. They are each weaponizing to disrupt democratic societies. All key elements of NATO adaptation, as decided at the NATO Summits in Wales 2014, Warsaw 2016 and Brussels 2018 were based on two key premises that are now questionable: first, that Putin’s Russia posed the only serious military threat to the territorial integrity of member states; and second, that Russia stood alone. No consideration was given to the question what it would mean if Russia were supported by a like-minded other great power, such as China, or how a Chinese-Russian entente could amplify Russia’s own risk calculus when it came to challenging the Alliance.

NATO needs to differentiate more clearly between Russia and China. Trump did not do that and muddled the message. NATO should consider how Chinese-Russian entente may affect Russia’s own risk calculus. It needs to be prepared for hybrid contingencies in which China is an active participant, for instance in Europe’s digital critical infrastructures (i.e. command, control, communication, situation awareness, logistical and other systems). It needs to replace its outdated Strategic Concept with new guidance on how to deal with future challenges.

The EU integration of the Western Balkan states is seen as instrumental to stabilizing the region and set it on a path to prosperity. However, lingering problems such as the lack of closure to the Kosovo crisis, the East-West balancing of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or the regional meddling by Russia or China pose serious obstacles to this process. What should be EU approach to surpass these difficulties and accelerate the process, and how could the US support the Union’s efforts?

The EU must re-commit actively to complete the unfinished business in the Western Balkans. They include clear pathways toward integration and support to help countries create the conditions by which that can be possible. The Brussels process regarding Serbia-Kosovo must be prioritized. The Dayton Accords in Bosnia and Herzegovina need to be updated so that the country can rid itself of entrenched kleptocracies and offer hope for its people. In all of these areas the United States must remain engaged, working in partnership with the EU and the people of the region.

The transatlantic relationship is subjected to a series of challenges in the current, extremely complex environment, and goes through a process of redefinition.

What can you tell us about the way Washington sees and approaches the transatlantic cooperation from the perspective of the current administration on NATO and the EU, and in the light of Europeans promoting the concept of strategic autonomy?

If Donald Trump is re-elected, the U.S. voting public would have vindicated his view that Americans are suffering through many domestic economic and social ills because the United States has been too generous to the rest of the world, taking in immigrants and paying to defend ungrateful allies, and because the country’s political elite had negotiated a series of flawed international deals that had harmed the U.S. economy and ordinary American workers. A second Trump administration is likely to double down on its agenda of economic nationalism and international burden-shedding.

Unfettered by a need to run for re-election, Trump is likely to be brazenly transactional in his approach to allies. Those who don’t pay don’t get protection. Uncertainty about the U.S. security guarantee would hollow out NATO.

Simply stated, the transatlantic partnership would come unhinged. Europe and the United States would be less safe, prosperous, and less able to deal with the enormous challenges they face.

Trump’s antics have revealed how dependent Europe remains on the United States for its security. Unfortunately, “strategic autonomy” is a buzzword that politicians like to show they are standing up for what they perceive to be European interests. It is an empty vessel, however, and can mean anything to anyone. It is not being used to advance a strategy, it is being used to distract from the fact that there is no strategy.

How do you see the implementation of this concept and what would be the chances and the timeframe to see an actual European army? 

It all depends on the US election. If Biden is elected the term is likely to disappear in favor of a robust renewal of transatlantic partnership. If Trump is re-elected, the term “strategic autonomy” will gather steam, but to uncertain ends. Europe shows no appetite to build a “European army.” The economic consequences of COVID will make it even more difficult to spend more on defense. Euro-optimists may believe that the European allies would quickly coalesce around a new EU framework for their common security. The more likely prospect is that individual European countries would scramble to secure bilateral security deals with Washington, and to look more warily at their neighbors. Without the U.S. as a rudder, NATO allies will head off in different directions. These divisions are likely to be exacerbated by Trump administration efforts to play EU member states off against each other to weaken the EU. These fissures would threaten to return the European continent to the very pattern of history that in the last century brought untold tragedy to Europe, America and the wider world.

Where do the countries on NATO’s Eastern flank stand in this equation?

If NATO is hollowed out in a second Trump term, they will be the hardest hit. If Biden is elected they will be the prime beneficiaries of a renewed US commitment to its NATO commitments. 

How do you see the US military involvement in Europe over the coming period? Can we talk about an enhanced US military presence in the Black Sea Region as well, in the light of Washington’s recent decision to reduce the number of American troops deployed in Germany and to operate some redeployments on the European territory?

Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement was made out of personal pique in his disputes with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It has already encountered significant opposition in the U.S. Congress. If it were to happen, it would take years and cost billions. There is good reason for the U.S. and its allies to review constantly the rationale for particular troop deployments, but any decision to move or remove troops should be done as part of a strategic force posture review, not as a result of a presidential tweet. There is a good case to be made that the Alliance needs to bolster its efforts in the Black Sea region.   

US domestic politics has become quite polarised lately, sometimes even volatile, if we are to refer to President Trump’s mandate. However, in Washington there is a significant bi-partisan consensus on a series of aspects related to foreign policy and European security. The presidential elections are traditionally accompanied by debates, forecasts and assessments of the possible major changes in the US foreign policy from one administration to another.

What do you think would be the lines of continuity in the US foreign policy that are relevant to European Union and to the transatlantic link, irrespective of who wins the presidential elections this year?

The United States has four enduring interests in Europe: a continent that is open, including to American goods, services and ideas; a continent that is not under the influence of any country or group of countries hostile to the United States; a continent that is able to take care of its own conflicts; and a partner that can work with the United States on a host of global challenges. These enduring interests have united presidents from both parties over many decades. They have inspired U.S. support for European integration. They motivate U.S. calls for more capable European defenses. They have animated U.S. determination to contain and counter Nazi and Soviet efforts to subdue the continent. And they inform U.S. efforts to build a global U.S.-EU partnership. Trump has short-changed all of these interests; Biden would protect them.

At the same time, what major changes in the US approach and policy on EU should we expect if the next administration in Washington, D.C. will be Democratic? Should we expect changes in the US relationship with relevant EU member states, such as Germany, or as far as the US policy on EU’s energy reliance on Russia (Nord Stream 2)?

When he was Vice President, Joe Biden emphasized that “Europe is the cornerstone of our engagement with the world” and “our catalyst for global cooperation.” Biden’s first instinct will be to turn to Europe as America’s indispensable partner of first resort when it comes to addressing international challenges. He is a passionate transatlanticist.

Nonetheless, if Biden is elected, perhaps the greatest danger to a vital transatlantic bond will be Europe’s temptation to believe that the relationship can go back to “business as usual.” That would be a mistake. The transatlantic alliance as we have known it is dead. A Biden Administration will not want to restore transatlantic partnership; it will want to reinvent it: to position each side of the Atlantic for a world of severe health, economic and climate challenges, more diffuse power, dizzying technological changes, greater insecurities, billions of new workers and consumers, and intensified global competition.

A reinvented transatlantic partnership will demand more, not less, of Europe. It will require Americans and Europeans to devise a new model of globalization, one geared less to market efficiencies than to enhancing societal resilience and well-being. Some international institutions, such as the WTO, will need to be recast. Others will need new authorities -- for instance the WHO, which needs to be able to gather and disseminate real-time information and investigate when states are being deceptive. Still others will need to be created – for instance a global disease surveillance and rapid response system similar in concept to our global weather forecasting capabilities. New mechanisms could be devised to tackle climate change, the proliferation of agents of mass destruction and challenges emanating from the digital, biological and quantum computing revolutions. The old state-centric multilateralism will not do. A new multilateralism is needed – more inclusive, more networked, more flexible, more agile.

A Biden Administration will expect far more from Europe than Europeans currently seem to appreciate. It will judge the value of transatlantic partnership largely in relation to Europe’s willingness to assume greater leadership in addressing its own challenges and its ability to tackle together with the U.S. a host of problems far beyond European shores.

An immediate priority will be transatlantic efforts to build international coalitions to end the coronavirus and to create economic pathways out of the recession. An early step might be a U.S.-EU agreement to lift all trade barriers on medical supplies and equipment. Another might be a Transatlantic Recovery Initiative that galvanizes U.S. and European efforts to generate jobs and growth, and to get the transatlantic economy back on track.

Biden is also likely to announce quickly that the United States is rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. A reinvented transatlantic partnership will then need to quickly work out a joint approach to improving U.S. and EU climate commitments consistent with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and a timetable to achieve that ambition.

Biden is likely to want to re-engage with European allies on stopping Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. A reinvented transatlantic coalition could offer to freeze future sanctions on Iran in return for an Iranian freeze on advances in its nuclear weapons program. It could begin talks with Iran on missiles, counter terrorism, human rights, and Tehran’s destabilizing activities in neighboring countries such as Iraq.

Like Trump, Biden wants to end America’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. A reinvented transatlantic partnership will mean building partnerships with actors who can bring some modicum of stability and hope to the peoples of the region. It will mean resetting the course of U.S. and European policy to the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Israel-Palestine struggle. This too, will require more of Europe.

Biden is likely to affirm the value of NATO and U.S. defense commitments, but he will want to define the Alliance in terms of the future and not the past. A new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, and a truly strategic U.S.-EU partnership, could be the hallmarks of transatlantic reinvention. Unlike Trump, Biden won’t be Putin’s chum. But he is likely to want to engage on arms control and other initiatives with Moscow that can lower risks and avoid accidents and miscalculations that could lead inadvertently to conflict. Europe needs to be prepared with ideas and contributions.

China will be an early test of a reinvented transatlantic partnership. There is a broad consensus in the United States – among Democrats and Republicans alike – that China’s rise as a systemic rival must be addressed. The critical difference is that Trump sought to bludgeon allies into servilely following his confrontational course, whereas Biden is likely to seek to build a coalition together with Europe and other like-minded democracies to address concerns about China, most of which Europeans share. The key will be to hammer out where the U.S. and Europe can engage with China as a partner, for instance on climate and energy issues, health, or anti-piracy; where they must address China as a competitor, for example with regard to Chinese cyber theft, Chinese assaults on intellectual property, forced technology transfers, poor implementation of its WTO obligations, and its state-subsidized overcapacity in steel and potentially autos, robotics and other sectors of the economy; and how to counter China’s rise as a  systemic rival – whether through its efforts to weaken or dilute international norms or to build alternative institutions shaped by illiberal principles.

Daniel S. Hamilton is the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He is an award-winner author and former senior U.S. diplomat, responsible for NATO and transatlantic security issues, US-EU relations and southeast European stabilization. These comments reflect solely his personal views.