Transatlantic 20/20: The US and Europe in an Interpolar World

Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Washington D.C. © Stephan Röhl/Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung under CC BY-SA 2.0 License.

July 15, 2011
Colin M. Adams
By Colin Adams

Knowing the future is no easy task. As the United States and Europe transition from the post-Cold War era of Western dominance to a more uncertain future, their commitment to each other in world affairs has been called into question by both sides. Once a given in international affairs, the future of the transatlantic relationship is anything but certain. In an attempt to look at some possible outcomes in the future, Dan Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, presented four scenarios that offer a look at the world in 2020. Transatlantic 20/20: The US and Europe in an Interpolar World, held at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin on June 16, brought together experts from think tanks, the media, and the foreign service to give their take on the scenarios and share how they think the future might unfold.

Far from predicting the future, Dan Hamilton stressed that these scenarios seek to identify possible futures. But there is one fact that seems assured, as Ralf Fücks, president of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, made clear in his welcoming address: The future of the transatlantic relationship will not be a promulgation of the past. There is often a lack of vision on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the future of this alliance, and it is by no means definite that the “West” will continue to be talked about in a political sense. But this does not mean that transatlantic relations are doomed to the past. H.E. Päivi Luostarinen, Finnish Ambassador to Germany, made clear in her opening remarks how important US-European cooperation is both for the West and for the entire world.

The opening remarks were followed by the first workshop, which focused on the texts “Live and Let Die” and “Hello Goodbye.” Both scenarios paint a picture of a world in which the West’s influence is waning. “Live and Let Die” envisions a future where the eurozone is on the verge of collapse. Cheap labor and increased innovation in other parts of the world have made it hard for Europe to compete in the global economy, and debt restructuring and bailouts for countries in Southern Europe have hastened the collapse of the euro. While a few Northern European countries come together to create the “Euromark” currency, the rest of Europe is left to fend for themselves, and any thoughts of a politically and economically united Europe seem to be extinguished.

“Hello Goodbye” brings us to the other side of the Atlantic, where fiscal, economic, and political problems in the United States come to a head in 2016 with the election of Barack Obama’s successor, who cuts back on social and military spending and brings about a more Jeffersonian foreign policy outlook. This approach involves ending America’s foreign entanglements and seeks to shift burdens to force other countries to “take care of their own.” This means not only a smaller presence in the Middle East, but retrenchment in East Asia as well as Europe, where America’s decreasing commitment to NATO is just one sign of the decline of transatlantic relations. America’s new-found isolation results in a more apolar world, which could very likely “become a cauldron of instability” that is antithetical to America’s, and the West’s, interests.

Both scenarios were a “bracing look in the mirror” according to Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund. Indeed, some of what these scenarios envision is happening at present. America is already beginning to withdraw from NATO, as evidenced by the US’ desire not to take the lead in the current Libya operation. Stelzenmüller thinks there is a lot of “selective listening” on the part of Europeans in terms of America’s commitment to European security, even though the writing is on the wall. It doesn’t help that budget cuts are bringing about an unfocused restructuring of defense forces in Europe. She also sees the consolidation of policing powers into the federal structure in Germany – a huge change – and predicts an increase in external policing missions among European forces.

But it is also important not to oversimplify the effects of globalization or overestimate the rise of other countries, warned Gareth Chappell, analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. The type of global competition that “Live and Let Die” sees as a factor in Europe’s economic decline could also force the EU to adjust and become more competitive. It is also important to remember that the European Stabilization Mechanism will come into force in 2015, which could prevent the predicted dissolution of the eurozone. Chappell is also slightly more optimistic about transatlantic military cooperation. As financial restraints on European countries grow, they will need to rely on NATO more than ever. And for the United States, NATO provides a degree of legitimacy for military action and is the only organization capable of organizing and executing multilateral action, which can be expected to continue if the United States does not go the isolationist route envisioned in “Hello Goodbye.”

Although most participants see the US scenario of retrenchment in world affairs as plausible, few see it as likely. Johannes Thimm of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs thinks that isolation is too simple and is actually not an option in today’s globalized world. It is true that the key to a turn towards isolationism lies in US domestic factors and politics, but some of these factors (such as cuts to the defense budget) would not necessarily be signs of US isolationism. There is also the matter of American public opinion, which is still clearly opposed to US retrenchment in world affairs.

One factor that should receive more attention in these scenarios is the role of migration in Europe. As FRIDE’s Giovanni Grevi points out, culture is the core of European soft power. Although many European countries are having trouble adjusting and integrating migrants (a problem that will not go away anytime soon in light of the revolutions in North Africa), an influx of immigrants could also help make the European workforce more dynamic and ease the strain on welfare systems that comes as older Europeans retire. On the other hand, if economic growth does not match population growth, disaffection among immigrants could lead to a rise in homegrown terrorism, which would further fragment Europe and hinder them from competing in the global economy. At the moment, Dan Hamilton points out that migration remains “Europe’s Achilles heel” and that Europe has become a “magnet for the unskilled,” as Europe attracts 55% of the world's unskilled legal migrants. If immigration is to be turned into an advantage, Europe needs to put in place mechanisms to attract skilled labor and to offer skilled training to immigrants.

After enjoying lunch on the terrace, the participants gathered for the second workshop to discuss the last two scenarios. “With a Little Help From My Friends” points to the rise of emerging powers while the US and Europe suffer stagnation. These rising powers are not necessarily wedded to the principles that underpin the Western-led world order, and are increasingly willing to assert their own way forward. As the rest of the world is growing stronger, transatlantic cooperation grows weaker, further crippling the West. One suggestion in this scenario is the creation of a single Transatlantic Marketplace, which would provide a billion-strong market and allow the US and Europe to recover some of their economic dynamism and be more competitive in the global marketplace.

The second scenario discussed in the afternoon session was “Come Together,” which envisions the creation of an Atlantic Basin Network to bring together countries on the four continents bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Innovation will not be confined to the West in the coming decade, and establishing links between developed and emerging economies will be crucial. Developments in the information and energy sectors will mean that the global economy will be driven by mass collaboration, and bringing together South American and African countries with the US and Europe (and overcoming the legitimate skepticism those in the global south have of the West) will be integral in a world where the achievements of one region affect the rest of the world. These types of networks are particularly effective because they are not formal organizations and allow for a more free flow of ideas and linkage among states and regions.

As Susanne Dröge of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs pointed out, there are a lot of assumptions contained in these scenarios. Although some of the technological achievements written about already exist (such as 3D printing), there is no guarantee that they will be as developed and widely used as the scenario suggests. Despite continuing advancement in renewable energy technologies, the end of the fossil fuel era is still a long way off, and we are unlikely to see a major decline in fossil fuel use a decade from now. Above all, the idea that the US and Europe will continue to decline in economic might and global power while emerging countries like China and India will continue their upward trajectory cannot be assumed, as any number of factors could intervene to either slow the growth of emerging powers or make the US and Europe more competitive.

Nevertheless, the scenario presented in “With a Little Help From my Friends” is “dauntingly realistic,” according to one of the participants. EU-US summits are already becoming a less regular occurrence. But is the Chinese model more attractive and sustainable? China has yet to prove that it can innovate as well as the United States and Europe. Which model can be the best “fertilizer” for innovation? Giovanni Grevi also pointed out that any new world order would not be starting from scratch. There is a thick layer of liberal economic thinking in the global economy, and most emerging countries have no interest in upending this system, but prefer to make some adjustments.

Could the participants envision the creation of a Transatlantic Marketplace by 2020? No one really saw this as realistic due to a lack of political will, which prompted the question: What is it that brings the US and Europe together? If the future world order is multipolar, why should the US and Europe continue their special relationship? Above all, what brings together the United States and Europe are their shared values. Non-democratic regimes such as China should prompt us to not take our values for granted. Indeed, our shared values are one of the most attractive elements of the West. The challenge is trying to promote our values in a more incremental way, as aggressively forcing our values on others is a proven failure.

Whatever the future holds, the value of the transatlantic relationship will remain. But this relationship will be different. Both the United States and Europe have begun to reach out to emerging global powers, and they will not always be on the same page regarding different regions or governments. America increasingly sees European defense as a matter for Europeans, and this new reality will force European countries to re-think their defense strategies. But just because this relationship is changing does not mean that it will end. There is much the United States and Europe can do together, and the West still holds much economic might and remains the hub of innovation. As the world transitions toward a more multipolar world order, the strengths of US-European cooperation will be more important than ever.

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