Relations among the transatlantic allies are in very serious trouble. It has been a long time since a US Secretary of State spoke of the Alliance ‘breaking up,’ as Colin Powell did in early February amid the flap over France, Germany and Belgium’s refusal to allow NATO to take preventive steps to defend Turkey in case of a war against Iraq. As close and long an observer of US-European relations as Henry Kissinger has even concluded that differences over Iraq have ‘produced the gravest crisis in the Atlantic Alliance since its creation five decades ago.’
Is today’s crisis in transatlantic relations different from the many that occurred in the past? Some, like Robert Kagan, argue that the changing structure of US?European relations—and especially the great and growing imbalance of power—make this crisis different. ‘Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus,’ Kagan writes pointedly. ‘This state of affairs is not transitory—the product of one American election or one catastrophic event. The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure.’ Others have a more optimistic view. For all their differences, notes Philip Gordon, ‘basic American and European values and interests have not diverged—and the European democracies are certainly closer allies of the United States than the inhabitants of any other region.’ The differences that do exist, Gordon argues, are the result largely of a sharp policy shift in Washington under President George W. Bush. But only ‘if policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic act on the assumption that fundamentally different world-views now make useful cooperation
impossible’ is a transatlantic divorce conceivable.
Rather than conflicting, both contentions are in fact on the mark. There has been a profound change in the structure of US?European relations, though the differentiation of power is only one, and not the most important, factor accounting for this change. One crucial consequence of this transformation is the effective end of Atlanticism—American and European foreign policies no longer centre around the transatlantic alliance to the same overriding extent as in the past. Other concerns—both global and local—and different means for addressing them have now come to the fore. As a result, it is no longer simply a question of adapting transatlantic institutions to new realities—to give NATO a new mission or purpose. The changing structure of relations between the United States and Europe means that a new basis for the relationship must be found, lest the continued drift ends in separation and, ultimately, divorce.
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.