Transatlantic Relations: Change or Continuity?

Since the end of World War II, successive U.S. Administrations and many Members of Congress have supported a strong transatlantic relationship, largely built upon the pillars of NATO and the European Union (EU), and a shared U.S.-European commitment to an open international trading system. The creation of NATO was meant to provide collective defense and a U.S. security umbrella, while U.S. policymakers viewed the European integration project as a way to keep European nationalism in check, prevent another catastrophic conflict on the Continent, and entrench democratic systems and free markets. Despite periodic tensions over the years, U.S. and European policymakers alike valued the transatlantic partnership as serving their respective geostrategic and economic interests.

With the Trump Administration's entrance into office, however, many European leaders expressed concern about comments by the President and some key advisers that appeared to cast doubt on traditionally held U.S. views on NATO, the EU, and the multilateral trading system. European Council President Donald Tusk conveyed the anxiety of many when he stated that "the new administration [is] seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy."

To place the debate over future transatlantic relations into perspective, EU Ambassador to the United States David O'Sullivan recently reminded an audience that 2017 marks the anniversary of three significant events that tie the United States and Europe into an enduring partnership. The first is the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into World War I, in which U.S. blood was shed on European soil. The second is the 70th anniversary of George Marshall's speech on the commitment of the United States to help rebuild Europe (Marshall Plan) in the aftermath of World War II. The third is the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, supported by the United States and regarded as a founding block of today's EU and as integral to the transatlantic relationship.

Ambassador O'Sullivan also remarked, "It has not escaped our attention that America is going through some important changes with a new Administration and a new Congress. And we [the EU] sincerely wish to engage very constructively with that process.... We are keen to engage and discuss with this new Administration how we can continue to further the transatlantic relationship, taking into account some of the ideas this Administration wants to take forward."

In February 2017, senior leaders of the new Trump Administration traveled to Europe for several high-level meetings. Many analysts viewed these visits as important attempts to reassure anxious European allies and partners of the continued U.S. commitment to the transatlantic relationship.

  • At the meeting of NATO Defense Ministers in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reaffirmed the U.S. defense commitment to Europe and NATO.
  • Secretary Mattis and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence echoed these same themes in speeches at the 53rd annual Munich Security Conference, which also was attended by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and a large delegation of House and Senate Members.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Bonn, Germany, for a meeting of the G-20, which includes many of the most critical European allies. Before traveling to Bonn, Tillerson met in Washington with EU High Representative/Vice President Federica Mogherini (the EU's chief diplomat) to discuss U.S.-EU cooperation on common challenges, including terrorism, Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and Ukraine.
  • Before departing Europe, Vice President Pence also met with European Council President Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and High Representative Mogherini in Brussels. In his meeting with Tusk, Vice President Pence stated that the U.S. commitment to the EU was "steadfast and enduring" and asserted that the United States looked forward to deepening its political and economic partnership with the EU. In his meeting with Juncker, Vice President Pence reaffirmed the importance of U.S.-EU cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism, security, migration, and the promotion of common values on the global stage. Vice President Pence and Juncker also discussed the U.S.-EU commercial relationship, noting that the European single market is of enormous economic interest to U.S. companies and helps to create jobs and growth in the United States.

Some Members of Congress also have weighed in on the importance of maintaining close relations with Europe. In the 115th Congress, several pieces of legislation have been introduced referencing U.S.-EU cooperation on Russia and in support of NATO. In the House, the EU Caucus has been reestablished.

Many European officials and analysts welcomed these visits to Europe by Trump Administration officials and Members of Congress and viewed them as a positive attempt to shore up transatlantic relations. At the same time, uncertainty lingers in Europe, and some Europeans were not completely reassured by what they heard from the Trump team. As some commentators have pointed out, U.S. policy toward Europe must ultimately still come from the White House, and European leaders will likely wait to hear (and read) what President Trump not only says (or tweets) but also what he does regarding transatlantic relations.

News reports also suggest that some European officials bristled at comments by both Secretary Mattis and Vice President Pence strongly urging NATO allies to increase defense spending. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and others, however, sought to downplay concerns about the U.S. statements, noting that the United States has long pushed for more European spending on defense.

President Trump is expected to attend the NATO and G-7 summits in Europe in May 2017. Many European leaders hope these meetings will be an opportunity to emphasize to President Trump directly the benefits of a strong transatlantic partnership. In the meantime, critical national elections in the Netherlands and France will be held, and the United Kingdom and the EU are expected to officially begin negotiations on Britain's departure from the EU. White House comments and reactions to these events also may have significant implications for the future trajectory of the transatlantic relationship.