Great Power Competition and the Transatlantic Relationship

The expert panel at the 2020 TAPS Conference. Photo Credit: Georgetown BMW Center for German and European Studies.

“Brave New World” was the title of this year’s expert panel at the BMW Center’s annual Transatlantic Policy Symposium on Friday, February 7, 2020. Featuring Georgetown’s Jill Dougherty, RAND’s Stephen Flanagan, The Heritage Foundation’s Daniel Kochis, and Brookings’s Thomas Wright, the panel covered the future of the transatlantic relationship.

Just a few minutes into the session, one theme quickly emerged: great power competition and, more specifically, how the United States and Europe can cooperate amidst challenges from China and Russia.

Dougherty, a longtime correspondent with CNN, shared her take on the perspective in Moscow, describing the future not as a “brave new world,” but rather a “scary new world.” She explained that Russia wants to play an “independent role on the world stage” and challenges the liberal international order because it is “predicated on hegemony of the United States and its allies.” The ultimate aim in Moscow, then, is to “undermine, criticize, [and] weaken trust in the alliance between the United States and Europe.” Put another way, according to Flanagan, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to simply “go away.”

Kochis described the challenges that China and Russia pose to long-held values and global stability, ticking off a list, including disregard for human rights for the former and political assassinations for the latter. For Beijing, specifically, he highlighted the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei and the United Kingdom’s recent decision not to exclude the company from developing British 5G infrastructure.

Should the United Kingdom’s refusal to bow to American pressure to reject Huawei serve as a “litmus test for US diplomacy?” No, Kochis argued, suggesting that the decision is really about “dollars and cents,” or, in this case, “pounds and pence.” The United Kingdom’s decision was only a “play for time” because Huawei is already integrated into the British system. The mindset in London, Kochis explained, is to weed out Chinese influence in British infrastructure over time. Instead of focusing narrowly on the Huawei debate, he continued, the key question is whether great power competition will lead to strategic decoupling between the United States and Europe or a renewal of the transatlantic bond.

Whereas Kochis and Dougherty largely discussed cases for individual countries within the context of great power competition, Flanagan focused on the state of NATO writ large. He assessed that the recent NATO Leaders Meeting in London went well, especially when compared to the Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in May 2017, when US President Donald Trump infamously failed to commit to the alliance’s Article V. In fact, the “spoiler,” Flanagan argued, was French President Emmanuel Macron who decried in an interview that NATO is experiencing “brain death.” Macron’s comment was a response to decisions the United States is increasingly making unilaterally, despite the consequences of those decisions being felt by European allies.

One particularly acute example is in the Middle East. Wright emphasized that the greatest challenge Europe will face from the United States is Washington’s desire to “reduce its involvement in the region.” For a continent that faced (and continues to face) strain from the 2015 migration crisis, this is “really bad news.”  “Forget about 2%,” he argued, and instead work with European allies to “cope with the increasing share of the burden…that they will face because of U.S. retrenchment from the Middle East.” For Kochis, Europe simply does not have the capability or willingness to engage in this region. He fears a vacuum, one that Russia, according to Dougherty, is happy to fill. She described Putin’s attempts to act as “the only adult in the room internationally, the peacemaker, the problem solver.” The crisis in Syria is only one example where Putin can further cultivate this stately image.

So what does the current state of transatlantic affairs mean for a future of great power competition? Despite all the turmoil, Flanagan argued that there continues to be strong military cooperation within NATO. Where NATO can strengthen itself even further in such an environment, however, is in its strategic decision-making. He spoke of a compromise Germany brokered to reestablish a reflection group that considers the political future of the alliance. For Russia specifically, Flanagan highlighted allies’ interest in bolstering the latter half of NATO’s “deterrence and dialogue” policy.

To coordinate efforts in relation to China, on the other hand, Wright argued that European allies should focus on the European Union (EU). Only debates regarding defense technologies reside with NATO, whereas the EU can play a role in civil society and economic matters. Doing so, however, will require Europe to consider a key question: “what type of EU will we have?” In the past, a center-right or center-left coalition has always dominated the EU, and all member states – besides the United Kingdom at the time – agreed with the project. Today and moving forward, however, Wright believes we are likely to see an EU that is “more reactionary…protectionist…nationalistic,” and even tolerant of democratic backsliding.

Both sides of the Atlantic must not only monitor China and Russia, therefore, but also the evolution of their institutions. Often the internal dynamics are just as challenging as those that are external. 

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