Whether in an arms race with a resurgent Russia, economic arm wrestling with China, or even attempts to contain the ambitions of rogue actors like North Korea or Iran, the states that make up the so-called West have regularly found themselves allied together since the end of World War II. But the West is no monolith. The Western world, so central to the narrative of global power and codified in several treaties, organizations and alliances over the course of a century, is incredibly diverse in ideology, identity and goals. So far, the relative alignment of interests among Western countries, governments and non-state actors has made this diversity manageable. But as the global great power competition intensifies, the interests of individual Western states will increasingly diverge, threatening the West's ability to present a unified front on certain issues.
As the United States dives into a great power competition to counter Russia and China, Washington's relationships with allies are evolving. The intensification of global competition and the current White House's assertive foreign policy have introduced additional frictions in the United States' relationship with Europe that both sides are carefully managing in order to maintain their global position as a unified force.
The relationship between the United States and Europe, in particular, has shown increasing signs of stress. While both sides of this partnership are dedicated to maintaining their cooperative engagement with the rest of the world, a tenser global situation is exacerbating preexisting frictions and contributing to a "transatlantic stretch" in their relationship. Europe and the United States are not imminently approaching a rift; the benefits of forming a united front in this highly competitive world and sharing the burden of maintaining global order still, for the most part, outweigh the risks of embarking on separate paths entirely. But there are growing signs of disunity.
Signs of Disunity
The resilience of the U.S.-European relationship is maintained, in part, through its inherent disparity: When it comes to enacting foreign policy, the United States simply holds a much stronger position than Europe. The nature of the European Union, composed of multiple states with diverging needs and ambitions and a plethora of complex structures, challenges the bloc's ability to decisively conduct policy. This design reinforces the value of collaboration with the United States in cases when powerful action is required, but it also prevents Europe from uniting in resistance against U.S. foreign policy.
In May 2018, for example, the United States announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, in stark contrast with the foreign policy strategy of most European states — particularly the Continent's two main powers, France and Germany, which remain JCPOA signatories. The European powers have struggled to keep the JCPOA in place in the wake of reintroduced U.S. sanctions. And even though the United States unilaterally forced its Iran strategy on the other signatories, its ability to threaten sanctions that could severely damage the European economy has so far prevented France and Germany from undermining the U.S. strategy, even with support from Russia and China.
When it comes to enacting foreign policy, the United States simply holds a much stronger position than Europe.
Not only has Europe been unable to undercut U.S. policy, but it has also been forced to directly adjust its own policy to meet U.S. demands, such as when U.S. President Donald Trump insisted that his European NATO partners increase their defense spending. To a degree, most member states followed this directive initially, though Germany has since rejected the demand and drawn down its defense budget again. It has also rejected the acquisition of F-35 fighter aircraft to focus instead on jointly developing a next-generation aircraft with France. This French-German defense cooperation has caused concern for the United States: Besides introducing the possibility of an independent European military capability that could damage the transatlantic relationship, it also threatens U.S. arms sales on the Continent.
What's Driving the United States
The United States is interested in shaping Europe's policy positions both to improve their bilateral relationship and to influence Europe's position concerning global U.S. competitors such as Russia and China. Much like England in the 19th century, the United States cannot allow European powers to align with Eastern powers (in this case Moscow and Beijing) and form a greater Eurasian threat.
A strong political alliance between Russia and Western European states might not be a realistic threat right now given Russia's aggressive behavior toward the states on its western periphery, but European consumption of Russian natural gas does significantly disrupt U.S. foreign policy strategy regarding Russia. Washington has vehemently opposed the Nord Stream 2 liquified natural gas (LNG) pipeline, which would further solidify the EU-Russia trade relationship with physical infrastructure, and has instead tried to push its own LNG — which it has aptly named "Freedom Gas" — onto its European allies. Similarly, the United States has opposed Europe's intent to work with Chinese tech firm Huawei to develop 5G communication infrastructure, which Washington fears will help China in its efforts to gain technological supremacy.
Balancing Alignment and Divergence
Right now, leaders on both sides are successfully managing the divergences in the U.S.-Europe relationship, and Europe is still prioritizing many of its own policy interests. Nord Stream 2 (which will still likely be completed regardless of U.S. attempts to prevent it) comes alongside Europe's long-term goal of seeking to diversify away from Russian natural gas (an objective that comes with major logistical and economic challenges). And regarding Huawei, several EU member states also have their doubts about the firm's reliability and its ties with the Chinese government, choosing to limit the company's access to their 5G vendors even without U.S. pressure.
Right now, leaders on both sides are successfully managing the divergences in the U.S.-Europe relationship, but additional stress will come from their tense standoff in trade negotiations.
Additional stress on the U.S.-European relationship will come from their tense standoff in trade negotiations. Trump has threatened to hit the European Union with tariffs on imported automobiles, making accusations about unfair trade barriers. This standoff has notably been managed separately from other issues, and while the European Union has threatened its own retaliatory tariffs if Trump makes good on his word, both parties have continued cooperating in other domains to maintain a strong relationship.
The United States and Europe occasionally play hardball, but they are currently doing so within the limits of their strategic alignment. Those limits may be hard to define even for those directly involved, and as both sides test out the potential for "transatlantic stretch" there is the risk of overstretching. If the United States and Europe continue to diverge, it could affect the West's ability to assert itself globally, perhaps reducing its ability to present as a combined military deterrent in hot spots and through NATO, or even undermining its economic strength if interconnectivity wanes.
Those potential outcomes would come a long way in the future, and ultimately, despite the global great power competition and the "maximum pressure" U.S. foreign policy, Europe and the United States are too interconnected to even approach a massive transatlantic rift. But as pressure continues to mount, particularly through very direct confrontations such as the menacing U.S. tariffs on European vehicles and retaliatory tariffs threatened by Europe, they will increasingly be on opposite ends of the negotiating table.