In the face of the growing economic and structural crisis as well as the global rise of China’s power, Europe and the United States should overcome reciprocal grievances and prejudices, revisiting the spirit of transatlantic cooperation that has been mutually beneficial in the past.
Author: Paweł Pawłowski
The decades spent under Soviet domination have accustomed Poles to perceive the West as a relatively uniform block of the “world of freedom,” but this was not true during the Cold War, nor is it today. Although transatlantic cooperation has borne great fruit and saved the nations to the west of the Elbe from the tyranny of totalitarianism at least twice, cooperation between the European countries and the USA is still going through further difficulties. There is no doubt that the state of relations between the European Union (EU) and America is also strongly influenced by the structural problems that exist on both sides of the Atlantic and intensify tensions. In the context of transatlantic cooperation, there is a clear difference in approach between the western part of the continent and the countries of the Three Seas Initiative. The situation is further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected numerous aspects of the functioning of states and nations in both internal and external relations.
The European Union is going through an identity and structural crisis. On the one hand, it witnesses numerous protests, actions of dissatisfied social groups, and increasing support for Eurosceptic parties. On the other hand, ideologists are calling for even closer economic and political integration. Financial problems are also observable. Even before the pandemic, economic growth was very modest, generated mainly by Germany and the countries of Central Europe. The current scale of unemployment and shrinking economies of, for instance, Spain and Italy are highly worrying. The scope of internal tensions in the Union is well illustrated by the language used in the arguments held on the European forum. Such as example is the recent statement by Katarina Barley, Vice President of the European Parliament from the German SPD party, who said on the radio that Poland and Hungary should be “financially starved.” Such outrageous statements are proof of the heated disputes within the Community. At the same time, the United Kingdom, whose Anglo-Saxon perspective allowed supporting transatlantic cooperation, has already left the EU.
Recent months in the United States have seen a massive outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus and numerous riots related to the Black Lives Matter movement. There is only a vague memory of economic success, which seemed to be the main theme of Donald Trump’s term. Deep divisions in American society became apparent again in the election year. Moreover, there is a growing gap between the supporters of social and political revolutions, who want to “sweep the past away,” and the conservative part of society. It must be borne in mind that the intensification of tensions is in the interest of all US enemies. Racial conflict is the most observable, but only one of many problems. The result of the presidential election will show what vision of the United States is supported by the majority of Americans.
However, it will be much less important for foreign policy than for domestic affairs. While many European leaders will be happy if there is a new tenant in the White House, in fact, not so much will change beyond rhetoric. As Michał Kuź, PhD, rightly quoted during one of the discussions organized by The Warsaw Institute Review, European audiences were dismayed when during the Munich Security Conference Mike Pompeo and Nancy Pelosi shared nearly identical opinions on matters of US foreign policy in one of the discussions after regular disputes. It seems that America’s most important interests will remain unchanged.
The processes triggered by the pandemic intensified the global US-China rivalry. Although the first Wuhan coronavirus outbreak hit the Middle Kingdom, the country started to make up for losses relatively quickly. At the same time, on the example of medical products, the whole world could realize how much they depended on Chinese production lines. Despite numerous Chinese operations in the information domain, the world’s problematic reliance on the Middle Kingdom was the key issue throughout the pandemic. Moreover, the subject of medical supplies was visible in relations between the EU countries as well as in EU-US relations. The cross-border transport of essential goods was halted in critical moments whilst the EU was the second biggest supplier of these products to the United States after China. The supply cut off was not received well in the US, which is struggling with a rapidly increasing number of cases.
The decisions of Germany
The quality of bonds between Washington and Berlin, which is the most significant member of the EU, are crucial to the state of transatlantic relations. One of the most significant points of contention in this arrangement is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline construction. The Russian-German agreement over the heads of the nations of Central Europe brings back the worst memories of the past. Given the numerous examples when Russia used the “energy weapon” to achieve its political goals, the pipeline poses a real threat to Poland and the Baltic States. Despite this, numerous protests and objections of other EU member states, Germany is collaborating with Moscow on the second string of the gas pipeline. Nord Stream 2 is a tool that strengthens Germany’s position on the European energy map and at the same time serves as a key geopolitical project for Russia. So far, Berlin has been able to continue its plans without major problems. Recently, however, the situation has changed – Washington supported the states located between Russia and Germany by raising an objection. Donald Trump made it clear that he does not understand why a member of NATO is involved in a project that is financing Russia’s military potential. At the same time, it should be noted that the US perceives a business opportunity in the region for its own gas. However, the declarations were not meaningless – sanctions that could directly hit the German companies associated with the project have become a real threat.
The poisoning of the Russian oppositionist Alexei Navalny, which fortunately did not end with his death, triggered a broad discussion in Germany about whether to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project. By doing so, the increasingly likely American sanctions could be avoided whilst German efforts to promote liberal and democratic standards would be highlighted. Nevertheless, the final outcome of this case is not certain.
Nord Stream 2 is just one of the elements of the dispute between Germany and the USA. In the year of the US presidential election, Donald Trump wants to particularly emphasize his position regarding the shared responsibility for security and fulfilling the pledge of NATO members in terms of military expenditure. In 2019, only 9 out of 29 allied countries allocated the required 2% of GDP for this purpose. Apart from the USA, these countries included: Bulgaria (3.25%), Greece (2.28%), Great Britain (2.14%), Estonia (2.14%), Romania (2.04%), Lithuania (2.03%), Latvia (2.01%) and Poland (2.0%). The United States, which allocated $730 billion (3.24%) for this purpose, covered more than two thirds of NATO’s total spending. The fact that Germany, which is the world’s fourth-largest economy, has only spent $49.3 billion (1.38%) on its armed forces may cause outrage in Washington. This is why the White House has also identified this issue as the main reason for the announced reduction in the number of American troops in Germany. The decision was met with considerable opposition among the Democrats and the Republicans. It also caused anxiety among the European allies, who rightly saw that the NATO forces on the continent would be weakened as a result of such solution. On the other hand, the discussion about the withdrawal of the US nuclear weapons, deployed in Germany as part of the nuclear sharing program, had already begun. Prominent figures of the SPD pointed out that the funds spent by Germany on this program could be used for other purposes, such as fighting social inequality. The country’s head of diplomacy Heiko Maas and the CDU/CSU coalition presented a different position.
Technology – the dispute over the future
Aforementioned China is not only a global manufacturing powerhouse, but also, and perhaps even more importantly, a dynamically developing technological tycoon. It realistically threatens American domination in this sphere, and consequently the US position in general.
A crucial factor for the outcome of this rivalry is the European market. On the one hand, it is about the figures that are vital for the prospects of artificial intelligence (AI) development. On the other hand, what is far more often emphasized in the public domain is the strategic importance of control over the 5G infrastructure, thanks to which data will be transmitted on an unprecedented scale. Additionally, it should be noted that the subjects are technologies that will revolutionize not only people’s lives but also production. The Industrial Internet of Things will make China’s current advantages in this area no longer valid.
The 5G competition and the efforts made by the United States to exclude Huawei from other markets have also been met with a mixed response from allies. Countries with close ties to the US – such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand – have already blocked the Chinese mogul in their market while Canada is doing so as well by delaying its decision. In Europe, however, opinions vary. Despite the initial resistance of many countries, they are gradually introducing regulations that effectively exclude Chinese participation in the rollout of 5G infrastructure. The Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has opted for choosing more trusted suppliers, making it clear that Poland can take the position expected by the US. Nevertheless, the stance of Germany will be crucial. Berlin was long outraged over the “brutal” pressure from the US on this issue. The Financial Times recently announced that Germany might introduce new restrictions that may exclude Huawei from the German 5G network. The situation is similar in the case of France. If these reports are confirmed, it will be a significant blow to the Chinese tycoon and an important step towards a relatively consistent position of the West on this major issue.
The Three Seas Initiative – the other face of Europe
In the review of the US relations with Europe, the subject of the Three Seas Initiative cannot be overlooked. In four years, this format has become a significant platform of cooperation in Central Europe – the involvement of Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Croatia is particularly visible. However, the Initiative gained significance due to the serious involvement of the US, a country outside the region. The perspective of the nations in the close vicinity of Russia is different from that of the western part of the continent – America is perceived as a guarantor of security here. However, collaboration that goes beyond military aspects is much needed. Hence the Three Seas Initiative focuses on economic cooperation. This area still suffers from the effects of communism and has infrastructure gaps estimated at about €600 billion. At the same time, the existing connections do not serve regional exchange, which impedes the development of economic cooperation. There is a great potential for change and “catching up.”
Initially, the United States saw profits primarily in the energy sector of Central Europe, but with the development of the Three Seas Initiative, it wishes to engage in other areas as well. Apart from road and rail connections, it is important to remember about the digital infrastructure in the region. The goals of the Initiative are to be served by the Three Seas Fund established by Poland and Romania. Other countries are gradually joining the project – the upcoming summit in Tallinn might bring a few new ones. The Fund operates on a commercial basis and after raising funds from the market it allocates them in investments related to the development of regional infrastructure. The United States has announced its commitment of $1 billion. However, there is considerable hope that private investors from across the ocean will contribute to the Initiative.
Destined to cooperate
Despite many differences and conflicting interests, cooperation between Europe and the United States in terms of strategic issues is in the best interest of both parties. In view of the dynamic international situation, China’s growth in addition to technological and structural changes, transatlantic cooperation is a secure foothold and a driver of development. The lack of agreement drastically reduces the effectiveness of actions, a good example of which is the case of Belarus. No cooperation and common position made it impossible to quickly introduce adequate measures that would allow influencing the developments in this country. The West cannot make similar mistakes in the future because their consequences may turn out to be devastating.