20 January 2020

Geopolitics loosens the West’s ties

International politics has become increasingly dramatic in recent years, affecting relations between Western countries. A fresh FOI report highlights the strained transatlantic ties between the USA and EU, with ingredients such as NATO, Brexit, and revanchist states.


A fresh FOI report highlights the strained transatlantic ties between the USA and EU, with ingredients such as NATO, Brexit, and revanchist states. Photo from Shutterstock.

In 1941, Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt shook hands after having signed the Atlantic Charter. The Charter was the first building block in what eventually became known as multilateralism: international cooperation and the construction of a rules-based order, primarily for the USA and the countries of Europe, but also internationally. Other rules-based orders, such as the United Nations, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) were established later.

“Today there are two parallel phenomena that challenge the rules-based order. One is the emergence of regional powers that try to dominate their respective neighbourhoods. Russia, China, and Iran are the foremost examples and are often called revanchist powers. The other phenomenon is a trend towards narrow national and protectionist policy, which the USA also contributes to. This is usually called the return of geopolitics,” says Niklas Rossbach, Senior Scientist, in FOI’s Security Policy and Strategic Studies department.

Niklas Rossbach is author of the report, Whither Transatlantic Security? – Values, Interests, and the Future of US-European Relations, which describes how the international foundations of rules-based orders are being attacked and questioned, thereby bringing to a head many of the West’s common values. This was obvious in 2008, at the beginning of the financial crisis, but was already underway much earlier.

“We are at the end of the era of economic and political globalisation, increasing democratisation, and multilateralism under American leadership, the period from the end of the Cold War to the economic crisis and the growing competition between the major powers at the end of the 2000s. In Europe, this is clearly distinguished by among other things the shift in focus from international military commitments to a renewed emphasis on territorial defence,” says Niklas Rossbach.

Frustration over Trump

What is the future of transatlantic relations?

“We need to realise that these relations deal not only with security policy, but about values. It has long been assumed that since Europe and the USA share the same values, they will have much the same interests. But what happens if common values no longer lead to common interests?”

The West doesn’t always respond in unison to these changes in the global balance of power. This is seen in Europe’s recurring frustration with aspects of President Trump’s rhetoric. The situation creates the risk of unpredictability in the West’s reactions to different developments. It could also lead, for example, to China’s trying to drive a wedge between the USA and Europe, and to Russia’s being tempted to go yet a step further in its adventurous foreign policy, perhaps even directed at the countries of Western Europe.

“EU is currently wrestling with Brexit, among other things. But a change in transatlantic relations and NATO could mean that supranational EU will have to focus on other questions and maybe need to become a great power in its own right, and not just a leading economic actor. But this requires that EU becomes as adaptable as NATO has been, and that isn’t easy.”

Niklas Rossbach says that even if NATO has thus far been the glue that holds the West together, it is uncertain whether this will suffice in future. And compared with NATO, individual trade agreements play an exceedingly minor role.

“In order to protect Europe at this time, it may be necessary to return to NATO’s original focus on territorial defence, but this may not necessarily be enough to secure Western values and interests in the future.”