German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas recently authored an op-ed calling for a rebalanced transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States. The op-ed was a remarkable departure from conventional doctrine for a high-level German diplomat, who openly questioned America’s role in the world and sees the EU as an alternative defender of liberal values and multilateralism. Maas also urged Europeans to take more responsibility on the world stage, including in defence matters – a delicate topic especially for Germans. His foreign policy vision is sensible, but it appears to be overly ambitious in the current geopolitical environment. The international order is changing rapidly, not only in substance but also in the way in which states interact. Nevertheless, the long-term result of this historic shift need not be tragic.

As US President Donald Trump slaps tariffs on European imports, threatens to pull out of NATO and cosies up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, many Europeans are worried. But not all are – just as not all Americans support their president’s aggressive foreign policy. We are witnessing a deepening polarization of polities on both sides of the Atlantic. The political instability resulting from divided electorates and wild ideological swings from one election to the next paralyses policymaking at every level. This trend is particularly damaging to the EU, which requires strict adherence to common values and principles in order to function. A strong and united Europe acting as a counterweight to the US is therefore hard to imagine anytime soon. Yet US hegemony is also at risk of dissolving due to similar internal disunity.

The future of the West is not necessarily doomed though. New communications technologies are bringing people in distant places closer together than ever before. Many Europeans follow American news in detail, in real time, online. Americans travel to Europe ever more frequently. The advent of low-cost transatlantic airline travel will further shrink the space between Europe and North America. This exchange allows European progressives to learn from American community organizers, but also brings European right-wingers in closer contact with the likes of Steve Bannon. Large corporations are already highly inter-connected and influential in Washington, Brussels and other EU capitals. We are thus likely to see a dense patchwork of interest and ideology-specific alliances emerge and erode the relevance of official state diplomacy. Even though a government may still have the power to conduct foreign policy, transatlantic interest groups have ever more tools at their disposal to counteract (and potentially undo) policies they do not like.

Of course, such a patchwork of interconnected, conflicting actors will lead to further political and economic disruption at least in the short- to medium term. But it will limit the extent to which the US and EU actually drift apart and prevent complete estrangement. Such instability does not lend itself to the projection of power abroad, which is why both the US and EU’s global influence is more likely to decline than to recover over the next decades. China is already stepping into the vacuum, as its authoritarian regime can suppress dissent and speak with one official voice. But even there, internal pressure for more democracy may eventually lead to a more colorful, even fractious political landscape. By then, the transatlantic relationship may well be stronger than it is today, and most certainly deeper than China’s relationship with either the US or EU. A happy end for the transatlantic alliance is still far from sight, but it is not entirely implausible.

By Marco Funk

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