Rebooting Transatlantic Relations
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan reignited the debate on European strategic autonomy, which Washington now views as a possibility to strengthen Transatlantic security rather than a form of decoupling. The Biden Administration might be overly focused on China, but Russia remains a persistent power that continues to pose a serious threat to the security of the Alliance. On the erosion of democracy, there are new and considerable threats, such as polarization, which is why there needs to be a new approach to democracy support. These were the main takeaways from a panel discussion on rebooting Transatlantic relations during the Budapest Forum, moderated by CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas, with panelists including US Congressman Brendan Boyle, UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Tom Tugendhat, CEPA CEO and President Alina Polyakova and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Transatlantic Security Program of the Center for a New American Security.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan caught the Transatlantic community off guard, leading to speculation over the United States’ commitment to ensuring the security of its Allies. The chaotic military withdrawal was the starting point of a panel discussion on rebooting Transatlantic relations, organized in partnership with the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis and moderated by CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas.
Discussing recent events in Afghanistan, Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the UK House of Commons, said he did not agree with the decision of the Trump- and Biden administrations to prepare and implement the US military exit. At the same time, Tugendhat stressed that “what the Biden Administration at least has done was to withdraw in order to focus on the principal threat, which is China,” adding that the newly formed AUKUS pact between Australia, the UK and the US is an indication that the US is serious about the Alliance. “The Allies should be reassured rather than worried,” he noted.
Responding to the issue of the withdrawal, US Congressman Brendan Boyle said he was “surprised by the level of surprise” about Biden’s decision since it had been well-known how committed the US President was to end the war in Afghanistan. “We are in a much better place in terms of the Transatlantic relationship than where were during the Trump era,” he told the audience, stressing that Biden is restoring the bipartisan consensus about the relationship. According to him, damage was done but there is also a cause for optimism, especially regarding China.
On her behalf, Alina Polyakova, the President and CEO of CEPA, also stressed that “we have an Atlanticist administration,” noting that Biden made a generous offer to Europe but was disappointed by the response he got. “The Afghanistan withdrawal reignited the debate about European strategic autonomy. We are seeing a shift in how that conversation is being viewed in Washington.” According to her, it was previously seen as a form of decoupling, which the US didn't want to see, now we are seeing a shift where the US is looking to Brussels to shore up support for a more assertive Europe that is able to handle more defense and security responsibilities, especially in terms of Russia. Simultaneously, disappointment looms large in Eastern Europe, where countries really look to the US to provide the security umbrella. “That is where we are today and we are seeing an interesting shift. There is more interest in the US to see the conversation about EU strategic autonomy developing into something real,” she said.
Offering her take, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program of the Center for a New American Security agreed, adding that the Alliance remains “a solid pillar of American foreign policy.” She reminded the audience that Europe was Biden’s first destination as president with crucial meetings, such as the EU summit and the NATO summit. “The White House is looking at a world of complexities and increasing diversities of challenges,” she said, adding that the US needs Europe in tackling these challenges. She also stressed that the notion of decoupling is gone and the security discussion is now much more about burden sharing.
As told by Tugendhat, “one of the side benefits of the Trump administration is that EU countries are talking more” about common defense, but cooperation around Europe, in the UK, Norway and Turkey is just as fundamental. He added that the EU entails a defense commitment already with a solidarity clause but lacks common structures. Following up in the discussion, Congressman Boyle noted that spending more is necessary. “If Americans didn’t know about the two-percent spending commitment to NATO, now they do.” Kendall-Taylor reminded the audience that it is still being debated how to strengthen the military component of the cooperation.
A key takeaway from the panel discussion was how the panelists believe the Alliance should look at its adversaries. “There is a risk that the Biden administration is overly focused on China. When we look at Russia, [we see] it is a persistent power, it’s not going anywhere,” Kendall-Taylor emphasized, stressing that there needs to be an appropriate balance in terms of the threats faced by NATO. “We can focus more on China but at the end of the day when the Kremlin hears that, for them, this will mean [continuing] business as usual,” Polyakova responded.
Similarly important was the possibility of a Transatlantic technology policy. On the tech angle of the Alliance, Polyakova said that the US-European Trade and Technology Council (TTC) has a potential to be a bright light. “For too long we saw the two sides going into different directions, it is long overdue to start actually thinking about working together since we are in the splinternet world already.”
Boyle also welcomed the TTC, but said it is “still vague what it will end up being” as the statement about its formation in June included a “number of lofty goals.” As told by the Congressman, tech relations are really difficult to work through, with Kendall-Taylor adding that everyone is concerned about what it will deliver in practice. “We need to have a set of uniform standards rather than seeing US companies as enemies,” Polyakova responded
On countering kleptocracy, CEPA Senior Fellow Edward Lucas noted that “it is impressive how much is happening in the US and depressing how little is happening in the EU.” Congressman Boyle agreed, adding that public awareness is growing, public support is already strong and that the need to tackle the issue has bipartisan support despite differences on tax policies. According to Kendall-Taylor, the process is encouraged and supported by the White House as they view corruption as a national security issue. “For long, it was treated as a democracy/domestic political issue,” while now there is a recognition that Russia and China weaponize corruption to increase their influence. In this regard, Polyakova reminded the audience of the massive exodus of Russian political dissidents who have faced abuses and harassment, while the same is happening in Belarus. She pointed to Lithuania and how much the country has done for hosting pro-democracy movements in exile, adding that a lot is being done by non-profits, the EU, the UK and the US should step in to support them more, too.
Closing the discussion by exploring means to tackle democratic backsliding, Congressman Boyle stressed that more economic openness does not necessarily mean more freedom to which China is ultimate proof, but the United States is also an example. According to Polyakova, democratic recession is a global issue, while democracy is not an end-state, it’s a fluid process. “We are losing the emotional connection to 1989,” she said, pointing to the young generations and emphasizing that more engagement is needed from the local level. Kendall- Taylor noted “we need to recognize that democracy is breaking down in different ways than it has historically.” She stressed that there are new threats to democracy such as polarization, which is why there needs to be a different approach to democracy support. “It will require different responses, we cannot rely on the toolkit we used in the Cold War.”
(The panel was organized in partnership with the Center for European Policy Analysis)