US involvement in our region is the best contribution to the preservation of a world order based on principles and values, and has nothing to do with a geopolitical struggle.
Europe and the United States of America are great partners, but protecting shared interests and values requires constant attention. The US role in the security of the Euro–Atlantic region is the centre of attention in light of the Ukraine crisis. In order for the transatlantic relationship to be a success, there has to be effective cooperation in other areas as well, mainly in the fields of the economy and the coordination of important foreign policy issues. This article presents an overview of transatlantic relations, focusing mainly on three subjects: military security, the economy and cooperation in handling the most important foreign policy topics. Before proceeding with these topics, we need to ask: why exactly is the US important for European development? I argue that one of the main reasons is the roots of the US as a society based on clear liberal views. This type of US society has, in turn, supported a line of thought that supports a restructuring of the world in the spirit of liberal democratic values and freedoms. This school of thought has played an important part in forming American foreign and economic policies in the post-Cold War era.
Hence, the relationship between Europe and the US is close. The region of safety and well-being, made possible byby the European Union and NATO, is the triumph of the post-Cold War era. There is a common understanding about the main problems of global security. However, all that may not be enough to guarantee an environment that reflects our main values and interests in the future. There are several worrying tendencies embedded in the developments of this century. The development of world democracy is not necessarily on the rise. The number of countries with electoral democracies peaked in 2005 and has actually been slightly decreasing ever since.1 The market economy based on the rule of law is also not something to be taken for granted. Some increasingly important players in the world economy might not be as keen on open markets. The foundations of European security are also under attack. This is why transatlantic cooperation is still vital.
The Desire to Change the World
As mentioned, we are going to explore the basis for the US’s close interest in the development of our continent and the wish to contribute to our security with US resources. To assess the value that the US holds for us, we should look at the foundations of the US itself as an independent country. One of the defining driving forces is the birth of the US as a liberal republic that ambitiously fulfilled the ideals of the Enlightenment about the freedoms of human beings and citizens;, popular sovereignty; the, the rule of law; private enterprise and the freedom of religion; and restrictions on the power of government, a. It took centuries of conflict, reform and revolution to implement these ideals in Europe. In the US, however, a liberal republic was created from a clean slate. This society, based very firmly on freedom, came to be taken as a standard by which other societies could be measured. This view has brought about two opposing tendencies—on the one hand, the desire to be isolated from the rest of the world, and, on the other, the Messianic desire to change it. Louis Hartz, who has analysed American liberalism, says that this absolute sense of moral purpose has led to the desire to either withdraw from everything “foreign,” or instead to change it—as American society lacks the ability to coexist comfortably with something different.2 It is important from our perspective that the second tendency has been mostly predominant for almost a century—other societies and the international system are to be changed in the spirit of freedom and liberal values.
The idea of American exceptionalism has also been fuelled by the US success story in the 20th century. The country emerged victorious from the two World Wars, successfully defeated the Soviet Union, and to this day holds the position of the world’s military and economic leader. Although the US share of the world economy has declined somewhat (from 25 to 20 percent in the last 25 years), it is still the largest when considered individually. US defence expenditure is 40 percent of the global total; moreover, the country has no individual competitor in terms of “soft power”.
In conclusion, two directions that are important to us have dominated US foreign policy in recent decades: first, the fundamental drive to defend liberal freedoms and values (and, by so doing, to protect the foundations of US society); and second, the effort—as the world’s economic and military hegemon—to ensure the functioning of “global public goods”, which include security and everything else necessary for the free functioning of the global economy.
Thanks to these directions, the US has led the way in creating a liberal world order, at the heart of which the usual balance-of-power politics or geopolitical considerations are not to be found. . It is, rather, a structure of international relations that is based on globalisation and democracy and that has alliances, multilateralism and partnership at its centre.3 Deriving from its history, one of the characteristics of American foreign policy has also been strong support for the struggles of small countries. The birth of the US can be partly seen as the result of the fight of David (the nation) against Goliath (the empire). This is why the struggles of smaller nations towards equality and freedom are close to American hearts. The school of thought that views these questions in an uncompromising and fundamental framework rather than a geopolitical one is constantly represented in the US. The existence of independent, democratic small countries is also beneficial for the US because such countries are important supporters of the globalised world order.
Getting out of the Comfort Zone
In recent years, Europe and the US have practised a reserved foreign policy which has been based on two important presumptions.
The first was that Europe’s own security system is largely complete. The focus of cooperation between the US and Europe was primarily seen as being relevant in areas outside the transatlantic region. Those problems that remained in Europe were left on the slow burner in the hope that solutions would be found in their own time.
The second presumption was a shift in the main sources of danger. Europe and the US focused on the most important perceived dangers of the time and worked towards controlling and managing them. Less attention was given to foreign political hazards; despite their potentially large impact, they were deemed unlikely to occur. These dangers included the use of military force in Europe. The rise of Asian countries in terms of traditional power politics was on the horizon, but there would still be time for that. “Horizontal” topics, such as terrorism and asymmetric threats—and most of all, the possibility of new countries acquiring nuclear weapons—were at the centre of security policy.
One reason for this reserved foreign policy approach was the unprecedented economic crisis. Among other things, this led to an increase in “enlargement fatigue” within the EU. With the re-evaluation of foreign policy goals, the US downgraded the level of ambition and made remarkable budget cuts, including in the area of defence policy. In addition, the crisis reduced the attractiveness of the Euro–Atlantic alliance and the value of “soft power” for the rest of the world. These aspects are part of the reason the crisis in Ukraine caught us off guard.
At the same time, the Ukraine crisis is a good incentive to step out of the comfort zone in which Euro–Atlantic relations have remained. It gives a clear new focus on questions about defence and security policy. It is also a chance to examine the broader basis of transatlantic relations—could more be done in a better way?
Transatlantic Military Security and the US
In military terms, the US contributes to ensuring security in Europe through NATO by offering nuclear deterrence, conventional capabilities, and missile defence. The presence of US forces is an everyday sign of the importance that Europe holds for the US, demonstrating American readiness to act immediately and share the risks arising from dangerous situations.
There were 450,000 US troops in Europe at the height of the Cold War. Today, about 64,000 remain. Until recently, US troops were only deployed on the territory of western, south-eastern and southern European allies, primarily to three countries: —the UK, Germany and Italy.
In light of the Ukraine crisis, the US instinctively took control of reinforcing security for its allies in NATO’s border area. The US quickly announced that it would send additional aircraft to support the Baltic Air Policing mission; moreover, it has now brought about 600 men in rotating units to our region.
It is important for us to see what kind of long-term strategic conclusions the US will draw from the changed situation. The future depends on NATO’s decisions about methods of mid- and long-term deterrence as well as America’s national decisions. The US Senate has been presented with a bill on creating permanent US bases, which Estonia has welcomed.
In addition to the deterrence factor, the US has several other important roles. As the biggest contributor to military budgets (in 2013, US military expenditure constituted 73 percent of the defence budgets of NATO members), the US is an important motivator for European countries, encouraging them to make a greater effort in this area. In the past year questions have often been asked on the other side of the Atlantic about why the US should invest in Europe’s defence if the Europeans themselves do not contribute enough. We could turn the question around: if the US contributes to such a great extent, how can European allies remain inactive?
In the future, the outlook for transatlantic defence resources is not very rosy. According to current plans, even the biggest contributor—the US—is likely to go ahead with considerable cutbacks in defence expenditure. The proportion of US GDP devoted to defence expenditure should fall from 4.6 percent today to 2.9 percent by 2017. Events in Ukraine this spring confirm that, in the case of major security risks in Europe today, nuclear deterrence needs to be accompanied by a readiness to react immediately and flexibly to unexpected local military escalations. This presumes that the readiness of conventional capabilities will be examined; in other words, that strategic plans within defence policy will be re-evaluated in Europe as well as in the US.
Transatlantic Coordination of Foreign Policy
US participation in Europe is most visible in the alliance’s defence framework. The need for the US to be involved in wider developments in Europe and its neighbouring areas is also obvious, as the solutions there are not always as clear and simple. Take the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, for example. The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that military measures are not of much use in achieving foreign policy goals outside the alliance’s borders. The main thing is to assure the strength and integration perspective of the partner countries. This in turn works as a prevention and deterrence tool against the undermining of these countries’ sovereignty.
The EU appears to play the main part in supporting its eastern partners. Experience has shown, however, that the US’s commitment is also crucial. The EU has developed a very ambitious package of reforms and economic integration for its eastern neighbours. The US can improve this with its vigorous support for the principle of freedom. As in previous European integration processes, the US can press Europe to offer its eastern neighbours a more serious prospect of integration and improve the EU’s well-organised reform programme with their own convincing political message.
It comes as no surprise that one of the aims of those supporting the East in the Ukraine crisis is to drive a wedge between Europe and the US. Likewise, it is clear that, when united, the EU and the US are a more powerful and motivating force and support unit for the Eastern European nations. The necessity of the US was apparent, for example, on the first day of the Crimea invasion, when the first clear warning signal to Russia from the West came from the US President in Washington.
It is important that the US provide this kind of attention to the eastern partnership countries not only in a crisis situation but also on a day-to-day basis. For example, if we look at the report on Euro–Atlantic cooperation compiled by the Congressional Research Service in 2013, Eastern Europe is not mentioned at all under foreign policy topics. Without a doubt Eastern Europe is today getting more attention in the EU–US foreign policy dialogue. In a broader sense, however, the US and the EU should be continuously striving towards a more effective coordination of foreign policy.
Trade and Investment Partnership—an Important Step Forward
In addition to the security pillar of the transatlantic connection, the economic one needs to be strengthened. The long-awaited signing of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement promises to be a big step forward.
TTIP is the best example of how it is possible to reach an agreement which, as a whole, is beneficial to both sides by overcoming narrow group interests. Together, the EU and the US account for about half of the world economy and their closer integration is a very natural step. TTIP promises practical benefits. The increase in the annual growth of the EU’s GDP is expected to be 0.5 percent (€86 billion). For the US, the additional income is said to be 0.4 percent of GDP, or €65 billion.
That is not all. Optimistic observers believe that the TTIP is the one step needed for achieving a more strategic European–American relationship. It is hoped that the positive influence of the TTIP carries over to closer political and strategic relations and becomes an important new “binding agent” in transatlantic cooperation. As the most ambitious trade agreement of all time, the TTIP significantly strengthens the position of the free economy based on the rule of law. Among other things, this means that the US and Europe are becoming the most important standard setters in the world. To achieve a successful outcome, the TTIP negotiations need great effort and commitment from both sides.
Countries like Estonia are by nature the best suited for the role of a unifying entity in transatlantic relations. We have always viewed the transatlantic region as a whole, within which European integration and transatlantic cooperation are projects that complement each other very well. The goal of the countries (re-)liberated after the Cold War was predominantly to join the EU and NATO. Allegedly, even the term “Euro–Atlantic”, which is so common today, was coined by Václav Havel, president of what was then Czechoslovakia. For us, the tensions that rise in the Euro-Atlantic family from time to time have never spoiled the big picture—the primary importance of transatlantic cooperation. There have been sources of tension in different areas between Europe and the USA—on national security, data protection, using military force to achieve foreign policy goals, and so on. There are differences in economic systems and social policies. With our reference system, these differences become less significant when we compare how much the Euro-Atlantic countries share in common relative to other large systems and foreign policy actors, including the one right at our border; in this light, it is clear that the Euro-Atlantic countries have much in common. Estonia can also offer good solutions for future shared problems of the Euro–Atlantic community—for example, economic policy based on budget control, achievable contributions to defence spending, and offering e-solutions in different fields.
There are currently two important processes in Europe–US relations. At the NATO summit in Wales in September, we can expect decisions about adjusting to the changed situation where mid- and long-term deterrence methods have an important role. The preparations for the TTIP should ideally conclude next year. In the political sphere, it is important to search for new structures to enhance foreign policy coordination between the EU and the US as well as to increase the priority accorded to the EU’s neighbourhood.
It is easy for Estonia to support these cooperation initiatives based on our priorities. It is important to treat Euro–Atlantic relations as a priority that transcends partisan politics, a question that lies above narrow group and political interests on the national level. It is essential to remember and point out to others that US participation in our region is the best contribution to the survival of a world order based on principles and values, and has nothing to do with a geopolitical struggle.
In addition, something practical could also be done. We could systematically measure public opinion about transatlantic relations in polls conducted in Estonia. There could be a special transatlantic relations programme at a think tank or research facility. Finally, as suggested three years ago in connection with the centenary of President Ronald Reagan’s birth, we should find a good way to commemorate the man who played an important part in gaining our independence, be it in Tallinn or somewhere else in Estonia. That would be a great symbolic gesture to underscore the importance of our vital relationship with the US.
1 Robert Kagan, The World America Made, (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2012), pp. 99–100
2 Louis Hartz, The Liberal tradition in America, (New York: Harcourt, 1991), p. 286
3 G. John Ikenberry, “The Illusion of Geopolitics” – Foreign Affairs, 93:3 (May 2014), pp. 80–90
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.