Since the end of World War II, the trans-Atlantic partnership has been crucial for international security and the stability of the global economy. Today, this alliance is weaker, and less globally relevant, than at any time since 1941. Given the broad global stakes involved, this is Eurasia Group’s top political risk for 2016.
In part, this is a natural result of the “rise of the different,” the expanding influence of emerging market governments like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey, and others that represent a wide range of different political and economic values. These countries have more than enough strength and self-confidence to ignore pressure from the world’s richest countries on many questions. In addition, the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan leave Americans less willing to accept new costs and risks abroad, forcing the Obama administration, like the George W. Bush administration, to rely on unilateralist foreign policy tools like sanctions, surveillance and drones. This shift has driven a wedge between Washington and many of its European allies. Finally, Europe is now distracted by a lengthening list of serious challenges of its own – political stresses created by the wave of migrants, ISIS-related security threats, differences with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, and Britain’s looming EU referendum. Europe is divided, vulnerable and insecure.
As a result, we already see European governments addressing problems by turning not to their familiar American partner, but toward other governments that offer opportunities that Washington cannot or will not provide. Britain has an economic motive to court China, as its leaders wonder how it can remain a 21st century economic power, particularly at a time when its EU future is in doubt. To diversify its opportunities, the UK ignored American objections to become a member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. To become a global hub for internationalization of China's renminbi, Britain will worry less about sharing technology, China’s human rights practices, and security questions like Taiwan, the South China Sea, or even democracy in Hong Kong. Britain needs the investment.
France has a security motive for turning toward Russia. The French government has become much more militarily assertive against ISIS. Yes, the Americans have dropped plenty of bombs on ISIS in Syria as the Germans focus on diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and infrastructure support. But the Russians will bolster Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, which France hopes will help eradicate ISIS and stem the flow of desperate refugees toward Europe. After the most recent attack on Paris, France used a chapter of the Lisbon treaty to call for collective European security – for the first time in history – rather than turning to NATO, which would prevent active cooperation with Russia. What does that say for the trans-Atlantic alliance?
Germany has a political motive for working with Turkey. Chancellor Angela Merkel understands that her open-door refugee policy will work only if the rapidly rising tide of refugees doesn't become a flood. This requires that Germany make deals with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey, which presently houses more than 2 million Syrian refugees. Merkel has offered to put Turkey’s EU bid back on track and consider visa-free travel for Turks across Europe even as Erdogan is harassing political opponents and jailing journalists, because Turkey is the gatekeeper for migrant flows into Europe. Whether these policies are wise or unwise, they don’t represent traditional trans-Atlantic values.
Divisions between the US and Europe will be most obvious this year on Ukraine and Syria. Americans, who have the luxury of viewing both crises from a distance, will stand on principle. That means an insistence that sanctions on Russian remain until Ukraine escapes Putin’s shadow and that Assad must go. Europeans, who must deal directly with the fallout from both countries, will rely on pragmatism. That means that the EU will likely ease sanctions on Russia later this year and fight one enemy at a time in Syria.
The hollowing of the trans-Atlantic partnership also means that it will matter less in years to come that Europe and the United States have much more in common with one another than either has with China. Economic realities will trump political principle. That will prove a loss for the partnership that, for all its flaws and limitations, has done more than any in history to promote democracy, freedom of expression, and rule of law.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of "Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World." The Hollow Alliance is one of 10 Top Risks identified by Eurasia Group for 2016. For more information visit here.