The 2023 NATO summit took place in Vilnius, Lithuania this week, at which members of the alliance met to discuss the future of the Transatlantic security relationship as well as the recent accession of Sweden to membership. The relationship between the United States and its European allies has waxed and waned in recent years, but the war in Ukraine has so far been an impetus for strengthening the bonds within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and throughout the liberal democratic world. Russia’s renewed commitment to conquering Ukraine, an effort that dates at least back to the 2014 invasion of Crimea, has newly demonstrated the urgency of both the security threat and the ideological challenge to the rules-based international order.
Although this threat has sometimes split the attention of the United States between Europe and the Asia-Pacific, this revitalized Transatlantic relationship – which includes both closer relations between the United Kingdom and the EU as well as new possibilities for NATO security cooperation – has been for the most part improving.
The Transatlantic relationship is complicated by economic, security, and political factors, and in sum the United States wields a considerable amount of power comparative to its European allies, especially with respect to joint strategic decisions, but also in international institutions and global markets. This places a comparatively significant amount of responsibility and burden on the United States when investing in European security, and correspondingly, European NATO members have historically relegated some share of their decision-making power to Washington even as they defer requests to strengthen their own militaries up to treaty-obligated spending minimums. The Ukraine war, however, has renewed attention on the importance of a well-formulated NATO strategy for stability on the European continent and has at least partially dissolved the internal tensions in Europe which have historically posed a stumbling block to effective policy planning and execution.
It remains to be seen how much the Transatlantic relationship can improve, and how far Europeans are willing to go with respect to their security commitments. For instance, although Germany has publicly pledged to increase its defense spending as part of its “Zeitenwende” agenda, Berlin’s role in the European Union means it is still subject to political limitations. In practice, many of NATO’s European countries seem to be complacent about their security dependence on the United States, and powerful countries like Germany have as yet failed to meet all the pledges listed on their “Zeitenwende” agenda.
There is also the looming question of Beijing’s growing global presence, and its efforts to build economic and diplomatic inroads with European states. At least domestically, part of how the United States justifies European security dependence is with the promise of allied support in non-security policy, especially with new efforts to reshape U.S. industrial policy as well as compete with China in technology and innovation. Several key European nations, including Germany, have thus far shown interest in formulating their own policy with China – a relationship which is destined for a collision course with the policy priorities of the United States. In the future, Washington could put pressure on these states to align allied economic policy with it commensurate with their alignment on security issues.
Another threat is the growing coalition of Russian and Chinese-aligned, anti-Western autocracies in Eurasia. While the United States has divided its efforts between supporting Europe in countering Russia and in forming an Asia-Pacific coalition of states to contain China, it is important to note that the two threats are not wholly separate. China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have been cooperating to expand their capabilities militarily, as well as expand trade and transportation networks between themselves. If Washington’s commitments seem shaky, European NATO states may have to decide – at least on certain matters – between becoming more militarily independent from the United States in order to make their own economic decisions, or relegating some of their decision-making power on economic issues to Washington in order to keep the security protection of the United States. It remains to be seen whether Transatlantic relations will be able to find a new equilibrium that can keep the alliance strong and thriving after the Ukraine war ultimately comes to a close.