A secret of the Transatlantic Relationship between the United States and Europe that is overlooked all too often is that the alliance is not really about geography. The key to its importance is not primarily that—as advanced industrial countries—they benefit mutually from highly efficient communication and transportation infrastructures, educated populations, technological prowess, and political and social stability. No, the Transatlantic Relationship is far more important because of the values Europe and America share.
These values are under threat to a hitherto unseen degree. A populist with little regard for economic and political openness has been elected as President in the United States and populist parties are making large inroads in much of Europe. With their increased support and electoral success, they are deliberately eschewing and seeking to undermine the foundations of the post-war order: liberalism, individual rights, multilateralism, and the assumption of global leadership to tackle problems.
At a time when populations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean appear to be wary of further integration, it may seem counter-intuitive to insist that it is not merely possible to strengthen the Transatlantic Alliance. At this time, it is absolutely necessary to work for its continued entrenchment and to argue for the liberal world Europe and America have created. Given the political constraints and popular sentiments currently present, these efforts may not pay off immediately. But they can in the long run.
A reason for optimism that the liberal world did not come to an end in 2016 is that politics is not about policy. Elections are as much a popularity contest and the way one votes on a ballot may be a sign of (dis-)approbation more than anything else. This need not be discontentment with actual policy like the values inherent to the Transatlantic Relationship, but can express support or disapproval of a range of other factors. No citizen was asked to vote on whether they supported NATO or wished to remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. In fact, majorities are in favor of multilateralism and the institutions created as a part of the bond between America and Europe. It would be a mistake to infer the wrong lessons.
With populists ascendant in Europe and Donald Trump determining the governmental policy in the United States, there is indeed little immediate prospect of increased collaboration internationally. However, those seeking to dismantle the post-war order must display that the politics they choose are both feasible and successful. When they fail to do so—as they shall—it is incumbent on supporters to demonstrate the opposite: An open world is better than a closed one; an integrated world is preferable to one of isolated nations; interdependence between Europe and America has long-lasting, durable, and pacifying effects.
And after decades of increased integration, we will be able to compare the dismantling both within Europe through Brexit and the loosening of ties between Europe and America. Arguing for a strong alliance will not merely be political conjecture— counterfactual scenarios will provide empirical data which point to the superiority of open societies and the norms inherent to the Transatlantic Relationship.
Electoral politics across Europe and in the United States will ensure that these topics remain in media focus in the coming months and years. Every election campaign coincides with a level of politicization which makes it possible for supporters of the Transatlantic Relationship to argue on its behalf and insist on its importance.
Supporters of the Transatlantic Alliance are not bound to inaction. In the meantime, parliamentary groups can deepen their relationships and address and discuss problems in a transnational manner. Civil society groups can knowledge-share and further integrate across national borders. Citizens can demand from their leaders that they support the values enshrined in the traditional bond between America and Europe at the ballot box.
Political winds are a fickle business. The institutional constraints for further integration currently present will subside. It is up to us to demonstrate that a more integrated world is more peaceful, stable and economically well-off. And the Transatlantic Relationship is its best guarantor.