THO Publications

A Recent History of Transatlantic Relations – A NATO Perspective

Opinion Piece and Perspectives By THO Team Member, Victoria Henson 

At the conclusion of the second World War, the US alongside its like minded European partners helped shape the post-war environment through shared values of democracy, commitment to free markets, and collective security. The transatlantic alliance and security-based  relationship has been an integral aspect in navigating the future of global  relations. More specifically, in 1949 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, was created on the tenet of collective security within the region. In the post-war environment, maintaining security was essential to ensure the longevity of the European allies as they were unable to adequately protect themselves against the impending threat of the Soviet Union. The US also had a keen interest in offsetting the subversion of European states to the influence of the Soviet Union due to the emerging Great Power Competition of the Cold War. Thus, through US and European leadership, this security agreement among European states came to fruition; and has since become the longest standing and most successful security alliance in the world. However, during this time, European nations began -and continue- to heavily rely on NATO to provide security and defense within the region; and through this reliance, the US became a central actor to the security of Eurasia. Presently, the US persists to maintain an acute presence within the region through an integrated security posture with its NATO allies. Therefore, it is almost impossible to discuss the Transatlantic relationship – and its future- without taking into consideration the predominant role that NATO continues to play in shaping this partnership. 


The transatlantic security environment – in terms of NATO changed direction in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. At this time, the allies needed to decide what role NATO was going to play within the region now that the Soviet Union was no longer a security threat. After all, the original intent of NATO was to offset Soviet influence; clearly, NATO did not disband – but rather expanded and evolved. NATO emerged from the Cold War with a new purpose and a correlated greater sphere of influence; rather than confronting specific security threats, NATO pursued more cooperative mechanisms to maintain a peaceful security environment. The allies believed that NATO was still in an advantageous position to positively shape the post-Soviet space; this shared interest excavated a deeper and more profound transatlantic relationship as the US began to undertake a more integrated position in Europe. However, the relationship among the allies was not always been smooth, as disagreements surrounding interests and actions have come into play in varying degrees. Most contemporarily, US criticisms of the alliance such as article 5: “an attack on one is an attack on all”, over-reliance on the US for European defense, and the inability for European NATO allies to meet the 2% defense spending threshold, have come to the forefront of the discourse among the members. It is important to note that US presidents dating back to the Cold War have all made these criticisms publicly known; but overtime, these criticisms have become exaggerated. However, to discuss these criticisms to their fullest extent, and to understand the correlated question of the future of the transatlantic relationship we must delve deeper into how the relationship has evolved in recent history – and more specifically over the course of the past three US Presidential Administrations. 


A new era of US foreign policy emerged during the George W. Bush Administration due to the terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. This event realigned the template in which the US viewed and understood national security. This event pushed the US and its allies to now include nonstate actors and terrorist organizations as potential threats. NATO enlisted Article 5 to help aid and support the US, which was the first instance in which the alliance had invoked Article 5. Throughout the beginning of the Bush Administration, the US relationship with its transatlantic partners was a positive one. At the 2002 NATO Summit in Prague, Czech Republic, the Bush Administration claimed that NATO must move forward to adapt to 21st century threats such as non state actors. The summit also resulted in the enlargement of NATO – which accepted seven Eastern European nations into the alliance – showing to the rest of the international community that the NATO alliance was strong, growing, and the US held value in its allies. The addition of these states represented the mantra of the Bush Administration surrounding freedom, as the addition of these 7 Eastern European nations into NATO professed a “league of democracies”. Further, under the Bush Administration, US policy towards NATO and its European partners aligned towards a sense of continuity rather than that of change. The US still believed that NATO was intrinsic in supporting freedom and systems of oppression. Although Bush transgressed and admitted there were areas of criticism within NATO – he still claimed that the longstanding transatlantic relationship “will not be broken by commercial quarrels and political debates”. Bush expressed this sentiment at multiple NATO summits, but Bush still viewed NATO as a foundation of the US’ commitment and interest in Europe. To Bush and policymakers, NATO represented American values such as democracy and freedom which helped the US in its fight against terrorism. However, the interesting aspect of US defense strategy at this time was that the US began to shift away from a multilateral approach of interventionism – and although, on a diplomatic level the transatlantic relationship did not waver, the US began to take more unilateral action. This was agreed upon between the NATO allies in their meeting on how to best support the US after invoking Article 5. However, over the course of the Bush Administration, some tensions arose because many of the allies believed the US was not upholding its role as a global leader. Thus, despite much discourse surrounding the shift of US foreign policy at the time– the transatlantic relationship was still strong. 


As a result of these slight tensions, the Obama Administration was in a hopeful position regarding transatlantic relations. At the time of his election, President Obama was considered a ‘restorationist’ President; meaning that he was going to reclaim ‘US global leadership’ once again – NATO included. Running on a Liberal Internationalist platform - in terms of IR theory - the prospect of deepening positive relations with the international community and NATO was great. As mentioned previously, due to the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Bush Administration pushed military interventionism that was fundamentally unilateral; and although the US maintained strong and resilient ties with its NATO allies, there were growing concerns about the extent to which the US was willing to contribute and commit to the alliance. Hence, in the eyes of the allies, the election of Obama presented an opportunity to revert the focus back to multilateralism and more cooperative action. During his administration, Obama urged NATO partners to contribute more forces to the Afghanistan Mission and built new military bases in new NATO member states that resided on Russia’s periphery. However, Obama’s Presidency did not differ much in policy towards NATO than his predecessors, even though his election had this connotation of ‘change’ – Obama’s policy towards NATO represented a sense of continuity. Obama’s NATO policy was a continuation of ensuring the US’ security primacy within Europe and its inherent importance in promoting values such as freedom and democracy. Obama on multiple occasions reassured not only NATO’s new allies but the entire alliance – that “Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So, if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who'll come to help, you'll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now”. Obama reiterating that Article 5 was still in play showed the allies that the US was prepared to protect them from any threat – primarily Russia. Further, under the Obama Administration, the US’ contribution to European security increased significantly; the US quadrupled the budget for the European Reassurance Initiative and the US has continuously contributed more than its fair share of 2% defense spending. These contributions do not come without criticism however, as this prompted much discourse on the inability of many NATO members not meeting this 2% threshold. The 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland was where this fact was shown on display. Although defense spending persisted to be a continuous tension between the US and its NATO allies – the alliance itself was never put into question. Obama continuously chastised and urged allies to contribute more, but the tensions were surface level. The US had interest and value in NATO, so the alliance remained strong. 


In 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, the tensions between the US and its NATO allies shifted drastically. As noted, many previous administrations have all made criticisms about NATO publicly known - including Trump's predecessors: Obama and Bush. These sentiments surrounding article 5: “an attack on one is an attack on all”, over-reliance on the US for European defense, and the inability for European NATO allies to meet the 2% defense spending threshold are in no way new or revolutionary. However, President Trump has been the only US President to actively denounce the alliance in respect to these criticisms. This is the predominant difference that has made Trump’s criticisms damaging to the transatlantic relationship; no other US President had publicly undermined the collective security mission of NATO. Historically, these criticisms were made to make change and push the alliance forward – where areas Trump used these criticisms as leverage to contest NATO’s role in international security. Although the intent of Trump’s drastic measures was rooted in solidarity of prioritizing the US and its interests, the way in which this shift in policy was conducted was damaging to the transatlantic relationship. It is important to note however, that this rhetoric in some capacities was successful in pushing NATO allies to contribute more to defense payments. In 2020, Trump announced that due to his urging, fellow members who were behind on payments agreed to pay $130 billion more a year to NATO. In which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was impressed that Trump was able to accomplish this, as none of his predecessors had been able to. Yet, NATO members still felt as though the US was leaving its historical partners behind and that in the end, an increase in defense spending would still not be enough to stop the Trump foreign policy doctrine of unilateralism and protectionism. Hence, the Administration's rhetoric and actions went against not only precedent of previous administrations – Republican and Democratic alike- but also the central values that brought NATO allies together in the first place. An example of this was Trump’s decision to remove approximately 9,000 US troops out of Germany against the wishes of Germany and other NATO partners. However, it is important to note that the public critiques of NATO are not the only reason the relationship has weakened - Trump’s withdrawal of the US of several key international/multilateral agreements have made the European allies worried about the commitment of the US to not only NATO but also its willingness to uphold its global leadership. The distrust and sense of abandonment in the US as a global leader also impacted the concerns of NATO members. The position then is this – Trump’s intent in prioritizing the US and its interests was not wrong as that should always be the President’s priority; but it was the abrupt way in which Trump deteriorated relations and denounced allyships that hurt the transatlantic relationship. Thus, in the aftermath of the Trump administration, it is speculated that the transatlantic relationship is the weakest it has been in recent history. 


The Biden Administration presents a stark reversion of Trump era policies. Biden, like Obama, is viewed as this ‘restorative’ figure in returning the US to global leadership and commitment to multilateralism. Thus, regarding the transatlantic relationship and its more positive future, the Biden Administration is in a critical position to reassure NATO allies of the US’ commitment to the alliance. Within the first 8 months of the administration, the transatlantic security relationship through NATO has had a more hopeful undertone, as Biden has made multiple statements surrounding his administration’s commitment to promoting security collaboration. More specifically, the Biden Administration expressed that collaboration on issues such as terrorism and military mobility are intrinsic to US interest - which has received positive feedback. However, there are still some obstacles that could prevent rectified security rifts, as Biden is vocal about criticisms about the NATO alliance such as the need for fellow NATO member states to meet the defense spending threshold. Thus, despite the fact the Biden Administration has made statements that it aims to rebuild the relationship, there still lingers a heightened level of distrust and uncertainty from NATO members. A survey conducted by the Council of Foreign Relations showed that although Europeans were happy about the election of President Biden, they were doubtful that he would be able to re-establish US global leadership. This tension all led up to the 2021 NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium. At the Summit, Biden met with his transatlantic allies for the first time in person since the start of the pandemic and made momentous statements hoping to persuade and reassure NATO members of the US’s devotion to NATO. Of these, Biden claimed Article 5 to be “a sacred sacrament” and that “everyone in that room today understood the shared appreciation … that America is back”. The US still has significant work to do to reaffirm these claims, but it was a symbolic start to get the transatlantic relationship back on track. The adoption of NATO 2030 Initiative was also a significant feat among the NATO alliance. NATO 2030 Initiative will require all hands-on deck for NATO to pursue a more adaptable and advantageous security future. As with everything that NATO enacts, NATO 2030 needed a unanimous vote to pass; with all members – primarily the US on board with this ambitious agenda it sends a symbolic gesture to the international community that the alliance is strong and will continue to evolve. The 2021 NATO Summit was a beneficial start to the rekindling of relations among the transatlantic allies. But, looking forward, the Biden administration will have to do more than offer statements of reaffirmation; the US will have to pursue formidable action to really solidify US commitment to NATO. Over the next 3 ½ years, actions will speak louder than words in repairing the transatlantic relationship. It is important to reiterate though, that although the transatlantic relationship (especially through NATO) is weakened – it is in no way weak in and of itself. The central interests of democracy, freedom, and collective security run deep throughout all NATO member states. Ultimately, the transatlantic relationship seems to be moving forward in a positive trajectory as the diplomatic foundation has been developed over the course of the first 8 months of the Biden Administration. Now it is up to the allies and their willingness to work together and the US’ readiness to meet their commitments.