Transatlantic relations in 2020: A tale of four futures

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Deeper global currents might challenge EU-US relations in the future and history will remember transatlantic leaders not just for how they managed short-term crises but whether they effectively positioned their country and continent for the future, write Daniel Hamilton and Kurt Volker.

"Last week in Washington President Barack Obama met with EU leaders Herman van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso. Their summit was also flanked by a dense series of additional meetings among European commissioners and US secretaries on a range of common issues – from dealing with Iran and building transatlantic resilience to disruptive threats, to coping with our respective economic crises and boosting jobs and growth.

It was a full, workmanlike agenda, and illustrates the strong interactions that continue to characterise the transatlantic partnership.

But what will the future hold? Deeper global currents might challenge the relationship over time, and history will remember transatlantic leaders not just for how they managed crises of the moment but whether they effectively positioned their relationship for the future.

What are these deep currents of change, and how might they reshape transatlantic relations over the coming decade? Will they draw Europeans and Americans together or drive them apart?

In our new book Transatlantic 2020 – a Tale of Four Futures, we present different narratives of how trends evident today could interact and evolve to shape the world we live in tomorrow. Each tale is vastly different from the next, and each provides profoundly different results for Europe, America and the transatlantic partnership.

Come Together represents an optimistic, positive future. The newly developed countries have prospered – but they have done so in parallel with adaptation and continued strength in the older developed world as well. The story takes the form of a memorandum from an African deputy to the Brazilian head of the Atlantic Basin Network – a new and vibrant grouping that links the four continents of Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America around a set of shared political and economic interests across the North and South Atlantic.

The rising South Atlantic, having grown to some degree in defiance of North Atlantic nations, is realising its own interest in closer integration and collaboration with older developed economies in the world, just as Europeans and North Americans have come to appreciate that they must redefine 'Atlanticism' in a globalising world.

Hello Goodbye portrays a United States that has gone into steep decline, while the rest of the world has moved forward – including both Europe and the developing world.  Here, domestic political gridlock in the US precipitated a massive budgetary and economic meltdown, which in turn brought to power a largely reactionary and isolationist government. With a looming presidential election, 2020 is a fresh opportunity to change course in the United States, and the story takes the form of a memorandum from a campaign advisor to a leading presidential candidate as the primary season gets underway.

Live and Let Die is the opposite scenario: whereas Europe has descended into geriatric decline, the United States – thanks in no small measure to continued immigration and population growth – has managed its fiscal problems and become more closely tied to a growing developing world. The transatlantic relationship has become largely irrelevant, and Europe is faced with previously unthinkable choices about reversing key elements of European integration as competitive parts of the continent scramble to connect to dynamic markets elsewhere in a very different world order. The rise of the 'Global South' has rendered the 'European South' unsustainable within the old EU framework.

With a Little Help From My Friends shows both Europe and the United States having declined, with neither one having come to grips with its fiscal imbalances, changing demographic pyramid, and high-cost, uncompetitive economic structures.

Meanwhile, the relatively unregulated, low-cost, and often state-led economies of the newly developed world have boomed, turning the transatlantic relationship into a sideshow. The focus of global development and competition is now among players in the South, rather than in the interplay of North and South.

This has left the transatlantic community with the choice of continued erosion in a losing global competition, or erecting higher barriers around a more integrated transatlantic marketplace in a (perhaps futile) effort to preserve liberal economics and high living standards in the developed North.

It is of course impossible to predict what the real world will look like in 2020 – or even next week. Yet these tales of the future, while very different, suggest a transatlantic relationship that is both indispensable and insufficient to tackle the most critical challenges facing each partner or the world; a relationship that remains important for both sides, but one that requires tending and that cannot be taken for granted. Europe and America may no longer represent 'the' Free World, but at their best they can still be an anchor in a far freer and more fluid world.

Their influence is likely to rest on their socio-economic performance at home; their normative consistency at home and abroad; and their ability to work together to engage others in support of the liberal order."

  • Center for Transatlantic Relations-John Hopkins UniversityHomepage

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