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The Transatlantic Alliance in the Midst of COVID-19: Missing (In)Action?

The Transatlantic Alliance in the Midst of COVID-19: Missing (In)Action?
 Max Bergmann
Senior Fellow at American Progress

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, the transatlantic relationship was in terrible shape. President Trump’s hostility to Europe had caused relations to crater, there was an escalating trade war, the UK left the EU, and Emmanuel Macron called NATO brain dead. Meanwhile, Germany, Europe’s largest country, was essentially missing in action. The question now is whether COVID-19 will be the straw that breaks the alliance’s back or whether it is the wake-up call to rejuvenate US-European relations.

It is impossible to predict the impact of COVID-19 on the transatlantic alliance - let alone the world. The planet hasn’t experienced such global disruption since WWII. Yet, it is likely that this pandemic will accelerate many of the global and national trends that were already apparent before the crisis hit. As Martin Wolff assessed in the Financial Times, "History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not itself transform the world, but it can accelerate changes already under way." Indeed, in her book on the 1918-19 flu pandemic, Pale Rider, Laura Spinney wrote: "the autumn of 1918 saw a wave of worker strikes and anti-imperial protests across the world the disgruntlement had been smoldering… but the flu fanned the flames by worsening an already dire supply situation and by highlighting inequality. It hurled a lightning bolt across the globe highlighting the injustice of colonialism and sometimes capitalism too."

So if COVID-19 serves as an accelerant for trends and developments already visible, what does that portend for the transatlantic alliance? The critical question then is: which trends does it accelerate? While the impact on globalization, free trade, and the revival of the state in managing the economy are all key trends to watch, the trend most threatening to the transatlantic alliance thus far has been the emergence of populist politics. The most critical question for the alliance is likely a political one – does the crisis provide more fuel to populism or conversely does it smother it?

The question now is whether COVID-19 will be the straw that breaks the alliance’s back or whether it is the wake-up call to rejuvenate US-European relations.

Populist politics pose the greatest threat to the alliance, as populist leaders and governments not only threaten democracy at home (see Viktor Orbán) but threaten the solidarity underpinning the transatlantic alliance. Donald Trump is outwardly hostile to Europe and NATO and his re-election could prompt an American withdrawal from NATO. Populist leaders like Matteo Salvini in Italy attack the EU. Should he or the FN in France or the AFD in Germany grow in support, the survival of the EU would be in doubt.

Should this crisis and the massive economic fallout provide added fuel to the populist resurgence, the transatlantic alliance would very much be in doubt. In Europe’s major states populists all fell short of power, creating a sense that the populist wave has crested. But it’s worth remembering that the Nazi rise to power in Weimar Germany required not one, but two economic crises.

The critical political trend to watch then is whether COVID-19 helps or hurts incumbent political leaders and parties currently holding power.

It is possible that COVID-19 could cause public opinion to rally around leaders and governments in this time of crisis. In Europe, it could further blunt populist leaders and parties who thrive on discontent. But in the United States, it could aid Trump’s re-election, which may result in the demise of the alliance.

However, when assessing the United States, it seems extremely unlikely that this crisis benefits Donald Trump politically. There is a nagging fear that the Trump Administration will use the crisis to obtain emergency powers, seeking to emulate those taken by other autocrats or illiberal leaders such as Orbán or Modi. But the opposite has largely happened. Instead, Trump’s federal government has been missing in action. Trump’s handling of this crisis has been nothing short of disastrous. He dismissed COVID-19 as just being like the flu, he failed to urgently mobilize the massive potential power of the US government, and he has looked extremely out of his depth.

Unlike most political topics, which are followed by just a narrow slice of the electorate, COVID-19 is being followed by literally everyone. The performance of other countries is also being closely watched, further highlighting the inept US response. Americans know that their government is failing. And while its approval numbers have seen a slight uptick since the crisis began, they are now beginning their decline. The likelihood is that the US death toll will now exceed 100,000 and the total mishandling and negligence in the administration’s response will likely create a significant backlash.

In 2005, George W. Bush suffered twin crises, which exposed a lack of basic competence – the bungled handling of Hurricane Katrina and an explosion of violence in Iraq. His administration never recovered. He suffered a massive defeat in the 2006 midterm elections and lost in a landslide victory by Barack Obama in 2008. The scale and impact of this crisis is an order of magnitude far higher. Trump’s handling of this crisis may not only wipe him out, but could impact Republicans’ control of the senate. Should that occur, a new Democratic administration, empowered by a significant electoral victory, will not only seek expansive domestic reform but will eagerly attempt to embrace Europe and its democratic partners.

Unlike most political topics, COVID-19 is being followed by literally everyone. The performance of other countries is also being closely watched, further highlighting the inept US response.

But when America returns to the global stage it will be different. America will be chastened. This crisis hits right at the heart of America’s can-do superpower identity. A younger generation simply does not buy into the notion of American exceptionalism, as their lifetimes have been dominated by the ineptitude of the Iraq War, a massive economic crisis, crushing student debt, unaffordable housing, costly childcare, fear of domestic gun violence, the election of Donald Trump, and now a totally negligent and inept response to a crisis that will kill many of their parents and loved ones. This millennial generation, who are now in their late 20s and 30s, are on the verge of assuming positions of power. This generation underestimates the good America can achieve, as they are dubious of America’s ability to do great things on its own. Yet they also strongly believe in engaging the world and being good global citizens. Thus, more so than ever before in the post-war transatlantic relationship, America will be desperate to not just work with others, but form genuine partnerships.

COVID-19, in this optimistic reading, will therefore discredit America’s populist in chief and usher in a new administration with a mandate for change and a strong desire not just to revive the transatlantic alliance but to forge a stronger partnership.

The fear, however, is that while America may overcome its populists, Europe will not. It is possible then that America and Europe switch places.

Europe’s response to the economic crisis may be inadequate, lack solidarity, and leave considerable room for populist parties to pounce on the fecklessness of the EU. COVID-19 could therefore fuel anti-government and anti-EU sentiment, powering another populist wave, perhaps even taking power in a major European country, such as Italy.

It is impossible to predict COVID-19’s impact. But those who support the transatlantic alliance in Europe need to recognize the stakes and act accordingly.


Copyright: Sarah Silbiger / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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