A US Air Force plane delivers medical equipment to Aviano Air Base, Italy. Photo courtesy of USAF website.

COVID-19 and the uncertain future of the transatlantic bond

In this article, Dahrendorf Forum Committee member Nathalie Tocci discusses the Coronavirus’ impact on transatlantic relations, arguing that although the US has shown an unwillingness to act as a global leader during the crisis, a strong transatlantic bond will remain critical in the future.

COVID-19, the global pandemic caused by the Coronavirus, will likely become a defining feature of our age. This is not simply because this global crisis will probably have political, economic, and social repercussions reverberating across all world regions for years to come. It is mainly because these consequences may well accelerate the dynamics if not tip outright the balance from one international order to another one.

That the world had exited its unipolar moment, in which the United States dominated world affairs, we knew for a long time. For over seventy years, Washington was the pinnacle of an empire, which was first confined to the “free world” during the decades of Cold War, and then extended to all corners of the globe with the fall of the Iron Curtain. The European project was born in this context, seizing its crises and transforming them into opportunities, as the decades went by. Likewise, the transatlantic bond, the strongest web of political, security, cultural, economic and social relationships two continents separated by an ocean have ever seen, was embedded within this international system.

This system started cracking as multiple centres of power, starting with China, emerged and a growing rivalry between them took root, amidst weakening values of openness and cooperation. In this context of great power rivalry, the transatlantic relationship has languished. Over the decades, relations between the US and Europe lived through countless ups and downs. But the last four years have seen something categorically different. For the first time, the US has been led by a President that has seen in the EU and its values an adversary, a rival and at times an outright enemy that needs to be defeated.

COVID-19 needs to be seen in this context, which als explains why this global pandemic can trigger an irreversible tipping point in the international system. By magnifying and accelerating both the weakening of the US’s global leadership and the structural transformation of the transatlantic bond, COVID-19 may well become the single most important event defining the future of the once-called West.

When it comes to global leadership, China, originally the bête noire of the coronavirus, may end up as the victor of this global crisis. In part, this is because it was the first to successfully curtail the virus at home through draconian lockdowns that Western countries, beginning with Italy, have grudgingly but invariably followed. True, European countries have closed in a manner attuned to their open political systems. There has not been the massive physical control and manipulation of public information we have seen in China, nor the extensive collection of citizen data to limit contagion that could eventually be used for other purposes as well. However, we do not know yet whether our “democratic closure” will prove as effective as China’s “authoritarian” one, and in any case, in our European way we have followed the Chinese model, rather than the South Korean, Taiwanese or Hong Kong ones.

Moreover, China’s global role in the COVID19 crisis has made the inadequacy of the former global hegemon – the US – painfully obvious. Beijing’s display of solidarity by sending plane – and shiploads of protective masks, testing kits, ventilators, respirators and medical staff, as well as its vast global outreach with offers of knowledge transfer, stands in stark contrast to Washington’s disdain for a “foreign” virus, its unilateral travel ban on its supposedly closest allies in Europe, its inhuman tightening sanctions on coronavirus-infected Iran, and its pathetic attempts to secure exclusive American rights to a vaccine in development in Germany. So far, China is winning the propaganda war by a wide margin.

The weakening of the US’s global leadership will reverberate systemically across the European Union. Here, however, the fate of the transatlantic relationship remains an open question. One path, upon which the former transatlantic partners alas are on, would see the US persist in its global retrenchment, whereby “America first” means “America only” at the cost of all others, beginning with Europeans. It is a path in which from trade to defence, from energy to public health, a vicious cycle would swirl uncontrolled across the Atlantic severing the multiple bonds tying our peoples. On this path, there would be no winners in the West, while others across the globe smirk content.

There is another path, however. One in which COVID-19, by highlighting the heinous inadequacy of US governance at home and US leadership in the world, would impact upon domestic political trends and the outcome of the November 2020 presidential elections. It is a path in which a new administration, rising from the debris left by its predecessor, would dedicate itself unremittingly to the arduous task of fostering, perhaps not an exclusive, but a nonetheless powerful global leadership, beginning its work by rebuilding broken bridges across the Atlantic. Were that hand to be offered across the Atlantic, Europeans would no doubt seize it. Because regardless of the sirens of nationalism, populism and closure, the truth is that the European Union is and can only thrive if founded upon cooperation, openness and integration. And in this European endeavour, the transatlantic bond remains key.

Nathalie Tocci, a member of the Dahrendorf Committee, is Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and Honorary Professor at the University of Tübingen. She has been Special Advisor to the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission (HRVP), Federica Mogherini.

This blog was originally published in the Progressive Post.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.