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Transatlantic Relations: What Can We Learn from History?

February 14, 2022

Speaker: Alessandra Bitumi, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The NetherlandsChair: Professor Mark Gilbert, C. Grove Haines Professor, Professor of History and International Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS EuropeProfessor Alessandra Bitumi’s lecture focused on the defining features of Transatlantic relations since 1945 and explained how these features attributed to the high level of integration and institutionalization. This in-depth integration includes economic ties demonstrated by the high relative of U.S. investment in Europe even when compared to the Indo-Pacific region and the Americas as well as cultural bonds. Because of these features, Bitumi argues that there is something truly unique and exceptional about Transatlantic relations.As for driving forces that help establish this relationship, Bitumi points to the common enemy (the Soviet Union) that both the U.S. and Europe shared after World War II. To stand against the Soviet Union, Europe and the U.S. established common institutions and norms which intensified the relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic. Bitumi also highlights the role of promoting capitalism and embedding a system of liberalism played in the relationship especially due to the antagonistic relationship with the Soviet Union. In addition to this, Bitumi recognizes the ideological glue that holds the U.S. and Europe together.However, Bitumi also recognizes the dilemmas and challenges that the Transatlantic relationship faces. As emphasized during both the Trump and Obama administrations, the issue of burden sharing and the increasing accusations from the U.S. that Europe is free riding continues to be a thorn in the Transatlantic relationship. At the same time, the US fears Europe becoming more autonomous and diminishing the U.S.’s status in the region. The other side of the Atlantic holds similar resentments about perceived U.S. imperialism, but at the same time also demands security guarantees from the U.S. Trump’s trade wars and questioning of fundamental agreements to Transatlantic relations such as NATO posed a challenge to the relationship. Yet, NATO and Transatlantic relations managed to continue on autopilot during Trump’s administration. Bitumi argues that this highlights the strength of the relationship.In examining the future Transatlantic relations, Bitumi cautioned that history should be examined as a warning instead of an indicator for the future. To this end, Bitumi asserts that Transatlantic relations have never had a golden age. Instead, there have been numerous challenges including France withdrawing from NATO in 1966. However, policymakers should not downplay the significant challenges the relationship faces including crisis-polarization on both sides of the Atlantic. The events of January 6th in the U.S. and the refugee crisis in Europe serve as catalyzing events for this polarization. Additionally, both sides are increasingly feeling the effects of globalization. Finally, with the US seeing China increasingly as a strategic threat, Europe and the U.S. are less in sync than during the Cold War. This begs the question for the future of the Transatlantic relationship will be downgraded in importance from the U.S. perspective.