Whether in an arms race with a resurgent Russia, economic arm wrestling with China, or even attempts to contain the ambitions of rogue actors like North Korea or Iran, the states that make up the so-called West have regularly found themselves allied together since the end of World War II.
But the West is no monolith. The Western world, so central to the narrative of global power and codified in several treaties, organizations and alliances over the course of a century, is incredibly diverse in ideology, identity and goals.
So far, the relative alignment of interests among Western countries, governments and non-state actors has made this diversity manageable. But as the global great power competition intensifies, the interests of individual Western states will increasingly diverge, threatening the West’s ability to present a unified front on certain issues.
The relationship between the United States and Europe, in particular, has shown increasing signs of stress. While both sides of this partnership are dedicated to maintaining their cooperative engagement with the rest of the world, a tenser global situation is exacerbating preexisting frictions and contributing to a “transatlantic stretch” in their relationship. Europe and the United States are not imminently approaching a rift; the benefits of forming a united front in this highly competitive world and sharing the burden of maintaining global order still, for the most part, outweigh the risks of embarking on separate paths entirely. But there are growing signs of disunity.
Signs of Disunity
The resilience of the U.S.-European relationship is maintained, in part, through its inherent disparity: When it comes to enacting foreign policy, the United States simply holds a much stronger position than Europe. The nature of the European Union, composed of multiple states with diverging needs and ambitions and a plethora of complex structures, challenges the bloc’s ability to decisively conduct policy. This design reinforces the value of collaboration with the United States in cases when powerful action is required, but it also prevents Europe from uniting in resistance against U.S. foreign policy.