Last week, the second round of negotiations for the ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the EU were cancelled due to the shutdown of the U.S. government. Notwithstanding the unfortunate delay, there seems little doubt that once completed — perhaps as early as 2015 — TTIP will have profound effects, not only in terms of the substantial economic benefits expected to accrue on both sides of the Atlantic but also in terms of breathing new life into the increasingly beleaguered transatlantic relationship.
For nearly seven decades, the transatlantic relationship has been preserved through a complex and multifaceted network of different institutional connections. Yet despite its multidimensional character, the relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic has almost entirely been measured and expressed through defense and security cooperation in NATO. In recent years, North America and Europe seem to have drifted in different directions and the once strong glue of defense cooperation appears to be losing some of its relevance. Another recurrent pattern in the transatlantic relationship has been fierce competition over trade, which has often been viewed as a sign of a healthy relationship. A successful TTIP could shift the essence of the transatlantic relationship from defense and security to trade and investment. Such a change would constitute nothing less than a tectonic shift in how transatlantic relations have been conducted so far.
Amidst a rapidly changing international environment, two sets of changes in particular push a fundamental rethink of the transatlantic relationship. The first is the shifting power balance in the international system, with new actors set to play an increasing role both in economic and geopolitical terms. The second is that the European project has come close to completion, albeit with new challenges including a few laggard states.
It is important to keep in mind that unlike with defense, reinvigorating the transatlantic trade and investment relationship will not be done through Europeans blindly following the United States. Moreover, the time has come to declare peace in Europe, recognizing that Europe and the United States have different defense and security interests, and appreciate that they may sometimes prefer different approaches and solutions. Such a development would not be a threat to transatlantic ties, but should be welcomed as a sign of a healthy and mature relationship.
At the same time, Europe and the United States now face a new common challenge — an economic one — as Europe and the United States both seem destined to lose some of their global influence. TTIP could constitute an excellent measure against this new shared challenge by providing economic benefits to both sides of the Atlantic and as a means of setting common standards and regulations — that is to continue to define an important portion of the rules underpinning the rules based international order.
In a world where the United States pivots to Asia and where Europeans spend less on defense, it will no longer be possible to claim transatlantic unity through a security alliance — nor should it be. We are moving from a situation where the transatlantic relationship required near absolute unity in defense matters — but had quite a lot of scope for disagreement, even competition, in trade and investment matters — to the opposite situation where transatlantic relations are going to be much more flexible and differentiated in the defense realm, but more regimented and rule based in trade and investment.
This is a major change — but it could be exactly what is needed to safeguard the transatlantic relationship in the 21st century. A switch between security and economics is the natural outcome of two close friends no longer facing one overarching military threat, but instead coming together to face a set of new and emerging challenges in the economic realm. In that sense, TTIP could indeed be as NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested in Copenhagen last week – “an economic NATO.”