However, Obama’s United States — although equally committed to liberal values — thinks that the best way to safeguard American interests and values is to craft a multipartner world. On the one hand, Obama continues to believe that he can transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions (despite much evidence to the contrary). On the other, he thinks that Europe’s overrepresentation in existing institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is a threat to the consolidation of that order. This is leading a declining America to increasingly turn against Europe on issues ranging from climate change to currencies. The most striking example came at the 2009 G-20 in Pittsburgh, when Obama worked together with the emerging powers to pressure Europeans to give up their voting power at the IMF.
As Walter Russell Mead, the U.S. international relations scholar, has written, “ 1 / 8I 3 / 8ncreasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.”
But the long-term consequence of the cooling of this unique alliance could be the hollowing out of the world order that the Atlantic powers have made. The big unwritten story of the last few decades is the way that a European-inspired liberal economic and political order has been crafted in the shell of the American security order. It is an order that limits the powers of states and markets and puts the protection of individuals at its core. If the United States was the sheriff of this order, the EU was its constitutional court. And now it is being challenged by the emerging powers.
Countries like Brazil, China and India are all relatively new states forged by movements of national liberation whose experience of globalization has been bound up with their new sense of nationhood. While globalization is destroying sovereignty for the West, these former colonies are enjoying it on a scale never experienced before. As a result, they are not about to invite their former colonial masters to interfere in their internal affairs.
Just look at the dynamics of the United Nations Security Council on issues from Sudan to Syria. Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: 10 years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, far behind Europe’s 78 percent. But in 2010-11, the EU won less than 50 percent to China’s nearly 60 percent, according to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations. Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China’s sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.
As relative power flows eastward, it is perhaps inevitable that the Western alliance that kept liberty’s flame alight during the Cold War and then sought to construct a liberal order in its aftermath is fading fast. It was perhaps inevitable that both Europeans and Americans should fail to live up to each other’s expectations of their separate roles in a post-Cold War world. After all, America is still too powerful to happily commit to a multilateral world order (as evidenced by Congress’ reluctance to ratify treaties). And Europe is too physically safe to be willing to match U.S. defense spending or pool its resources.
What is surprising is that the passing of this alliance has not been mourned by many on either side. The legacy of President Obama is that the trans-Atlantic relationship is at its most harmonious and yet least relevant in 50 years. Ironically, it may take the election of someone who is less naturally popular on the European stage for both sides to wake up and realize just what is at stake.
Mark Leonard is co-founder and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, the first pan-European think tank.