Too Big To Fail?: The Transatlantic Relationship from Bush to Obama

On September 11 2011 the world commemorated the tenth anniversary of one of the great tipping points in recent international affairs: the successful attacks launched by Al-Qaeda on the USA. In this article, I reflect on only one aspect of the global fallout: the impact which the ensuing ‘war on terror’ had on the transatlantic relationship. Here scholars have divided into broadly two camps, one of which insists that the ‘war’ did very little to shake the foundations of what remains a remarkably stable relationship, and another which argues that the first decade of the 21st century effectively witnessed the death of the West. Both views – as I will argue – are exaggerated. Yet, as I will also show, the relationship was clearly weakened by the fallout from 9/11. This in large part explains why Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted with such enthusiasm in European capitals. Yet even his election has not dispelled worries about the long-term health of the relationship. Indeed, with the rise of China and the USA’s apparent tilt towards an economically more dynamic Asia, Europe – it seems – has become less important to the USA and the USA seemingly less interested in Europe. The relationship thus still faces some very real challenges in the years ahead – challenges that will test the intelligence and capacities of policy-makers on both sides of the Atlantic.

US policy-makers in their efforts to build new relationships with emerging powers in Asia should be careful not to convey the impression to their European allies that their new interest in Asia and China is the same thing as indifference towards Europe.
The transatlantic relationship has remained central to world order and it is critically important that policy-makers in Europe and the United States continue to recognize this.
Policy elites should draw the right lessons from the transatlantic crisis caused by the Iraq war in 2003 and try to ensure that such a rift does not occur again.