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date: 23 February 2024

The United States and the European Unionfree

The United States and the European Unionfree

  • Roberto DominguezRoberto DominguezDepartment of Government, Suffolk University
  •  and Joshua Weissman LaFranceJoshua Weissman LaFranceDepartment of International Relations, Suffolk University


The history of the European Union (EU) is closely associated with the development of the United States. As the process of European integration has produced institutions and gained a collective international presence, the United States has been a close observer, partner, and often critic of the policies and actions of the EU and its member states. A steady progression of events delineates this path: the Marshall Plan, origins of European integration, the Cold War, the post–Cold War, 9/11 and its effects on the international system, the Great Recession, and the deterioration of global democracy. All throughout, the EU and the United States have both cooperated and collided with one another, in line with the combination of three main factors: (a) the evolution of the EU as an independent, international actor; (b) American strategies for engagement with Europe and then with the EU; and (c) the adaptive capacity and cohesion of the overall transatlantic relationship.

The EU–U.S. relationship is significant not only for the influential role of the EU in world affairs but also because, as opposed to China or Russia, the transatlantic area hosts one of the most solid relationships around the world. Crises surely have been, and will be, a frequent aspect of the intense interdependences on both sides of the Atlantic; however, the level of contestation and conflict is relatively low, particularly as compared with other areas that smoothly allow the flow of goods, services, people, and ideas. Taken altogether, then, the transatlantic relationship possesses a strong foundation: it is integral, resilient, and enduring over a history of diplomatic disagreements and conflicts. The primary question remains just how this steady stream and confluence of shared challenges ultimately will fare in face of evolving crises and systemic disruptors. In any case, the answer is determined by the enduring nature, and foreign policy choices, of the primary actors on each side of the Atlantic.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • History and Politics
  • International Political Economy
  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics

The enduring relationship between the United States and the European Union (EU) stretches back to Europe’s first institutionalized framework, as the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1950s. The EEC paved the way for a deepening and widening of its successive body, the EU, over the decades. The EU has since increased its role in the transatlantic relationship as the EU has developed institutions and policies that uniformly project external relations, strengthening the EU’s voice in its relationship with the United States.

Despite commonalities in Washington, DC, and Brussels, contrasting views about the global order, fluctuating policy approaches, and waves of crises have periodically strained the EU–U.S. relationship. This is emblematic of the complex interdependence of conflict and cooperation that exists between the transatlantic partners. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the United States defined its relative position in global affairs under the exclusive axioms of the “unipolar moment” and the “indispensable nation” as it invaded Iraq, producing a deep division within Europe; later the United States refocused its main policy priorities in the “pivot to Asia,” and the 2008 U.S. financial crisis produced a ripple effect around the globe and the transatlantic area. The United States and the EU disagreed over strategies to revamp economic growth before further strains came as a result of the “America First” goals of the Trump administration. On the European side, the EU was resilient and addressed the challenges of several enlargements and reforms of EU legal frameworks that concluded with the Treaty of Lisbon. The road of EU transformations has been incentivized by austerity, slow economic growth, inadequate collective response to the migrant crisis, Brexit, and growing opposition to the process of EU integration. The combination of all these factors has affected the transatlantic relationship and opened new debates about the endurance of cooperation between the EU and the United States.

Against this background, this article provides the overview and analysis of (a) the main challenges of the EU–U.S. relationship and (b) the resilience and adaptations of the EU and the United States to face common risks and transformations of the global order. The article assesses these topics across three sections. The first section presents an overview of the “endless series of conflicts” that characterizes the EU–U.S. dynamic, from the Cold War to the Great Recession and deterioration of global democracy. The second explores the main academic debates regarding the transatlantic relationship and focuses on the actorness of the EU, U.S. strategies to the EU, and the main scholarly dialogues about the trends of the transatlantic relationship itself. The third section reviews the main topics of the EU–U.S. agenda areas and cooperation between the EU and the United States.

Historical Overview of the EU–U.S. Relationship

For more than six decades, the transatlantic relationship has denoted two intertwined meanings inherent to the nature of the integration process. The first is the transatlantic relationship between Europe and the United States, which is associated with the historical roots of the United States itself and ties in a wide range of areas including political practices, culture, values, and even religion, inter alia. The second meaning to the transatlantic relationship is traced back to the 1950s and focuses on the interactions between the EU and the United States. The layer of the integration process has brought up a new dynamic to the transatlantic relationship where the EU has gradually expanded the number of European countries that have decided to reach decisions through a common institutional framework (Peterson, 2016). In this regard, the EU–U.S. relationship has experienced significant turning points and numerous periods of tension, opening a recurrent discussion about how solid the cohesion of the transatlantic relationship is.

While the conversation about the strength of the transatlantic relationship is contingent on the variables to analyze it, this section argues that the process of European integration, and subsequently increasing institutionalization, has produced a more consistent presence of the EU in the transatlantic relationship. From this perspective, the transatlantic relationship has evolved in responses to various domestic and global pressures, crises, and other turning points in its history (Lundestad, 2003). Green Cowles and Egan (2016) have categorized the intensity of transatlantic history in eight epochs: (1) 1945–1950: formation of security alliance between the new Western European Union and the United States; (2) 1950s: the Korean War, Suez crisis, and creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and EEC, as Europe emerged as a partner in the alliance; (3) 1960s: the Berlin crisis and renewal of the transatlantic relationship in light of the east–west divide of Europe; (4) 1970s: sharp disagreements over military approach and Middle East foreign policy, leading to more independent European initiatives like the European Monetary System and expanded European Political Cooperation (EPC); (5) 1980s: increased EEC integration in the single market amid U.S. disagreement and USSR dissolution; (6) 1990s: Europe’s challenge to integrate Germany into the European bloc, while the United States called for a “New Atlanticism,” signed with the EU on the Transatlantic Declaration, and experienced military disagreements in the Yugoslav wars; (7) 2000s: the EU’s goodwill plummeted upon the United States’ “war on terror,” erstwhile President Bush sought to enhance U.S. security by shedding constraints and released the United States from several international arrangements post-9/11; and (8) the 2010s: when the EU responded with hope to the U.S. election of President Obama but ruffled at his administration’s “pivot to Asia” foreign policy and underwhelming perception as a transatlantic partner (Green Cowles & Egan, 2016).

This section groups the history of the EU–U.S. relationship, which has been extensively explained by several scholars (Green Cowles & Egan, 2016; Lundestad, 2003, 2008), in four main periods that respond to the most significant transformations in the international arena: (a) the Cold War, in which the EEC emerged as an international actor and gradually developed formal and informal practices such as the EPC; (b) transformations in the 1990s where the EEC was transformed into the EU and implemented significant steps in the area of external relations; (c) 9/11 and its effects on the world order, which brought significant division to the EU; and (d) the Great Recession and the contestation to—and, in some cases, erosion of—democracy in the United States and Europe.

Diplomatic relations were first established in the mid-20th century, after the United States’ decision to send observers to the newly formed ECSC. In 1954, Europe sent an official delegation to the United States, in Washington, D.C. In 1956, the United States established a mission to the ECSC in Luxembourg. Largely determined by the slow but steady institutionalization of the EEC, the integration process undertook a “sector-by-sector approach” to economic integration, commerce, institutional regulation, and the maximization of welfare (Transatlantic Policy Network, 2007). However, beyond the transatlantic economic relationship with the EECs and the integration process, conflict often outweighed U.S. cooperation with Europe (Lundestad, 2003), as the EEC was still lacking common institutions to external relations in areas such as decolonization, communist expansion in Asia, positions to central and eastern Europe, and global strategies to address regional crises around the world. There was also, throughout this time and for much of the transatlantic relationship’s history, the well-known “Kissinger issue” with which the United States grappled in its communications with the myriad European institutions: “Who do you call when you want to speak to Europe?” (Bergsten, 1999).

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States strongly supported the recovery of Europe. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall felt that the United States’ purpose was two fold: (a) the revival of a working economy in the world and (b) U.S. aid must benefit those European nations willing to establish a solid economic foundation of mutual collaboration and interdependence that would preclude the recurrence of armed conflict (May, 1948). On this basis of collective security, the eponymous Marshall Plan in 1948 provided Europe’s forerunning institutions more than US$15 billion in postwar rebuilding of the continent’s war-torn areas, removing trade barriers, modernizing its national economies, and deterring new Communist threats.

Concurrently with reconstruction, the United States increased its security commitments in Europe, and the European Communities increased their security dependence on the U.S. military. This dovetailed with U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Grand Design,” which held Europe as a partner on a basis of full equality and as equally responsible for upholding free trade, security, and democracy in the West (Green Cowles & Egan, 2016). Europe increased its interdependence with the development of the Common Market, prompting surges in American foreign direct investment in Europe and a renewed General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Yet by the onset of the Nixon administration (1969–1974), more fluctuations presented themselves in the transatlantic relationship. The administration’s New Atlantic Charter was perceived as a maneuver to curtail European interdependence and growth, Europe ruffled at President Nixon’s “overtures” to China, and both partners were concerned over German Ostpolitik and growing eastward engagement (Green Cowles & Egan, 2016).

Still, ensuing decades continued to see congruence and periodic divides. Western Europe welcomed the election of President Jimmy Carter but reacted negatively when the Carter administration refused the efforts of European politicians to promote enhanced radiation weapons and other nuclear deterrents (State Department, 2018). Tensions rose over a number of U.S. actions that were not supported in Europe outside the United Kingdom: invading Grenada in 1983, bombing Libya in 1986, and warship patrols in the Persian Gulf throughout the 1980s. There were also trade disputes regarding agriculture subsidies, beef hormones, and the audio-visual sector. Yet the United States and the EU still saw their relationship as the “fulcrum” (Johnson, 1988) of global peace and stability, driven closer by Cold War politics and formational conservative leader like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The EEC proceeded with integration as three more countries joined the bloc, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union opened a massive westward movement. This prompted a pivot away from tense foreign policymaking and diplomacy in the West and toward efforts for economic and normative realignment.

As the Cold War thawed, it was thought that the EU–U.S. relationship may weaken: The EU had moved toward a more “comprehensive integration” and “greater autonomy vis-à-vis the United States” (Lundestad, 2008, p. 301), particularly in light of the debates and implementation of the Treaty of Maastricht that led to American concerns over a “Fortress Europe” (Green Cowles & Egan, 2016). However, as Smith (2018) indicates, distancing from the United States was not the EU’s goal here; rather, the aim was a broader approach to international security where the EU could be more effective in the management of Europe’s modern security problems and reflect the fundamental values of a larger transatlantic community at the same time.

The collapse of the U.S.–Soviet bipolar order reassured the resilience of the Western liberal order and consolidated the role of the United States as the indispensable nation (Albright, 2006) in the unipolar moment (Krauthammer, 2013). Nonetheless, the transatlantic relationship was not immune to disagreements and eventually disputes. In the Bosnian War, a case emblematic of EU–U.S. decision-making disagreements, the United States took a different conceptual perspective than the EU. President Bill Clinton (1993–2001) opted not for the incrementalistic approach of past efforts but for a bolder strategy, motivated to bring the Bosnia issue to a head in 1995. But when the United States pushed the United Nations (UN) either to use its own forces or to permit NATO air strikes, its European counterparts resisted because they had deployed more troops than American ones and were insistent on remaining engaged in a strictly peacekeeping sense. The ensuing vacuum sent a not-so-subtle message to the Bosnian Serbs to pursue a policy of ethnic cleansing (Daalder, 1998). Later, in 1999, NATO’s authorization of bombing strikes in Kosovo was significant for two broad reasons: (a) European members of NATO remained against the use of force, and (b) it marked the first time that NATO authorized military force without the approval of the UN Security Council.

Following this trend, similar philosophical disagreements arose over the Kyoto Protocol. Some scholars and observers highlighted challenges and shortcomings of European leadership on global climate issues. The EU indeed led the rest of the world, but in instances such as rejecting the United States’ proposal to utilize market mechanisms to reach Kyoto goals. The Bush administration resisted the notion of climate change and international governance, perhaps representing a larger issue that American politics “tend to prioritize economic performance . . . at times almost entirely to the exclusion of other policy priorities” (Antholis, 2009, p. 6). Similarly, the United States was hostile to the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Birdsall, 2010) and actively worked against agreements such as the Rome Statute, seeking measures to immunize U.S. citizens from ICC jurisdiction. Bush administration official John Bolton (2001) characterized the administration’s position from the “Three Noes” posture: no financial support, no cooperation, and no further negotiations to improve the ICC. Much in this way does one see the gap and conflict between collective European leadership and the American go-it-alone approach, even in face of widescale international challenges.

Even so, the 1990s saw a heightened transatlantic dialogue. Focused on economic and educational considerations, the New Transatlantic Agenda (NTA) contained four broad objectives: promoting democratic peace and stability abroad, responding to global challenges, growing world trade and closer economic relations, and building bridges across the Atlantic (State Department, 2018). The NTA aimed to ameliorate a fundamental difference: that the EU held policies based in mutual recognition and home state control, whereas the United States “retained an approach based broadly on the principle of national treatment” (Smith & Woolcock, 1994, p. 446). In this way the resolution of trade dispute was not just a matter of product or production method—with or without beef hormones, for example—but of structural adaptability. This was clear when there were disagreements in the audio visual sector: The United States sought to increase access to the European market, but the EU positioned to retain its cultural identity as perceived in its own film industry (Smith & Woolcock, 1994).

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, the EU responded with intensified solidarity and security cooperation. However, the attacks ultimately proved to be a critical event that negatively affected the transatlantic relationship. Some European allies, like France and Germany, were concerned the United States would begin to act unilaterally in its war against terror and resist ally input, as it did in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the United States, the Bush administration first deployed the “axis of evil” notion during the 2002 State of the Union Address, pointing to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as high-level threats to transatlantic security. Similarly, the confrontation between U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin at the UN Security Council in 2003 was emblematic of the tensions in the transatlantic relationship during the U.S. war on terror in the UN. Yet even in the presence of these tensions, after the 2003 diplomatic crisis, Powell was clear that although France was a political adversary on the Iraq issue, it was not an enemy. In fact, when the United States needed UN resolutions to restore order and rebuild Iraq, “France supported us for six straight UN resolutions” (Powell, 2012, pp. 6–7).

The U.S. invasion of Iraq divided EU members and cast doubts over its capacity to speak in global affairs with one voice. The EU had sought a common foreign policy framework for decades, and after the events of the early 2000s, the Iraq War became a disruptive event where continental European countries—Germany and France—became aware of the fact that not only the newcomers seemed to be hesitating in following their leadership in foreign and security policy but also some of the older members, like Spain, Britain naturally, and Italy (Baker, 2003).

The second Bush administration attempted to implement a more multilateral approach with Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. During her first visit to Paris as secretary of state, Rice gave an important speech at Science Po in preparation for President’s Bush visit to Europe and argued: “it was crystal clear that the Europeans were desperate to repair the relationship with us. I felt that it was time to reciprocate fully” (Rice, 2011, p. 336). The Bush administration henceforth pursued initiatives to reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance, but continued with ambivalence in European perceptions of his presidency. Kupchan (2008) observed a similar sentiment in President Bush’s final trip to Europe:

The Bush administration realized that it had made a hash of the transatlantic partnership during its first term, and it has spent a great deal of time and energy trying to repair that partnership, with some results. Certainly, we are not back to where we were during the pre-Bush era, but we also have climbed back from the abyss in relations that surrounded the Iraq war.

Kupchan, 2008, (p. 2)

The transition from the George W. Bush to the Barack Obama administration brought high expectations in the EU and a new set of challenges that tested the cohesion of the transatlantic relationship. The speech Senator Barack Obama gave in Germany in 2008 as a candidate for U.S. president was widely welcome in Europe, particularly in light of the perception that the Bush administration had negatively affected the transatlantic relationship with the use of unilateral policies and the war with Iraq. But once President Obama was inaugurated, the Great Recession of 2008 produced new transatlantic disagreements regarding the best approaches to renew economic growth and address the secular stagnation (Summers, 2016). On the side of the EU, Adam Tooze (2018) notes, it was observed by German finance minister Peer Steinbruck that the Great Recession was “an American problem” and by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that “American laissez-faire” was over. The 2008 Great Recession thus constituted a moment of transition for the transatlantic partnership, as managing the Great Recession’s crisis “relied on networks of interdependence shaped by the twentieth-century history of the transatlantic relationship” (Tooze, 2018, p. 209).

Controversies also emerged in the intelligence arena. The publication of the Snowden files temporarily damaged cross-Atlantic trust, particularly between Germany and the United States. Michael Hayden (2016), director of the National Security Agency (NSA), argued that the area of espionage-privacy has since been present in the transatlantic agenda and been reinforced as a problem in light of the U.S. laws that keep NSA from spying on Americans but provide no similar protections for foreigners. In this vein, Hayden argued that it was in 2014, in a conference in Munich, that he became convinced that Germans and Europeans regarded privacy the way Americans might regard freedom of speech or religion and “We [Americans] did not appreciate that” (Hayden, 2016, p. 417).

Altogether, the Obama administration, as Hamilton (2014a, 2014b) has indicated, approached the transatlantic partnership quite pragmatically and developed close ties with several key leaders in the region, particularly but not exclusively with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. It was also felt in the EU that the who-to-call issue had been solved with its selection of Catherine Ashton as official foreign policy chief in 2009 (Brunnstrom, 2009). And despite the Obama administration’s focus on a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, the EU remained a significant part of U.S. foreign policy. As Tovar Ruiz (2013) notes, President Obama saw as paramount the reestablishment of good relations with NATO allies, a strategy that was further validated in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review Report, published in February 2010, which confirmed the central role of NATO and the EU for U.S. security (Department of Defense, 2010, pp. 55–58). Thus, the Obama administration sought to balance the reengagement with NATO and the EU and simultaneously continue with the strategy of the transpacific pivot. The EU, attempting to further minimize the “Euro-Atlantic security dilemma” (Howorth, 2018), over time reinforced its commitment to NATO security, going so far as to codify in its 2016 European Global Strategy (EUGS) reflecting complementarity, synergy, and full respect for their institutional frameworks (European Union External Action Service, 2016). Accordingly the EU stresses that its relationship with NATO must “live with and respect” their differences as entities and membership (Howorth, 2018).

Diplomatic disagreements are an intrinsic element and pattern of the EU’s shared transatlantic history with the United States. And continuing with this tradition, or perhaps extending it with great skepticism, the Trump administration has elevated the level of rhetorical confrontation with the EU—although it has adopted a more cautious approach turning those words into actions. President Trump’s support of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU and emphasis on sovereignty (Trump, 2016) has undermined the European integration project. This isolationist and unilateralist approach has rankled EU leadership, to the degree that the United States chose to withdraw, against the EU’s desire, from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. In response to the growing divergences, the visit of the president of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Junker to Washington in July 2018 represented a more pragmatic approach to relations that sought to ameliorate, but not necessarily solve, trade tensions.

Debating the Transatlantic Relationship

The historical development of the transatlantic relationship has sparked a prolific academic literature. The intertwined history of Europe and the United States provides a background for the analysis of the relationship between the EU and the United States. The broad debate, since the Treaty of Rome came into force in 1958, has been whether the shared values of the transatlantic area are gradually shifting or remain intact on both sides of the pond. While the literature can be categorized from a variety of angles, scholars and decision makers tend to emphasize one or a combination of variables to explain the evolving EU–U.S. relationship. From the perspective of this section, three interrelated debates have taken place in the evaluation of the transatlantic relationship: (a) the evolution of the EU as an international actor, (b) U.S. strategies to engage in the relationship with Europe and the EU, and (c) the adaptive capacity and cohesion of the EU–U.S. relationship.

A significant share of the literature about EU external relations starts with the analysis of EU actorness. This area of study of EU politics is far from being historically linear and has been intrinsic to the gradual development of policies within the EU that have a direct external facet (CFSP) or have progressed over time an external dimension (monetary union) leading to discussions about EU actorness in a wide variety of policy sectors ranging from diplomacy (Monteleone, "The United Nations and the European Union," this work) and security defense (Dijkstra & Vanhoonacker, "The Common Foreign and Security Policy," this work) to environment (Torney, "Environmental Policy and European Union Politics," this work).

EU actorness has transformed its relationships with other international actors, and the transatlantic relationship is not the exception. The presence of the EU as a trade actor in the transatlantic area can be traced back to the creation of the Common External Tariff in 1968, while the institutionalization of other policy sectors (foreign, security, and defense; development; and the external dimensions of internal policies) within the EU was also included in the relations with the United States after the mid-1980s (Nugent, 2017).1 Scholarly debates were enticed to pay attention to the incipient external faces of the EEC (Sjöstedt, 1977), and for several decades the actorness of the EU has been examined around some general topics such as (a) the ability to articulate interests and mobilize resources toward common goals, (b) capabilities for decision making especially under urgent conditions, and (c) a network of implementation agents to carry forth the will of the entity (Rhinard & Sjöstedt, 2019). The variety of EU actorness has led Smith (2012) to examine the hybridity of EU external relations in four differentiated policy domains that include market, security, diplomatic, and normative actorness. Based on a similar typology, Pomorska and Vanhoonacker (2015) argue that only in the area of external commercial policy does Brussels operate as the real center of decision making, while in the area of diplomacy and security, the tone is still set by the different national capitals, and in the area of defense it is Washington, D.C., that remains the predominant actor (Pomorska & Vanhoonacker, 2015).

While the coherence of the EU as external actor is a work in progress and has largely contributed to a more efficient EU foreign policy, some policy areas have sparked a cautious reaction in the United States, particularly in the area of security (Rees, 2017). However, the overall perspective is that the operational effectiveness of the EU–U.S. relationship is heavily contingent on the evolving nature of the EU itself (Hamilton, 2014a) and that the challenge for the United States is to buttress a strong EU that is capable of taking primary responsibility for its territorial peace and remaining on good terms with Russia (Calleo, 2001).

Onward, the second trend of the study of the transatlantic relationship centers on the role of the United States and the U.S. Grand Strategy. According to Mearsheimer (2019), in a context where the liberal order is in deep trouble, U.S. behavior has been consistent with the Grand Strategy of maintaining its primacy during and after the Cold War, and this strategy should continue in order to avoid the return of Germany and Russia to the classic alliance patterns of the 19th century (Mearsheimer, 2001). Opposed to this argument, Christopher Layne (2012; see also Layne, Wohlforth, & Brooks, 2018) recommends that the United States should follow the strategy of offshore balancing: disengaging U.S. military commitments in Europe and Asia, rejecting its commitment to economic interdependence, and abstaining from ambitions to perpetuate hegemony. Under a similar perspective, Henry Kissinger (2001) argues that the American approach to the EU oscillates between “imperiousness and indifference, between treating the EU as an auxiliary or as a photo opportunity” (p. 49). In his reasoning, Kissinger argues that the challenge of European integration to America is structural, involving three key issues: the European Union’s self-image, the impact of European integration on Atlantic relationships, and American attitudes toward the different options of European integration (Kissinger, 2001).

The question follows as to whether, in light of the atypical foreign policy of the Trump administration, transatlantic divergences are ultimately inconsequential or irreconcilable for the transatlantic duo. From the perspective of Porter (2018), interaction of power and habit makes the U.S. Grand Strategy stable even in the case of the rhetorical contestation of the Trump administration. Kanat (2018), on the other hand, foresees a potential path of irreconcilability consolidating in the relationship as a result of a larger trend of the United States becoming a reluctant ally after years of disagreements about NATO, the EU–U.S. trade deficit, and President Trump’s “America First” approach. Along the same lines and particularly on this lattermost point, the U.S. deviation from the traditional Grand Strategy signifies a removal of liberal from liberal hegemony, a preference for economic and military superiority without regard for democratic and multilateral maintenance (Posen, 2019). Similarly, Brands and Feaver (2018) stress the role of President Trump as more than just another crisis, as they argue his disruptive effects and their prognosis that even after Trump departs the scene, Europeans will remember that the U.S. political system produced a leader so dismissive of decades of partnership.

At the same time, more optimistic arguments rest on the strength of the U.S. political system to maintain the stability and commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In an examination of the “Italianization” of American politics, Clementi, Haglund, and Locatelli (2017) investigate comparisons of President Trump with Silvio Berlusconi and highlight American democracy’s capacity to “survive, perhaps even be strengthened, by the potential Trump interlude.” What will change most is the source and level of tensions, from concerns about unipolarity and balancing (state level) to anxiety about the personality and behavior of the American president (individual level). Similarly, and despite their noted skepticism, Brands and Feaver (2018) reflect this argument by highlighting that the qualms on each side of the Atlantic remain as old as the alliance itself, with Americans “grumbling” about European defense investment and the Europeans concerned about American consistency and dependability. Likewise, Kanat (2018) also acknowledges the possibility that the transatlantic situation is not necessarily irreconcilable but a short-term disturbance to be rectified after the Trump administration.

The third trend in the literature is focused on the adaptive capacity and cohesion of the transatlantic relationship. The concept of security community is central to the literature on cohesion in the transatlantic relationship. Karl Deutsch (1957) characterized the U.S.‒European relationship as a pluralistic security community in the mid-1950s. Within this community, war was not considered an instrument of rational politics among its members. At the end of the Cold War, Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett (1998) expanded Deutsch’s framework asserting that between neorealism and constructivism there is a continuum: that in the transatlantic security community, cooperation and sociability between states has largely superseded traditional realpolitik instincts.

Walt (1998, 2018a, 2018b) and Risse (2016) have a more skeptical view about the cohesion of the transatlantic relation and have pointed out a steady and increasing gap in their strategies to address global challenges. From this skeptical angle, the transatlantic ties have been getting weaker for at least more than two decades as a result of the convergence of numerous elements that include, among others, (a) the redirection of U.S. security priorities to other regions as a result of the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Iran’s nuclear program, and the perceived threat of violent extremism; (b) the role of China as a gravitational force in the global economy and Asian security stability; (c) the still very important relevant but relatively less significant role of NATO in the context of the overarching priorities of U.S. foreign policy; (d) the diverging trade interests in terms of international trade; and (e) the growing differences between the transatlantic elites. At the core of the problem, as Peterson (2016) indicates, the multiple channels of communication in the transatlantic relationship lack strategic steer, “let alone the capacity for agreeing on grand strategy” (p. 119). Along the same lines of the transatlantic relationship drifting apart, Robert Kagan (2003) has defined the transatlantic relationship simply in terms of Mars and Venus, in which Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, favoring policies of coercion rather than persuasion, while Europeans approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication.

Within the third trend of the literature, some other scholars tend to have a less pessimistic view about transatlantic differences. Joseph Nye (1999, 2018) argues from several angles that the transatlantic relationship has permanently adapted to emerging and new circumstances. His explanation emphasizes that (a) NATO and the United States have redesigned their objectives, (b) trade inevitably produces some degree of friction, and (c) there are some important channels of communication between both parties. Others, like Baldwin (2009), argue that such a distinction can be categorized by the fact that the United States and the EU are entrenched in the “narcissism of minor differences.” This argument assumes that while both parties perceive their divergences as deep and even irreconcilable, they seem trivial and inconsequential to an impartial observer. Whether the transatlantic tensions are redeemable crises of “present-ism” (Peterson, 2016) or irreconcilable disruptors, or whether the duo can overcome an outright disruption, remains to be seen. Or, as succinctly stated by Rose (2019), the global order is a positive-sum game based on sustained cooperation for mutual benefit and President Trump lives in a zero-sum world. As a result, it is a question of institutional resilience whether the EU–U.S. relationship and NATO outlast disruption and renew transatlantic stability.

Reviewing the Transatlantic Agenda

The long-standing and deep economic, political, and social ties between the United States and the EU have developed several channels of independence. The steady institutionalization of the EU has opened new structural avenues of communication and negotiation to address the variety of issue areas in the transatlantic relationship. In this regard, while many of these areas go through European capitals—an analysis which demands greater focus on a single country—this section analyzes the creation of institutional transatlantic mechanisms as well as the increasing role of the EU as interlocutor with the United States. As Peterson (2016) indicates, “most transatlantic roads that start in Washington end in Brussels, including ones on which most important policy traffics travels” (p. 102).

A large-scale institutionalization of the transatlantic economic relationship is not typically on the radar of American public opinion, but it is significant for public officials in dealing with daily issues of the United States and the EU. The Transatlantic Declaration, which was adopted in 1990 against the background of the changes in central and eastern Europe, was followed by the NTA and the European Union–United States Joint Action Plan (JAP) in 1995. They created an umbrella framework for EU–U.S. partnership. The NTA and JAP led to the adoption of a number of important bilateral agreements, such as the Agreement on Custom Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in Customs Matters, the European Union–United States Veterinary Equivalence Agreement, and the Science and Technology Agreement. Other mechanisms of institutionalized cooperation include the Transatlantic Business Dialogue; the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue; the Transatlantic Policy Network, the Transatlantic Economic Council; and a nongovernmental grouping of members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament, business leaders, and think tanks (Mix, 2015).

Beyond formal mechanisms of bilateral cooperation, numerous cross-Atlantic consultations and communications among officials take place on daily basis. From the EU perspective, several items of the transatlantic agenda fall into the exclusive competence of the EU (more precisely the European Commission), others are shared between EU institutions and its member states, while many others are dealt directly between the United States and EU member states. The most crucial EU challenge is to speak with one voice—or at least with fewer voices speaking in harmony. On this front, the institutionalization of EU external relations has been steady since the early 1990s: the Treaty of Maastricht (1993) provided for a CFSP; the Amsterdam Treaty (1999) introduced the constructive abstention as well as the post of the CFSP High Representative and created the Policy Planning and Early Warning Unit; the Treaty of Nice enabled enhance cooperation; and the Lisbon Treaty sought to give greater coherence to external relations by consolidating the single post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and by providing for the creation of the European Union External Action Service (EEAS) (Nugent, 2017). While EU institutions have provided mechanisms and frameworks for more coherence in the external actions, the overarching goals of the EU have been capture in the 2016 EUGS, which frames EU–U.S. relations by mentioning the “commitment to shared values” in a “closer Atlantic” (EEAS, 2016, pp. 35–36) and stressing that by aligning the European institutions more closely and “stating to third countries what its goals and ambitions are before actually carrying them out,” the EUGS may become a “strategy with actionable proposals . . . making the EU a more assertive global player” (Novotná, 2017, pp. 187–188). The implementation of the EUGS has been a story of lights and shadows, as Tocci (2019) indicates. More precisely, from the perspective of resilience as included in the EUGS, the implementation of policies remains problematic because while some breakthroughs have been in the security-development nexus, the internal-external nexus has made some progress in practice but in a highly asymmetric manner (Tocci, 2019).

From the perspective of the United States, the institutional framework of the relationship with the EU is largely coordinated by the U.S. Mission to the European Union (USEU). Home to some 100 employees, the USEU represents direct U.S. interests in the EU for several U.S. institutions including the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, and Commerce (Foreign Commercial Service); Federal Aviation Administration; Food and Drug Administration (FDA); and the US Patent and Trademark Office. Other sections such as the Defence Attaché Office represent several U.S.-based institutional groups, including the Secretary of Defence and Joint Chiefs of Staff. The USEU’s economic section is constructed similarly, joining representatives from the FDA, State Department, and Office of the United States Trade Representative, among others (Industrial). Altogether, the USEU’s role is to congregate these individual interests and coordinate with EU economic institutions, namely the 28 EU member states and almost 400 U.S. companies and trade associations represented in Brussels (U.S. Mission to the European Union, 2019). Altogether, the formal institutions of the transatlantic relationship deal with numerous areas of activity, which involve practically every area of public policy. The following paragraphs review the most significant areas in the EU–U.S. agenda that area emblematic of the bilateral independence between both sides of the Atlantic: trade, economic coordination, competition, security, and diplomatic relations.

The bilateral economic relationship between the EU and the United States is based on deep interdependence. While trade disputes often dominate the headlines of news outlets, the flow of economic exchanges is largely unproblematic. Differences and eventually disputes are inherent to the intensity of the relationship. Emblematic of the transatlantic interdependence is the case of foreign direct investment: U.S. investment in the EU is three times higher than in all of Asia; EU investment in the United States is about eight times its investment in both India and China; and together, the United States and the EU account for about half of world gross domestic product and trade flows (European Commission, 2018). Against this background, economic coordination often reveals different approaches in how to deal with unexpected disruptive events. The U.S. interpretation of the European financial crisis was summarized by Ben Bernanke (2015) in his accounts as chairman of the Federal Reserve: (a) the United States never denied responsibility for the original 2008 crisis, but the debate does not emphasize that European banks eagerly bought securitized subprime loans and were hardly blameless; (b) the European crisis, despite the United States’ role, was almost entirely homegrown, arising from a mismatch in European monetary and fiscal arrangements; and (c) as the world learned in October 2009, Greece had borrowed far beyond its means, all while doctoring statistics to obscure that fact (Bernanke, 2015, pp. 474–475). Furthermore, the perceptions of Tim Geithner, secretary of the treasury, largely coincided with Bernanke’s:

Tim and I largely agreed that Europe was getting it wrong. We did not hesitate to say so . . . although austerity was unavoidable, it predictably pushed them into deeper recession. . . . As a result, fiscal policy as a whole in the Eurozone was highly contractionary . . . Tim and I also believed too little was being done to address the basic structural program of the Eurozone.

(Bernanke, 2015, p. 506)

After the Great Recession, the United States and the EU reexamined the long-term, institutional strategies that could catalyze their economic interdependence for economic growth, particularly in light of several regional or global trends such as the negotiation of the Transpacific Trade Partnership, the rise of China as an economic powerhouse, and the lack of progress for further trade facilitation and liberalization within the World Trade Organization (WTO). Against this background and based on the Final Report of the High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth (Delegation of the EU to the United States, 2013), the EU and the United States decided to start negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in June 2013.

After 15 rounds of negotiations by the end of 2016, elections in the United States and the Trump administration’s new trade approach on trade put TTIP negotiations in a stalemate. Yet, regarded as the hallmark of the EU–U.S. economic alliance (Roy & Domínguez, 2014), the TTIP negotiations were representative of the larger transatlantic trade ethos and exhibited larger structural variances between the United States and the EU (Jancic, 2016). For analytical purposes, three parallel and interconnected challenges were observed during the TTIP negotiations that offer an overview of the dominant and contentious trade areas in the transatlantic market: (a) adaptation to new demands in investment (investment court), public procurement, and technical regulations; (b) lack of consensus in highly sensitive topics such as sanitary, phytosanitary, and intellectual property provisions; and (c) disagreements and polarizations among legislative bodies, public opinion, and social movements, particularly in the EU (Dominguez, 2017; Puccio, 2015). Unfortunately, under the Trump administration, the political environment was not conducive for further negotiations and, following the Council’s mandate of April 15, 2019, the EU and the United States opened talks for a horizontal agreement (European Commission, 2019).

However, this success has not prevented new trade disagreements from arising in the early 21st century. President Trump’s protectionist insistences and “bully”-style tactics (Walt, 2018b), exacerbated by the U.S. trade war with China, have led to uncertainty in the EU over the dependability of its transatlantic partner. In December 2018, the EU Delegation to the United States highlighted two points underpinning the United States’ centrality to this “deep crisis”: (a) the United States is deeply involved in European and world trade and “any turns in US trade policy deeply affect its trading partners,” and (b) American ambivalence about the WTO threatens its institutional value globally, particularly in its chosen rhetoric (EEAS, 2018a). This concern is evident in a U.S.-authored trade policy review, wherein the United States remarks that “for too long, the rules of global trade have been tilted against US workers and businesses” (WTO, 2018).

In May 2018, the United States successfully challenged at the WTO that Europe’s subsidies of the company Airbus were illegal and unfairly disadvantaged American companies (Leggett, 2018). The EU threatened retaliatory measures against the American company, Boeing. Larger than this, however, is a growing notion of the Trump administration that questions and circumvents the rule system of the WTO. The prospect of non-WTO conciliation is concerning to Europe, but the U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has spoken of the “ultimate goal” of a EU–U.S. agreement to “end all WTO-inconsistent subsidies to large civil aircraft”(Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2019a). This perhaps indicates that the transatlantic duo retains the possibility to achieve resolutions through its multilateral ties and collective framework. As late as September 2019, however, the Trump administration remained positioned to heighten trade war with the EU, threatening to increase tariffs beyond European steel and aluminum to include wine, cheese, aircraft, and motorcycles (Office of the United States Trade Representative, 2019b). In response, the EU has weighed the prospect of retaliatory tariffs on Boeing Company subsidies. Yet, the EU has acknowledged its preference to avoid escalation with the United States, while the Trump administration holds more openly the prospect of trade war.

Competition policies and practices perhaps bears a divergence in values on both sides of the Atlantic: the EU argues that dominant companies bear a “special responsibility” not to distort competition, whereas the U.S. ideation is that of an open, self-correcting market wherein (a) a business dominates only “because it is efficient” and (b) intervention is thus inefficient and counterproductive (Petrucci, 2018). Contemporaneous technology cases have tested this framework, particularly in the Google antitrust case. The EU’s €4.34 billion fine, the largest imposed in the EU, prompted President Trump to label the EU as a “foe” that takes advantage of the United States on trade (European Commission, 2018). In this way the two parties disagree despite common fundamentals.

Petrucci (2018) takes the disagreement one step further and argues that U.S. and EU aims are the same and diverge only in approach:

The US approach is to only enforce antitrust laws when consumers pay more as a result of collusive or abusive practices. But the EU has a more sophisticated answer: to prevent consumers from paying more, but also to create an economic environment where businesses have a chance to compete.

Margrethe Vestager, the European commissioner on competition, reflects this “European” approach in her handling of the Google case: “So there is this European culture . . . to make decisions to regulate the marketplace, and then, within this regulatory framework, say, ‘Go compete.’ And then, again, when you do compete, you have to do that on a level playing field, which is why we have competition laws as well” (Kulwin, 2018).

Concerns over security have frequented the EU perspective, as the United States had been far more willing and able to act on security matters in five ways: to secure its interests unilaterally; to use force without UN sanctioning; to pursue preventive, not just preemptive, action against perceived threats; to employ fewer restraints on military resources utilized; and to deploy force globally for a wide range of purposes well beyond mere homeland defense or security (Smith, 2018). Yet, while the Trump administration has numerous times suggested an abandonment of NATO, the United States has strong incentives to remain. Fluctuations in U.S. support for multilateral security, however, continue a long struggle within U.S. policy and approach: whether the EU is a partner or a problem in security. Often the United States has “spoken the language of partnership,” but at the same time treated the EU as a problem, utilizing its so-called special relationship with the United Kingdom as a “mechanism for managing that problem . . . [providing] a means to influence and constrain the Union’s activities” (Rees, 2017, p. 559). In spite of transatlantic disagreements regarding NATO, a de facto functional consensus has emerged over the past two decades because neither NATOn or the EU are full-spectrum security providers; they are complementary institutions with offsetting strengths and weaknesses, and, together, the two organizations function as agents of collective securitization across a wide spectrum of areas (Sperling & Webber, "North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union," this work).

Transatlantic interventions in Libya and Syria are indicative of divergent EU–U.S. security support. Historically, the EU has been a leading rhetorical proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P), backing its words with actions such as armament embargo, trade prohibition, and asset-freezing in Libya (early 1970s). Amid its array of diplomatic response, however, the EU has wavered due to interagency divisions on military intervention, as when several member states chose to delay troop commitments unless there was first a UN Security Council resolution and international inspections verifying culpability of the Syrian regime (Tocci, 2016). On the part of the United States in Libya and Syria, the question has been of its commitment to R2P itself. Only with a “residue of skepticism” did the Obama administration accept R2P as the norm and response in Libya, framing not within R2P but in the protection of national interests abroad.

The EU and the United States have operated both jointly and divergently on the bilateral diplomatic agenda, particularly in the areas of Russia, Iran, and climate change. In terms of international sanctions, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was immediately met by the EU with a series of escalating diplomatic responses, including condemnation of the act, nonrecognition of annexation, travel bans, and asset-freezing against persons involved (EU Newsroom, 2019). Similarly, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated seven individuals and one entity contributing to the situation, the U.S. Department of Commerce (2014) expanded export restrictions on Russia, and pre-existing U.S. sanctions were intensified to harm specific Russian economic sectors.

In contrast, the EU and United States split their typical common approach on the Iran nuclear program when the United States reintroduced sanctions on Iran and withdrew from the JCPOA. Federica Mogherini, EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, condemned the U.S. decision in an official statement, noting the EU’s “deep regret” over the reimposition and subsequently activating the EU Blocking Statute to “protect EU companies doing legitimate business with Iran from the impact of US extra-territorial sanctions” (EEAS, 2018b). Moreover, as the United States has opted for a maximum pressure approach with Iran, the EU repositioned as a more “coherent nonproliferation actor,” although the question of reliability remains for how long an EU-led multilateral arrangement will last with Iran yet without the United States (Harnisch, "Iran and European Union Politics," this work).

On the topic of climate change, the EU has led the transatlantic region against sharp diplomatic divergence with U.S. Republican administrations (George W. Bush and Donald Trump). The negotiation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was a key diplomatic priority of the EU, ended with the U.S. withdrawal in 2001, prompting the EU to (a) quickly reach a deal with Russia to ratify the protocol in exchange for membership to the WTO and (b) push for the ratification of the subsequent 2001 Marrakesh Agreements regarding Kyoto’s technical implementation (Delreux & Ohler, "Climate Policy in European Union Politics," this work). Yet during the unsuccessful negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, the EU was relegated to the backseat as the United States dominated the endgame of the negotiations. The EU then changed approach and adopted greater pragmatism, taking on the midway point of leader and mediator, “lediator,” and invested more in diplomatic coalition-building activities with third countries (Bäckstrand & Elgström, 2013; Delreux & Ohler, "Climate Policy in European Union Politics," this work). The United States has again diverged from the EU position in its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, producing a setback in global governance and new requirement for EU adaptation to global climate action. Thus, the EU has frequently adapted its role as a leader in climate change both with and despite American willingness to contradict the EU position.

Final Considerations

Throughout the course of the transatlantic history, the role and salience of the EU has increased as Europe has integrated and institutionalized more deeply (Peterson, 2016). Likewise, the broader transatlantic partnership has changed with global transformations including NATO enlargements and reforms in governance structures and global markets. In trade, the EU has developed a formidable internal trade bloc and external partnerships through agreements including the Transatlantic Trade Partnership and Transatlantic Economic Council, while in security the EU has played party to the United States and NATO on international issues yet has also aligned on its own foreign policy, as in its decision to remain in the JCPOA with Iran despite the American withdrawal. Thus the EU has, as interlocutor with the United States, enabled in Europe a stronger degree of actorness in transatlantic decision making. And despite intermittent disagreements and challenges in its relationship with the United States, the EU increasingly projects a unified European voice in trade, security, and diplomacy.

One of the crucial debates in the transatlantic relationship is whether the United States remains committed to lead in the transatlantic area and world affairs. The 2018 survey of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicates 7 in 10 Americans are in favor of the United States taking an active part in world affairs (70%), the highest recorded level of support since 1974 except for 2002; and majorities of the public say that the United States should participate in the Iran deal (66%) and the Paris Agreement (68%). When people are asked about the global influence of other nations around the world, Americans are clearly aware of a rising China, with an average of 7.3 out of 10, followed by the EU (6.8) and Russia (6.6) (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 2018).

While public opinion and foreign policy often collide, democracies tend to align domestic preferences to foreign policy actions in spite of governments or administrations that eventually focus on only one sector of their constituents. The gap between public opinion and the policies of the Trump administration indicate that the attempt to recalibrate the role of U.S. foreign policy in a transatlantic relationship partially responds to the two-level game logic (Putnam, 1988), albeit in a very fragmented fashion where President Trump responds to the preferences of a sector of the electorate rather than to a large coalition of societal actors. While the eventual and recurrent fissure between public opinion/establishment and the foreign policy of the White House has occurred to other administrations, the hallmark of the Trump administration is the unconventional and acrimonious narrative of the president and the dealignment with the establishment of the State Department and other agencies. Taken together, these actions send mixed signals of inconsistency and unreliability to Europe and to the EU, inverting Kissinger’s traditional analogy of the European phone number: who does the EU call if it wants to call the United States? (Tocci, 2018).

The transatlantic relationship’s broader history of security and democracy places in the backseat the Trump- and Brexit-era narrative of “rising disillusion with traditional outcomes in western democracies . . . and globalization,” provoked by the Great Recession, migration crises, and media fragmentation (Peterson, 2018, p. 647). Crises surely have been, and will be, a frequent aspect of the intense interdependences on both sides of the Atlantic, but the level of contestation and conflict is low in comparison with other areas that smoothly allow the flow of goods, services, people, and ideas (Baldwin, 2009). Taken altogether, then, the transatlantic relationship possesses a strong foundation, integrity, and resilience that endure a history of diplomatic disagreements and conflicts. Yet the question remains just how this steady stream and confluence of shared challenges ultimately impacts the EU–U.S. relationship. Will the next disagreement be just another crisis? Or will it be a systemic disruptor, a challenge that shakes the foundations of transatlantic bonds? In any case, the answer will be determined by the resilience and foreign policy choices of the primary actors on each side of the Atlantic.


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  • 1. While the idea of European integration in various forms predates the ECSC, the byproduct of external relations received only modest attention. In fact, the EPC was launched in 1970 and the cooperation in external relations remained outside the framework of the Community Treaties. While the Single European Act acknowledged the importance of foreign policy, the EU embraced a significant transformation of its external relations only after the Maastricht Treaty (1993) and subsequent reforms that led to the Treaty of Lisbon (2009).