Restoring transatlantic ties amid the COVID crisis

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It was dispiriting, even if predictable. As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic broke, the Trump Administration closed borders and blamed foreigners, first China and then Europe.  As former U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Anthony Gardner writes in his new book Stars and Stripes, This America alone strategy not only damages transatlantic relations –it sews confusion, all while isolating America and angering allies.

Stars and Stripes was written before COVID-19 but predicted such a disastrous presidential policy.  In forensic detail, Gardner demonstrates how Trump has trashed what he calls “the Essential Partnership.” Before Trump became president, Republicans and Democrats supported European integration, realizing that it brought peace to a querulous Europe and forged a single unified economic market. If the European Union succeeds, the bipartisan consensus held that it would help American interests by making the world more peaceful and prosperous.

There is a Jewish angle to this tale, though it isn’t mentioned in the book. Gardner was a member of our International Jewish Centre synagogue in Brussels and studied for his bar mitzvah while ambassador. His Trump-appointed successor Gordon Sondland (of impeachment fame) made a public appearance at my Centre for European Policy Studies on Rosh Hashanah morning. While I couldn’t attend and never met him personally, I know that Sondland frustrated many American companies with his bluster and bad-mouthing of the European Union.

Gardner represents everything Sondland and Trump hate, a soft-spoken, erudite intellectual, knowledgeable and reasoned. He is gloriously globalized, an Ivy League graduate,  an ex-pat American, married to a Spaniard, who speaks fluent French, Italian, and Spanish. Before being appointed Ambassador, Gardner interned at the European Commission and worked in Washington for President Bill Clinton with America’s most experienced foreign policy minds.

Many analysts argue that Europe and the United States began moving apart before Trump threw a grenade into the relationship. While Europe struggled to recover from the 2008 recession and its disunity in dealing with the euro and migrant crisis, China rose to preeminence. Even under President Obama, the U.S. seemed to turn away from the Atlantic and focus on the Pacific.

But, as Gardner shows, this analysis is mistaken: the transatlantic relationship remains central to the fate of liberal democracy. From his front-row seat, the former Ambassador proves his point. He runs through a series of policy challenges during his tenure where the European Union and the United States proved to be indispensable partners.  Together, they imposed sanctions on Russia after it ignited a war against Ukraine and occupied Crimea. Together, they promoted the Paris Climate Change accords. Together, they fought Islamic terrorism. Together, they forged a nuclear deal with Iran. Gardner even recounts how Europe took the lead with American support in bringing stability to unstable parts of Africa.

When Washington and Brussels disagreed – like in a good marriage, the couple sometimes fights – productive compromises were reached. Gardner recounts how the two sides overcame the Snowdon surveillance disclosures and kept data flowing across the Atlantic Ocean by forging a Privacy Shield. He tells the fascinating tale of how the U.S. worked with Europe to break Russia’s dangerous energy stranglehold over the continent.

Gardner’s narrative could do with additional description of the personalities involved in the debates and without the dose of the interminable acronyms that plague the European Union and transatlantic policymaking.  The publisher’s $40 plus price tag is also a bit off-putting, though a decently-priced Kindle rental version is available.

But the ambassador takes care to explain in clear prose the background to even the most technical and legalistic of issues. His narrative is easy to follow. I have lived and worked in Brussels for more than two decades. Stars and Stripes still provided me with many important insights into E.U. policymaking.

Consider the digital economy chapter. Gardner is careful to explain that European regulators did not act out of anti-Americanism; in fact, American companies often encouraged Europeans to investigate Google, Facebook, and Apple. Europe’s penchant for protecting personal privacy with its strong GDPR rules initially frightened American companies, but they soon came to accept it as a reasonable price to keep consumer trust.

A fascinating section on trade underlined shows one of the limits of the trans-Atlantic partnership. The U.S. and European Union vowed to strike an ambitious free trade deal. Instead, as Gardner recounts, they could not even agree to recognize each other’s car safety tests.  The ambassador describes how each side failed to communicate the benefits of free trade – which predictably blew up under populist pressure on both sides of the Atlantic.

Trump’s election in 2016 torpedoed not just a potential transatlantic trade deal, but broader transatlantic trust. Gardner’s successor as ambassador, the Oregon hotelier Gordon Sondland, brought bluster and ignorance to his post. While Sondland is best known for his unsavory dealings in Ukraine, he also managed to anger American business with his uninformed blasts at E.U. regulation and privacy protection.

Gardner concludes by describing the difference between two speeches, the first by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry and the second by Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Kerry “cataloged many of the achievements of the U.S.-E.U. partnership,” while Pompeo attacked the E.U. and multilateralism in images that resembled “cartoon-strip caricatures.”

Can transatlantic trust be restored? Gardner himself is active in Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and looks poised to receive a key role in a potential Biden administration. Under President Biden, he is sure to work hard to rebuild ties. But in this age of COVID-19 and border closures, it will be a tough task to rekindle romance among former allies, even for a diplomat with his undisputed skills and knowledge.

Stars with Stripes: The Essential Partnership between the European Union and the United States, by Anthony Luzzatto Gardner,  Palgrave Macmillan; 1st ed. 2020 edition (April 14, 2020)


About the Author
William Echikson is the director of the Brussels office of the European Union of Progressive Judaism. Before joining the EUPJ, Mr. Echikson worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to bring the State of Deception exhibit on Nazi Propaganda to Europe. He also worked for six and a half years at Google running corporate communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He launched the company’s Europe blog and led its efforts around data center government affairs and Internet freedom Issues. Mr. Echikson began his career as a foreign correspondent in Europe for a series of US publications including the Christian Science Monitor. Wall Street Journal, Fortune and BusinessWeek. From 2001 until 2007, he served as Brussels Bureau Chief for Dow Jones. Mr. Echikson also has written, directed and produced for television documentaries for BBC and America’s Public Broadcasting Service. He is the author of four books, including works on the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the history of the Bordeaux wine region. An American and Belgian citizen, Mr. Echikson graduated from Yale College with a Magna Cum Laude degree in history.
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