Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Has Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Strengthened Transatlantic Ties?

| Nov. 02, 2023

 

BACKGROUND

Transatlantic ties and unity have experienced substantial transformation as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While some may argue that the U.S. and Europe are more united than ever thanks to a common geopolitical adversary, others are not as convinced due to growing costs and diverging strategic interests. The question as to whether or not the transatlantic alliance is fraying or strengthening remains central to current debates.

ABOUT THE STUDY GROUP

Over the course of six sessions, this study group, led by Dr. Karen Donfried, is examining key foreign policy debates flowing from Russia’s war against Ukraine.  The objective is to provide a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine and the implications for U.S. interests. Two teams of four students each debate the weekly topic as the rest of the study group observes.

A Renewed Purpose for NATO

AGREE

NATO has never been more united in its mission and by its values of freedom and democracy, as evidenced by Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership applications and the significant amount of U.S. assistance to European allies. These examples underscore the fact that transatlantic ties have most certainly strengthened in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine thanks to marked changes within the transatlantic security community. This new phase of the NATO relationship signals an observable improvement in the nature of transatlantic ties; however, it is important to bear in mind that this speaks to the current timeframe and not a future one, where different changes may very well take shape.

DISAGREE

While there is almost certainly a renewed sense of purpose within the NATO community and the need for U.S. troops to be stationed in Europe, there is also a renewed European dependence on the United States for security despite efforts for European “strategic autonomy.” There is a need to quantify the assertions of renewed NATO unity, and by extension transatlantic cohesion, with facts and data rather than from intuition and rhetoric. The NATO community is still experiencing divisions among its members. Despite claims that NATO has been strengthened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has not been able to reach unanimity on the induction of Sweden as a new member nor has it been able to discourage renewed opposition to military provisions to Ukraine as is evidenced by Robert Fico’s election in Slovakia.

China Challenge Coalesces the Transatlantic Community

AGREE

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has boosted European resolve to stand with the United States in countering the geopolitical challenge that China poses. While it previously was an acceptable mainstream position in Europe to be relatively “soft” on China, particularly within the realm of economic engagement and human rights, the war has since driven Europeans to adopt more similar views on China as Americans hold. The shift in stances speaks to both the increasing view that China is a common geopolitical challenge and, consequently, that this challenge demands a unified and robust transatlantic alliance. Moreover, the counterfactual informs us that without the invasion, Europe would perhaps continue to tacitly pursue a lax policy on China—a strategic risk to the United States.

DISAGREE

All the signs still point to China and Asia remaining the top U.S. strategic priority for the foreseeable future and this has certainly driven U.S. foreign policy; however, to state decidedly that the war has pushed Europeans to become hawkish on China would completely ignore the damaging actions of the Chinese government and the implications they have had on EU-China relations, independent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thus, it is important to not assume causality in the larger implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on European foreign policy vis-a-vis China.

Europe Remains a Key Priority of the United States

AGREE

President Biden has voiced fervent support for a strong alliance with Europe and made clear that Europe remains and will continue to be a key strategic partner of the United States. This war has demonstrated that the fate of the United States is much more closely linked with European affairs than Americans initially assumed, which provides reason for greater engagement and cooperation. Furthermore, the United States continues to provide a significant amount of assistance to its European allies. For these reasons, it is clear the United States understands the importance of its European allies and is therefore pushing to strengthen transatlantic ties as a result.

DISAGREE

The crux of the debate hinges on how transatlantic ties are defined. If defined in a military sense, while multinational military exercises have occurred in Europe between NATO partners since 2014, the United States has also increased multi-national training exercises in the Pacific within the last 24 months, including the largest naval exercise with partners such as the Philippines. This data point indicates that the United States continues to hold China and its grand power competition as a top U.S. strategic priority for the foreseeable future, even if Ukraine demands greater attention.

Divergence in Strategic Interests

AGREE

The invasion has demonstrated to Europe that the United States is interested in more than just itself and that the transatlantic alliance is more than just a large entity but rather a critical component of a larger rules-based order built on common principles and strategic objectives. These underlying values show that there will be a continued trend toward strengthening transatlantic ties, despite what others might say. Both the United States and Europe remain steadfast in their pursuit of a common mission built on freedom and democracy, a unifying force whose strategic impact is difficult to deny.

DISAGREE

The United States appears to be more interested in using the war to weaken Russia strategically, while Europe is more concerned about the humanitarian costs of the war and the growing risk of escalation. Such divergence of strategic interests within the transatlantic community is best demonstrated by the fact that the United States has lobbied for more severe sanctions on Russia, while European allies remain more reluctant to follow suit out of concern for the financial burden such a response presents.

Strategic Autonomy or Continued Dependence

AGREE

The invasion has pushed European countries to significantly increase their military spending to be in line with NATO’s guidelines that require NATO member states to commit a minimum of 2% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to defense spending. The increase in military spending from countries such as Germany shows that European countries recognize the strategic value that the transatlantic relationship brings and are actively developing this relationship while simultaneously developing their own security capabilities.

DISAGREE

Europe is positioned to become even more dependent on the United States for security assurances despite official efforts to solidify European strategic autonomy. As a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States has been pulled back into the European security theater due to the crucial role it plays, as the largest NATO member, in significantly building up Europe’s strategic deterrence mechanisms.

Public Support Matters

AGREE

If we examine key international institutions such as NATO and the EU, there is an observable level of growth in support of multilateralism with the broader public voicing increasing support for international cooperation. Much of this support can be attributed to a greater public understanding of just how interlinked European and American affairs are. Such evidence underscores that the war has strengthened transatlantic bonds rather than damaged them. European NATO members value the transatlantic alliance, non-NATO members actively seek to join NATO, and the United States continues to boost its engagement with Europe—all of which points to a strengthening of transatlantic ties.

DISAGREE

European public opinion on trust in the United States shifted following Biden’s election, not after the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as is demonstrated by an EU Parliament public opinion poll. This raises questions about just how much the invasion of Ukraine has shifted public opinion on the issue. Moreover, only 52% of Austrians support continued assistance to Ukraine, 47% of Italians believe sending weapons to Ukraine is necessary, and broader opposition to military aid has grown from 32% to 39%, all of which indicates the public’s growing skepticism. Additionally, the “rally around the flag” moment that the invasion has sparked will not last as political factions in the United States continue to divide and support for Ukraine becomes more political—both of which could very well prove to be the catalyst that topples the Western governments that have backed Kyiv.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Has Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Strengthened Transatlantic Ties?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 2, 2023.