The trans-Atlantic relationship is unlike any the world has ever seen. Rooted in victory in World War II and formalized as a military alliance against the Soviet Union, the trans-Atlantic alliance has been the cornerstone of the liberal world order for more than 70 years, outliving its original foe by three decades and driving democratic reform in Europe.
But today, trans-Atlantic relations are in need of a serious transformation. Since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has largely ignored Europe. America has not had a vision for engaging with the continent, despite Europe being its ally of first resort. When Washington does engage with Europe, it’s often focused on NATO, with contentious conversations about spending more on defense dominating the discussion. Meanwhile, trade and economic policies have become perpetual irritants, at times erupting into full-blown trade wars. Economic and domestic policy issues, instead of being a cornerstone of trans-Atlantic cooperation, have been cast off to the technocrats and bogged down in bureaucracy, with little strategic direction or engagement from top political leadership. This has hollowed out the trans-Atlantic relationship. Meanwhile, the incessant focus on security, instead of on the critical issues shaping the world, has often made the relationship seem increasingly irrelevant to U.S. and European publics.
This is why the United States and Europe should rethink, reimagine, and reinvent the trans-Atlantic relationship, placing climate change at its center.
Forging a new trans-Atlantic partnership around climate change
The European Union and the United States have previously been key partners in combating climate change, joining forces to shape the Paris climate accord during the Obama administration. Since then, this climate partnership has become even more important. The geopolitical environment changed dramatically during the Trump administration, and other priorities—such as sharpening the United States’ competitive edge vis-à-vis Beijing, pushing back on authoritarian states, protecting democratic values, and recovering from a historic pandemic—have come to the fore.
There is substantial agreement between the European Union and the new Biden administration on the urgency of climate change—and how to confront it. In December 2020, the European Commission proposed “A new EU-US agenda for global change,” including the establishment of a trans-Atlantic green agenda. This would include broad U.S.-EU alignment of climate priorities, including a joint commitment to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a trans-Atlantic green trade initiative, measures to prevent carbon leakage, investments in green technologies, and the building of a broader global regulatory framework.
Likewise, the Biden-Harris administration has put climate at the center of both its domestic and foreign policy. Beyond immediately rejoining the Paris climate agreement and appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry to a Cabinet-level climate envoy position, the administration has laid out an ambitious agenda to get to a power sector that is free of carbon pollution by 2035 and to global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Within a week of his inauguration, President Joe Biden issued a series of executive actions to “tackle the climate crisis,” and it’s expected that future actions may include carbon border adjustments, investing in green infrastructure and jobs, and phasing out support for damaging sources of energy.
Now is the time to put climate at the center of the trans-Atlantic relationship. Just as the Soviet Union and the potential for nuclear war was the existential threat that NATO was organized around in the previous century, climate change poses a similar threat around which to forge a new U.S.-EU strategic partnership. Climate change is the single greatest threat that America, Europe, and the world faces. And unlike nuclear war, which was planned around as a high-impact but low-probability event, climate change is a high-impact event with a certain probability. It is only logical that climate be at the center of the most powerful international alliance in the world.
Key areas of cooperation
Ultimately, trans-Atlantic cooperation on climate is about reshaping the U.S. and European economies and shaping the rules of the international economy. Tackling climate change will require reorienting economies and investing in new technologies.
Green development and infrastructure
Notably, there is significant support in both the United States and Europe to recover sustainably from the COVID-19 pandemic and its broad economic and public health effects. The Biden administration has made green development a core part of its Build Back Better agenda, seeking to invest in green infrastructure and create sustainable jobs. Members of the European Parliament have echoed this approach, calling for the Green Deal to be at the center of a sustainable recovery. Working together to address climate change could spur a new era of innovation and trans-Atlantic cooperation on a variety of important issues.
Relations with Beijing
Most notably, climate policy could be a key area in which to work with Europe on confronting problematic policies put forth by the Communist Party of China (CPC). CPC officials were key players during the negotiations that led to the Paris Agreement and pushed forward with some ambitious climate policies during the Trump administration. Ultimately, a common U.S.-EU approach on climate could help keep the world—and Beijing—on track, incentivizing Beijing to align with global climate targets and phase out damaging economic practices such as providing financing for coal-fired power plants overseas.
In trying to work with Europe in addressing this challenge, the Biden administration may be better off sticking to discrete issues as opposed to broad discussions of grand strategy. For instance, the joint U.S. and EU sanctions on CPC officials and entities for atrocious human rights violations in Xinjiang have shown how building toward a common trans-Atlantic approach could work. Beijing’s aggressive response of sanctioning EU members of Parliament and leading academics now endangers even the controversial EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that was signed just a few months ago. Working with the European Union and developing common positions may be a way to forge broader trans-Atlantic cooperation on Beijing’s most troubling policies.
Climate change could also present a means of tackling thorny trade issues. There will need to be extensive economic and diplomatic engagement between the United States and Europe over the implementation of the European Union’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), which will essentially impose a tariff on imported goods as part of the European Union’s carbon pricing scheme. While Europe has already begun to implement carbon pricing structures designed to prevent leakage, the United States has not set up an equivalent program. Although the CBAM is a climate-based proposal, it could have real implications for trade. Without a proactive, united approach, the United States and Europe could encounter trade tensions in certain sectors.
But if the United States and the European Union are able to get on the same page about the CBAM, they would set the gold standard for the world, with two of the largest markets—constituting almost one-third of global imports—on the same page. Meeting ambitious emission goals will require standard-setting across industrial and manufacturing sectors. The CBAM is intended to level the economic playing field and to ensure that nongreen products made outside the European Union are not able to undercut green-made products inside it. In the future, beyond the CBAM, tariffs or sanctions could become a tool to stop countries engaged in climate-damaging activities or to impose costs on countries not doing their part. U.S.-EU cooperation on climate may therefore become increasingly important geopolitically, as both seek to ensure global progress to achieve climate goals.
Ultimately, relations with Europe cannot be solely about any one issue. The relationship is built on common values, shared interests, and a long history. But redefining the alliance to center around arguably the single-most important issue facing humanity could be the rallying call needed to rejuvenate the sluggish alliance. This will not happen overnight, but it could provide the common vision needed to overcome the small, parochial differences that often bog down trans-Atlantic diplomatic discussions, focusing them instead on a united goal. And it’s a goal that just might help the planet.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. James Lamond is a fellow at the Center. Siena Cicarelli is a research and program associate for National Security and International Policy at the Center.