Georgia Tech Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts

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Vicki L. Birchfield
Associate Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs 

Rivals, Lovers, or Partners? Vicki Birchfield Explains the Transatlantic Relationship

Though it's the disagreements that generate headlines, the United States and Europe face numerous policy challenges that could be more effectively addressed by nurturing their longstanding ties and common interests, according to Vicki Birchfield, an Associate Professor of International Affairs in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs.

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Birchfield believes that better global governance could be achieved by strategically leveraging the strength of the transatlantic economy and cultivating the core values of the US-EU relationship. In recent years, however, she argues that the transatlantic relationship has been better characterized as one of rival siblings or estranged lovers than that of an equal partnership in the management of global problems. The intractable Airbus-Boeing dispute captures the former, while the US snub of the Europeans in favor of China at the United Nations Copenhagen Climate Summit illustrates the latter.

"Europeans have been our strongest allies and friends," she noted. "Though there are elements of competition and rivalry in the transatlantic relationship, our societies are more economically interdependent than any other region in the world. With the rise of China, India, and other new global players, it is critical that we reinforce the shared interests on both sides of the Atlantic."

Birchfield’s life’s work in this area has recently been acknowledged by the French government by the bestowal of the Chevalier de l’Orde Nationale du Mérite, one of the highest awards granted to a civilian, and one that Birchfield characterizes as the most profound and meaningful of her career.

Her research activities are designed to reveal commonalities, as well as fundamental differences. She conducts comparative studies of European and American attitudes and beliefs about the proper roles of governments and markets and about the political institutions that drive policy on both sides of the Atlantic.

Her current book project, In Search of a Transatlantic Agora: The E.U.-U.S. Values Debate and the Quest for Global Leadership, examines what some American pundits and politicians have described as a ‘growing chasm’ between European and American perspectives. Using interviews with ‘opinion shapers,’ public intellectuals, and political leaders, and through systematic analysis of polls and other survey instruments of mass public opinion, Birchfield put forward a more comprehensive assessment than previous research on differences between Europe and the United States in their respective approaches to key issues such as climate change, global trade, foreign aid and development policy.

"By looking at the differences between the opinions of elites and the general public in both societies, we get a clearer idea of whether or not there really is a profound and growing divergence between Europe and the United States that is often played up in the media and for which there will be serious implications for global leadership and the successful management of globalization.”

Birchfield not only conducts research on the transatlantic relationship, but plays an influential role in strengthening it. She directed the European Union Center of Excellence (EUCE) at Georgia Tech from 2008-2011 promoting knowledge and understanding of the EU and the significance of the transatlantic relationship. Under her leadership, the Center produced prominent speaker series, conferences, research and learning networks, and public forums in close cooperation with the European Consular Corps and other partners at Georgia Tech such as the Center for International Business Education Research (CIBER) and the Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship (ILE). The Center also facilitated interaction among faculty and students working at the intersection of EU and transatlantic studies. Additionally, Birchfield leads a long-standing annual study abroad program that provides students with a summer packed with highly interactive, high-level contact with officials and representatives of the EU, member states, and NATO delegations.

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On the research side, the EU Center (now the Center for European and Transatlantic Studies) has served as a catalyst for the discovery of innovative and sustainable approaches to solving global challenges. One particular area of interest on both sides of the Atlantic is energy.

"We promote interdisciplinarity and international collaboration in our research efforts," she said. “The Center organized many events around sustainability, innovation, and 'collective learning' -- learning from best practices and approaches in Europe and within the EU-US partnership.”

Case in point: Birchfield and the EU Center along with Dr. John Duffield of Georgia State University organized an international conference that included presentations by scholars from North America and Europe. The meeting brought together policy analysts, social scientists, and energy experts to examine the technologies, policy initiatives, and critical resource challenges in the area of energy and environmental policy.

"This kind of collaborative, interdisciplinary conference advances not only Georgia Tech's strategic goals for leadership in energy and sustainability, but also the research leadership of the Nunn School and the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts on energy policy, climate change and new technologies."

The conference produced a book, co-edited by Birchfield and Duffield, published in the summer of 2011, titled, "Toward a Common EU Energy Policy: Problems, Progress and Prospects." Birchfield contributed a chapter on the powerful role of the EU’s supranational institutions in shaping EU policy and global leadership on energy and the environment.

Birchfield's inquiry into the intersection of values and public policy was also documented in an earlier book she wrote titled, Income Inequality in Capitalist Democracies: The Interplay of Values and Institutions (Penn State University Press, 2009).

Studying income disparity among 16 advanced industrial democracies over a 20-year period, Birchfield examined the political institutional factors and societal values that appear to influence whether the gap between rich and poor is growing or shrinking in the those countries.

Why, for instance, is income disparity "expanding in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and the United States while it is decreasing in Sweden, Denmark, and France?" she asked.

The answer, according to Birchfield, is found in the complex interplay among the political forces that shape economic policy outcomes. "I looked at social and political phenomena from a comparative perspective and searched for the institutions and values that help us understand why societies are different or similar when it comes to a willingness to tolerate growing inequalities as opposed to a desire to achieve greater social and economic justice.”

"You have certain overarching political cultural values in any given society, and those values tend to either encourage the government to address problems like income inequality, or they essentially default to or valorize market or private sector solutions.”

These values, or ideological beliefs, also get channeled through very different types of political institutions and that is the interaction that Birchfield tries to capture to provide a fuller explanation of cross-national variations in income inequality trends.

“What it boils down to is that citizens in Europe, in contrast to the United States, generally believe the government has a substantial role to play in addressing socio-economic issues and regulating certain aspects of market processes.”

Birchfield believes that understanding the complexities of different political institutions and diverse cultural proclivities is necessary for acquiring the global perspectives and intercultural sensitivity needed to graduate good global citizens – a key strategic goal for the Institute.

“This is to a large degree what we do here in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs in both our teaching but also much of our research.”

"Georgia Tech is becoming more internationally focused because our students will live, work, and compete in an increasingly integrated, interdependent world," she explained. "It will benefit them to know how societies organize themselves because even those described as advanced industrial democracies have divergent models of capitalism and varieties of democracy. These differences shape policies, institutions, and international relationships in unique and often profound ways."



Vicki L. Birchfield
Associate Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs

  • Ph.D., Political Science, University of Georgia
  • D.E.S., International Studies, Universite de Geneve
  • M.A., Political Science, Auburn University
  • B.A., Political Science and French, Auburn University

Vicki L. Birchfield is an Associate Professor in The Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and Director of the study abroad program on the European Union and Transatlantic Relations. She served as Director of the European Union Center of Excellence from 2008 to 2011. She is the author of Income Inequality in Capitalist Democracies: The Interplay of Values and Institutions (Penn State University Press 2008) and Toward a Common EU Energy Policy: Problems, Progress, and Prospects (Palgrave Macmillan 2011) co-edited with John S. Duffield. She has published articles in International Studies Quarterly, the European Journal of Political Research, the Review of International Studies, Globalizations, and the Review of International Political Economy. Her research and teaching specializations are European politics, the European Union, comparative politics, and international political economy.

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