Europe can still turn around the transatlantic relationship. But it needs to recognize the historical patterns at work behind Donald Trump and rethink its approach to the United States.
Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the transatlantic relationship has been severely shaken. Diplomatic and security structures that dated back to 1945 have looked to be suddenly in danger of collapsing.
On climate change and Iran policy, the United States and Europe have parted ways: US actions have undermined European strategy in these areas. On trade, there is the potential for a real collision given President Trump’s rhetoric, but the key change since 2016 has been atmospheric. The tone has altered and with it, the expectations for the future. The United States has proven not so much an intransigent partner as an unreliable ally, leaving Europe with the difficult job of navigating its way to military autonomy on a timeline that leaves it dependent on the United States (whoever its president is) for decades to come.
The greatest analytical challenge of the Trump era is to break free from the day-to-day turbulence and to identify the underlying patterns. Yesterday’s crisis fades into today’s and tomorrow’s, many of them meaningless. Politics is subordinated to the theatrical imperatives of a theatrical man. Placing the Trump White House to the side of the larger narrative, there are three historical patterns that have defined the deterioration in transatlantic relations since the end of the Cold War. Because they pre-date the Trump presidency, they will outlive the Trump presidency.
No Need for Pessimism
The first is an uncertain commitment to Europe, and a lack of clarity on Europe’s place vis-à-vis the economic and strategic interests of the United States. The second is the extreme partisanship of American politics, to which relations with Europe can easily fall victim. The third is the transformation of the cultural foundation for the transatlantic relationship. Taken together, these three patterns may amount to an American abandonment of the West in a second Trump term or with a Democratic successor to Trump. This scenario is hardly implausible. It haunts much of the contemporary policy writing and thinking on the transatlantic relationship.
Yet Europeans interested in preserving the transatlantic relationship need not be fatalistic or even pessimistic. Historical patterns can be converted into lessons, and lessons into policies, helping to establish conditions for the survival of the transatlantic West.
To forestall a crack-up of the West, and regardless of who is elected in November 2020, “Atlanticist” European policymakers should pursue three lines of effort toward the United States. They should emphasize the many interests shared by the United States and Europe, since these are no longer self-evident in the United States. They should build relationships with Americans on both sides of the political spectrum, so as not to be too closely aligned with the fortunes of the Democratic Party, and they should invest in a cultural diplomacy that evokes the open-ended future rather than the Cold War past.
The Cold War Alliance
World War II and the early Cold War brought the United States to Europe, making the case for the United States as a European power. An intertwined set of interests set the US strategy. Hitler demonstrated the damage that could be done when a single power, hostile to the United States, gained control of continental Europe’s economic assets. A remilitarized Nazi Germany rapidly seized territory between 1939 and 1941, making it a nightmare for the United States to defeat. The US was forced to partner with an unsavory ally like the Soviet Union and, even then, the push into Europe’s South, through Italy, and into Europe’s West, through Normandy, was immensely costly. The fear that what had been required after Pearl Harbor would be required again, were the Soviet Union to advance into Western Europe, spooked American policy makers, from Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower. The United States stayed in Europe after 1945 in order to deter the Soviet Union from dominating the territory that for several centuries had been the center of global military and economic power. The urgency of such interests for Washington resulted in the Marshall Plan and in the NATO alliance, both initiatives that demanded sacrifice from the United States.
The economic situation highlighted another kind of American interest in postwar Western Europe. Europe was an excellent market for American goods—from Coca Cola to Hollywood films. Prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, Europe and the United States had a symbiotic relationship in economics and finance, a measure of which was a long-standing willingness of Europeans to invest in the American economy. In 1945, much of Europe lay in ruins, but that turned into an economic opportunity. A reconstituted Western European economy represented an array of interconnected advantages for the United States. It minimized the chances for another world war. It kept the Soviet Union at bay, and it contributed to a virtuous cycle of economic growth in Europe and the United States.
A Londoner and a Berliner
Awareness of these interests helped to solidify bi-partisan support for a “pro-European” American foreign policy in Washington. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had pioneered this foreign policy in theory after World War I. He had failed, however, to convince the Republican Party to come along. It was a lesson Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, could not forget. Nor could Roosevelt’s Wilsonian Vice President, Harry Truman. World War II was so grave and so enormous an operation that it could never have been handled by the Democratic Party alone. Truman devoted substantial political resources to getting Republicans on Capitol Hill behind the Marshall Plan.
Meanwhile, Dwight Eisenhower, NATO’s first commander, was so distressed by the prospect of an isolationist Republican Party that he decided to run for president in 1952. When he was elected, Eisenhower did not break from the foreign policies of Democratic administrations that had been in power since 1932. Although he changed emphasis here and there with US Cold War strategy—on covert action and on using nuclear weapons—this was a question of fine tuning the strategy, not reversing it. Eisenhower, who had declared himself a “Londoner” in a 1945 speech in the United Kingdom, put the American commitment to a transatlantic West at the center of his foreign policy. When John F. Kennedy much more famously declared himself a “Berliner” in the summer of 1963 he was speaking and acting in an established political tradition.
While interests directed American strategy toward Europe, bi-partisanship strengthened a Europe-oriented American foreign policy. Culture was part of the mix as well. The political elite that created American foreign policy in the 1940s and 1950s was the product of an extremely europhile and eurocentric higher education. Students were educated to believe in the goodness of the West and in the notion that the United States was an integral part of the West. This education furnished figures like Acheson and Dulles with a vocabulary for justifying American “leadership” of the West, which, if it meant anything tangible at all, meant the security commitment to Western Europe. When he was assassinated in 1963, President John F. Kennedy earned the high praise of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which stated in its obituary that studying at Harvard had made him into “a European.”
Who Is Illegitimate?
In each of these domains—perceived interests, bi-partisanship, culture—the end of the Cold War was the beginning of a new era. Centers of economic power diversified in the 1990s, the heyday of globalization. It was no longer possible to claim with such strategic certainty that the economy of Western Europe was the key to global power. By the 1990s, there were at least a dozen economic keys to global power, which was hardly contained in individual nation states but in the form of multi-national companies that made a mockery of national borders. This put Europe into a new kind of foreign-policy equation for the United States, one that was less geographically concentrated than in the past.
Meanwhile, by the 1990s and beyond, Europe had succeeded beyond the most elaborate fantasy of American policymakers in the 1940s. It was no hotbed of great-power militarism but, in the form of the European Union, it was expanding peaceful structures that were quite welcoming to American companies and that, as in the past, were conducive to European investment in the United States: richer Europe, richer United States. Indeed, by the outset of the 21st century Europe was so rich that the American military commitment to Europe was strategically sensible but nevertheless something of an anachronism, a legacy of the past that was a less and less rational construct—if not for Europeans, then in the eyes of the American taxpayer.
Internally, American politics would never recover from the Vietnam War, which saw the United States split into at least two competing parts. However, discontent did not boil over in the 1970s and 1980s, and for all the high drama of the Watergate scandal and its aftermath, there was considerable foreign-policy continuity during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But the seething discontent did not recede either. Without the Soviet enemy there to superimpose some order on domestic American politics, warring factions started to collide in the 1990s.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton suggested that for Clinton’s Republican opponents, he was in some way an illegitimate president. After an initial burst of patriotism immediately after 9/11, George W. Bush emerged as an illegitimate president in the estimation of his political opponents. Republicans mounted ferocious attacks on Barack Obama. The first phase of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was to argue that Obama was not a citizen of the United States. In office, the clearest indication of what President Trump will do is whether or not he can reverse something that President Obama had done. If Trump can be the anti-Obama, he will be—especially where foreign policy is concerned. The Democratic candidates for president are currently positioning themselves as the anti-Trump on foreign policy, and so it goes.
Trump and the Cultural Wars
American culture of the past few decades has little in common with the culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Conservatives have moved away from Eisenhower’s pro-Europe posture, many of them embracing an ethnonationalist sensibility that is one part anti-EU and another part anti-immigrant, anti-internationalist. This coincides with similar movements among European populists, hearkening the death of the transatlantic West or the birth of an entirely new West, as espoused by the likes of Steve Bannon. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, multiple political movements affirmed a fact of American life that had been obvious but had not always been accepted: that as much as the United States had a European patrimony, an inheritance of religion and political philosophy and art from Europe, the European strain was only one of several in American history. The European strain also coincided with the ideology of whiteness in American life, a legitimizing tool for governing elites over the generations.
Over time, American universities became vehicles of social change as they shifted away from espousing “Western civilization” and adopted curricula that tended to associate Europe with empire and with whiteness. Europe is no longer the cornerstone of American higher education, and the rise of the West that McNeill wrote about has yielded to Provincialization Europe, in the title of an important recent book on global history. These changes have been contested at every point, leading to the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which mirror the erosion of bi-partisanship in American politics. (And no president has ever so visibly enjoyed the culture wars, and profited from them politically, as President Trump.) Still, the basic transition that began in the 1960s has been unstoppable. American multiculturalism is here to stay, but Europe does not fit comfortably into the American scene, as it once did, which is a problem for the transatlantic relationship.
Trump has proven a salient truth about the transatlantic West. It must not be taken for granted. It is not a self-perpetuating mechanism, an engine put together in 1945 that will keep on running indefinitely. A United States unsure of the interests that bind it to Europe, mired in partisan division, and moving culturally away from Europe could well abandon the West in coming years. Trump’s talent as a politician, often buried behind his personal bluster and behind the incoherence of his administration’s foreign policy, is his knowledge of his electorate. It did not care when he proclaimed NATO obsolete. It was not horrified by Trump’s disdain for Chancellor Merkel. It agrees with the president that Europe needs to be forced into spending more on defense, while being coerced into trade deals the president says are more favorable to the American economy. It finds persuasive Trump’s contention that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are members of a selfish global elite, that their belief in the “liberal international order” was a smokescreen for an assault on American nationhood, and that the foreign-policy tradition of democracy promotion, going back to Woodrow Wilson, is either irrelevant or it is nonsense. Much as Trump has struggled to change the course of American foreign policy, failing more often than succeeding at the task, he has tapped into feelings and grievances that he did not have to fabricate on the campaign trail in 2016. He activated divisions and disagreements that will endure and that will certainly imperil the future of the transatlantic relationship.
Seek Out US Conservatives
To address this problem, Europe can remind the United States of the interests held in common and that are prone to deepen over time. The crucial point here is not so much economic, though the regulation of a productive commercial and financial relationship between Europe and the United States is a shared interest. The basic strategic imperative concerns Russia and China. Both of these powers are benefitting from a divide-and-conquer approach. They can accomplish much more bilaterally than they can if they have to deal with a united transatlantic front.
Conversely, on trade, on the stability of Europe’s borders and on international order generally the United States and Europe can more than double their influence by working together. Whatever the short-term imperatives are for competition, for rivalry, and for the narcissism of small differences, Europe and the United States must recognize that they live in a world that is far more eager to transform the West than to be transformed by the West. The days of hubris, when the United States thought it could democratize the Middle East and Europe thought it could Europeanize Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus, are over. Internal reform and the prudent maintenance of the transatlantic relationship are big enough challenges. They also reflect hard-edged and long-term interests in both Europe and the United States.
Tactically, Europe should try to reach out to as many American conservatives as possible. Trump has cast the EU as a “liberal” entity. He has been able to do so in part because many European nations and the EU find it easier to work with Democrats. Leading Democrats tend to rhapsodize about the EU. Democrats have positions on gun control, abortion, climate change and international order that tend to accord more closely with majority opinion on these matters in Europe. But if Democrats come to own the transatlantic relationship, it could prove fatal to the relationship.
Europe as such is not unpopular among American conservatives. To the contrary, but the case for the transatlantic relationship has to be made to them. European heads of state and European diplomats should seek out conservative audiences to find points of transatlantic cooperation that appear bi-partisan to those Americans who are not Democrats. The approach could be called “Operation Eisenhower” in memory of the Republican President who played such a prominent role in the Allied victory, who was a stalwart defender (and employee) of NATO and who saw no alternative to a robust transatlantic relationship. This is not a technique of managing relations with the Trump administration. It is an investment in the future.
Make Use of Cultural Diplomacy
Finally, Europe should make the United States an object of its cultural diplomacy, not as an ornament but as an aspect of its overall foreign policy. This might seem beside the point among allies, but it is essential at the present moment. Accentuating the historical ties between Europe and the United States is insufficient. A creative European cultural diplomacy would take into account the complicated multiculturalism of the United States, encouraging tolerance and openness not as the genetic possession of anyone but as a legacy of the transatlantic relationship at its best. It would also seek to persuade—as all cultural diplomacy does. Assuming that the hard US interests in the transatlantic relationship have been clearly articulated, Europe’s cultural diplomacy could be aimed at persuading Americans that isolationism and unilateralism are wrong turns and that cooperation and multilateralism, refined into a foreign policy that reflects democratic deliberation and the rule of law, constitutes the best way forward. Cultural diplomacy could be deployed to remind Americans that when the West crashed in the 1930s it was not just Europeans who suffered. It was Americans who found themselves in uniform as well. Likewise, when the West was reconstituted after the war, when the Marshall Plan was conceptualized and the NATO treaties were signed, it was not just good news for (Western) Europeans. It eventually made the United States safer and more prosperous. These examples are not merely academic history. They frame the decisions that will be made on both sides of the Atlantic, in and after 2020, determining whether the bottom of the West falls out for good or whether a renewal is still possible.