Trans-Atlantic Passing

Yankee Goes Home

Donald Trump, Mike Pence, James Mattis
Europe has to reckon with an American president who questions the trans-Atlantic relationship. Source: AP Photo

This weekend more than 500 trans-Atlanticists will gather in Munich for the Munich Security Conference, an annual touting of the West’s solutions for the world’s problems through “trans-Atlanticism,” the belief in the importance of cooperation between Europe, the United States and Canada on political, economic, and defense issues, with the purpose of maintaining the security and prosperity of the participating countries, and to protect the values that unite them.

For almost 70 years all top diplomats, advisors and journalists were trans-Atlanticists. The credo of the experts organized in many clubs, think tanks, and networks can be summarized like this: The security and prosperity of the West depends on an alliance with the United States.

But what if, of all people, the U.S. president undermines both by attacking democracy, the rule of law, and free trade? Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly are all slated to attend the conference. But the real focus is on the man who has upended the world of the trans-Atlanticists, Donald Trump. He is a threat to the very existence of trans-Atlanticism.

Many who see things up close describe the contempt this administration has for trans-Atlanticists.

If these days you talk to deeply committed trans-Atlanticists in ministries, universities and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, you’re hearing from deeply distraught people who no longer know what’s up or down, what’s still valid, and whom they can still believe.

In talks with more than a dozen high-ranking officials and experts, you hear words that used to describe the activities of one’s enemies: Phrases like, “frontal attack on shared values,” “final blow against the West,” a White House-driven “firestorm” against the iron-clad alliance between Europe and America.

“It’s like the ground is falling out from beneath our feet,” wrote a horrified Europe expert in the former Obama administration. “We Europeans can’t rely on this America anymore,” warned a high official in the German foreign ministry, “we have to stand on our own feet as soon as possible.”

They all want to talk to get their frustrations off their chest, but in most cases only on the condition that they are not named. Because their jobs require them to maintain contact with the Trump administration and to forge relationships with its foreign policy officials.

Many who see things up close describe the contempt this administration has for trans-Atlanticists. They regard them as being part of the hated elite who in Mr. Trump’s view drove the country and the world to the edge of the abyss. Trans-Atlanticists who bank on multilateral alliances, liberal values, and institutions don’t jell with his nationalistic policies. This was why, before taking office, the new president sent no one around to the Europe section of the White House to discuss the handover. Mr. Trump is simply not interested in what the trans-Atlanticists did and thought and what experiences they had gathered. He regards policy hitherto as totally misguided.

So if Donald Trump regards the instruments of the old liberal order, NATO, the United Nations, free trade as obsolete, what is to replace them? Can the “West” continue to exist without America leading? Haven’t the trans-Atlanticists themselves contributed to such a president even becoming possible? What remains of a way of thinking about foreign policy that for 70 years was shared by the world’s strongest power and is now being attacked by it?

Two old men set the foundations for the new post-war international order.

To assess what’s looking like disintegration – and how radical Mr. Trump’s shunning of it is – one has to look at how it began. The primary document of today’s trans-Atlantic policy is the Atlantic Charter, signed on August 14, 1941 by then U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the British prime minister, Winston Churchill – secretly, on a ship off Newfoundland, Canada. In eight tightly formulated principal points, the two old men set the foundations for the new post-war international order. It was an amazing act given the murderous spirit of the time, just as the German killing machine was reaching its zenith in Eastern Europe.

The demands of the charter included a right to self-determination for all people, a rejection of “enrichment” and violent changing of borders, as well as commitments to economic cooperation, free world trade and access to raw materials “for all peoples.” It banned military violence “for realistic as well as spiritual reasons.” The Atlantic Charter was to form the basis of the United Nations following the end of World War II. The Soviet Union also signed up to it. But the normative framework was recognizably Anglo-American.

Shortly after the war a number of institutions were launched in the same spirit, spawning the trans-Atlantic order. The Marshall Plan was a gigantic reconstruction program, which was not only to meet the immediate needs of European countries but also to liberate the Europeans from the vicious circle of nationalism and protectionism. European nations received billions in aid on condition they coordinated with each other and maintained economic relations. This gave Washington a vast market for exporting American goods.

The same pattern of enlightened self-interest can be found elsewhere: NATO, formed in 1948, was, of course, directed against the Soviet Union. But another purpose was to corral old European rivalries. The French, Dutch, and Belgians saw in NATO protection against reprised German supremacy. And NATO secured American influence in Europe.

It was the same with the Bretton Woods global monetary system, which established rules for commercial and financial relations among the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan in the mid-20th century, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It was to make trade easier and to avoid dangerous crises like those of the 1920s. The leading role of the U.S. dollar cemented American influence on the world economy.

In his history of post-war Europe, the historian Tony Judt writes that the calculation was the “creation of a political and security landscape that would link American interests with those of a fragile and weak European subcontinent.”

Mr. Judt emphasized that this was anything but self-evident. In fact it actually went against the American instinct to stay out of Europe’s conflicts and to assert the interests of the United States in bilateral deals.

Fighting against this inclination, trans-Atlanticism has shaped the foreign policy agenda for almost 70 years. But now a man holds power who is no longer willing to pay the price of American hegemony. Behind all Trump’s attacks against NATO, the European Union and free trade lurks the suspicion that for a long time the United States profited less from these arrangements than the freeloaders on the other side of the ocean.

And unfortunately there’s something to that. It’s been clear to European governments for some time that they have to spend more on defense. But this is about more than fairer burden-sharing. This is about the aims of the alliance, the interests of the participants – and also about who is leading it. For many trans-Atlanticists, this ambiguity can cause emotional anguish.

A deep dishonesty has become rooted in the highly-vaunted alliance.

Some European trans-Atlanticists are now trying to explain American interests to the Americans. Wolfgang Ischinger, German ambassador in Washington in the early 2000’s and now chairman of the Munich Security Conference, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he explained to his American friends how it would be good for them to continue to regard the NATO and the E.U. as a means of projecting power. And in an article in the conservative daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, commenting on the first visit to the Trump administration by the E.U. foreign policy chief, Francesca Mogherini wrote: “It is still probably the case that the E.U. best raises its profile in Washington by offering added security policy value.”

This stance is part of the problem. Why, actually, should European foreign policy thinkers self-evidently see themselves as junior partners and promoters of U.S. interests?

There are rightwingers and leftists, Greens and liberals among the trans-Atlanticists. Contrary to their reputation they weren’t always blind followers of America. Harsh criticism of Washington can often be heard from these circles – during the Vietnam and Iraq wars, due to the CIA’s torture methods and the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. But unlike today, in those instances the purpose of the alliance was never questioned.

It’s an irony of history that in the past decades it was mainly U.S. governments trying to emphasize the importance of the partnership to their European allies. Nowadays it’s the other way round. Now the European trans-Atlanticists are trying to explain to the Trump administration why it’s in America’s interest to stick with the alliance. The periphery begs for the attention and understanding of the center – this reversal of roles is also a symptom of crisis.

The fact is that in recent decades the interests of Western states have moved in different directions. Hence it’s not just ideological furor driving Mr. Trump’s attacks, but also a certain rationality. Like a badly brought up child, he utters the truth about a broken relationship. A deep dishonesty has become rooted in the highly vaunted alliance.

From the European point of view the United States has often tended to arrogance because of its economic and military strength. It entrapped itself and its allies in wrong or wrongly conducted wars, especially in the Middle East. As well as the devastation wrought in the region, the consequences have been felt indirectly by the Europeans in the form of jihadism, the mass flight of refugees, and a right-wing populism fueled by both.

But there’s also something dishonest about the European criticism of America. For decades many E.U. states, particularly Germany, made themselves comfortable beneath the American nuclear umbrella. Without the United States there would have been no European Union at all, and certainly its eastward expansion would have been impossible. Most NATO states still fall far short of the agreed target of spending 2 percent of their GDP on joint defense. Germany’s military expenditure is around 1.2 percent, a lower percentage than Albania’s.

It’s also true, however, that for too long the Europeans have let Washington tell them that a European defense system of their own would weaken the NATO alliance. Now the Europeans intend to muscle up, but it will be a long time yet before there’s such a thing as an E.U. military. Mr. Ischinger also speaks of a “self-inflicted dependence” of the Europeans, “which also has a psychological impact.” The same criticism could also be applied to the trans-Atlanticists.

At the Munich Security Conference most of the participants in the discussion rounds or on the podiums are gray-haired men. About 30 men and only five women were invited to a recent preparatory meeting, according to one person who attended. One of the few women who regularly attends complains that the trans-Atlanticists tend to overrate themselves. “A functional elite has come into being, who declare their influence to be an overriding necessity,” she said.

In the end, that has much to do with the fact that in the trans-Atlantic networks the interests of governments, industry and journalism coalesce. Think tanks advising Western governments are often funded by business lobby groups or foreign governments. Journalists take part in their events to gain access to experts. A bubble is created in which everyone mutually lulls each other and fails to recognize when things are developing in a wrong direction.

Trans-Atlanticism is fixated on a narrow concept of foreign and security policy. For decades that thinking has been nation-building and interventionist. Other security threats have only slowly moved into focus: climate change, population growth, refugee streams, failing states – and above all the social and economic inequality resulting from globalization. Many trans-Atlanticists have too little interest in domestic policy, in social, demographic and economic changes.

Mr. Ischinger also wrote: “There is a danger of us living too much in an ivory tower.” But now the revolt of the forgotten and neglected, which bolsters the right-wing populists, is calling into question the foundations and values of trans-Atlantic foreign policy. Trans-Atlanticists are like the British upper crust establishment: hardly any children from lower classes penetrate their circles and educational establishments.

In the renowned U.S. think tank, the Brookings Institution in Washington, the story is doing the rounds that the day after Donald Trump was elected, a small group of top tier people, all of them graduates from elite universities, “their noses turned up,” found that like it or not it was time to drive into the country, to the little people, to sniff their scent. The conversation was marked by fury with those clueless voters who had put a man in power who never misses an opportunity to point out that these experts share the blame for the mistakes of Western foreign policy. And unfortunately, he’s not wholly wrong about that.

In order to keep in step with the times, the trans-Atlanticists must stop seeing Europe only as a natural junior partner to America.

Are the trans-Atlanticists still needed? There is definitely still a trans-Atlantic community of values. These days it may no longer exist between the European and the current American administrations. But it does link the Europeans with the elements of American society that are showing their own government its limits: the judges, the critical media, civil society and critical personnel in the government apparatus.

It’s illusory to assume all sorts of bilateral deals could displace the NATO defense alliance, the E.U., and free trade, as Mr. Trump seems to think they can. Soon, it won’t just be E.U.-quitter Britain, but also the United States that will quickly notice how communities of states and broad alliances have incomparably greater clout.

That recognition should also carry the day within the E.U. The fact that, despite all the enormous obstructions, this alliance of 28 diverse European states was able to sustain the agreed sanctions against Russia is evidence of strength. So is the will to establish a European defense system. Mr. Trump’s flighty attitude to NATO makes these efforts even more urgent.

In order to keep in step with the times, the trans-Atlanticists must stop seeing Europe only as a natural junior partner to America. Trans-Atlanticism has contributed to the assumed helplessness of Europe, which in turn is cited as a reason for the Europeans remaining permanently reliant on the Americans. One could almost be grateful to Donald Trump for revealing the crisis in this kind of thinking. But it didn’t start with him and it won’t end with him. The fixation on this man nourishes the belief that there will be a return to the status quo ante, the normality of trans-Atlantic relations, once he has “learned,” when he’s “contained,” or at the very latest when he’s voted out one day. That is an illusion.

Instead of seeing this as the apocalypse, it may be time for some sober stocktaking.

Where to start? Perhaps with the conclusion that in many conflicts the interests of Americans and Europeans are no longer identical. Instead of seeing this as the apocalypse, it may be time for some sober stocktaking.

A few pointers: First, the Germans have to get along on one continent with Russia as well as its nervous small neighbors. Meaning they can’t relativize the security guarantees to the Baltic states and Poles – as Mr. Trump seems to be considering – in return for an anti-terrorism alliance with Mr. Putin. They must resist any deal that again recognizes Russian spheres of interest.

Second, Europe cannot afford an anti-terrorism war in Africa or the Middle East of the kind Mr. Trump and his people want. Arabs and Africans are our neighbors, and if their lives don’t sustainably improve where they live, they’ll come to us – not to a United States that is cutting itself off.

Third, when it comes to free trade, Germany is closer to the Chinese than the present U.S. government, which in all seriousness is mulling a trade war with China.

And finally, there is still the core of the disagreement that needs to be openly addressed. This year Brexit will be negotiated and the French have a presidential election. The Trump administration supports Brexit and Marine Le Pen, an enemy of the E.U. It may fall to the Germans to defend the E.U. against Americans and Britons – the former leading trans-Atlantic powers.

Donald Trump plans to visit Europe at least four times this year, for the G7 summit in Sicily and the G20 summit in Hamburg, as well as a visit to the British queen and at some point or other a NATO meeting. It’s now time to prepare.


This article first ran in the German weekly Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global.

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