The Fourth Age

The Fourth Age

by Author(s): Charles A. Kupchan

The Atlantic order is in the midst of a fundamental transition. The transatlantic discord that has emerged since the late 1990s marks a historical breakpoint, not a temporary aberration. The foundational principles of the Atlantic security order that emerged after World War II have been compromised. American and European interests have diverged, institutionalized cooperation can no longer be taken for granted, and a shared Western identity has attenuated.1

We are at the dawn of a new era in the Atlantic relationship. Rather than trying to recreate the past, the Atlantic democracies should move forward by acknowledging that the tight-knit alliance of the Cold-War years is gone for good. Instead, they should accept that the character of the Atlantic order is undergoing a profound transformation, seek to understand the attributes of the emerging order, and figure out how to make the most of its cooperative potential.

Since America's founding, there have been three distinct periods of the transatlantic relationship: 1776-1905 (the era of balance of power), 1905-1941 (the era of balance of threat), and 1941-2001 (the era of cooperative security). The accompanying table identifies the key attributes of each of these three periods.

During the first phase of interaction between the United States and Europe, transatlantic relations were guided by balance-of-power logic. The Atlantic order was one of militarized rivalry, with the major players--the United States, Great Britain, France and Spain--regularly jockeying for territory, trade and geopolitical influence. Each balanced against the power of the other, capitalizing on opportunities for individual gain. For the most part, America steered clear of intra-European struggles. However, to defend its hemispheric interests, the United States fought two major wars with Britain and one with Spain. A host of other militarized disputes among the Atlantic powers punctuated the nineteenth century.

No sense of community existed between the two sides of the Atlantic. On the contrary, the European powers and the United States saw their respective interests as separate and divergent, embracing a zero-sum view of the security environment. Indeed, so worried were Europeans that America's rise would come at their expense that they came close to intervening on behalf of the South during the U.S. Civil War, calculating that secession would keep North America divided and weak.

Identities of opposition prevailed, and not just on matters of geopolitics. Americans saw Europe as the old world, stuck in illiberal politics and social atavisms. In turn, Europeans saw Americans as boorish and unsophisticated. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 11, Europeans "have gravely asserted that all animals, and with them the human species, degenerate in America--that even dogs cease to bark after having breathed awhile in our atmosphere."2

In the early 1900s, the logic governing Atlantic relations shifted from balance of power to balance of threat. The players no longer balanced against any concentration of power, but only those that they deemed threatening. Regime type started to matter in shaping great-power alignments; the United States and Europe's democracies began to enjoy pacified relationships. National interests were still viewed as separate, but were becoming contingently convergent. The strategic environment was no longer zero-sum, enabling militarized rivalry to give way to peaceful coexistence.

Anglo-American rapprochement, which began in the mid-1890s, cleared the way for this transformation. At the outset, London and Washington peacefully resolved their differences over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. Soon thereafter, the two parties settled a series of other outstanding disputes over fishing rights and borders. A mutual sense of durable reconciliation set in by roughly 1905, by which time Britain had effectively ceded naval hegemony in the Western Hemisphere to the United States and dropped the U.S. Navy from consideration in calculating its global naval requirements. London and Washington were both coming to see the prospect of an Anglo-American war as remote, if not unthinkable.

Compatible identities replaced oppositional ones, furthered by a growing sense of racial and political affinity. On both sides, talk of Anglo-American "kinship" became commonplace. As early as 1896, Arthur Balfour, leader of the House of Commons, ventured that "the idea of war with the United States carries with it some of the unnatural horror of a civil war . . . The time will come, the time must come, when someone, some statesman of authority . . . will lay down the doctrine that between English-speaking peoples war is impossible."3

The experience of World War I broadened and deepened cooperation among the Atlantic democracies, expediting Anglo-French entente and demonstrating that like-minded states could band together against a common threat. The United States contravened its aversion to "entangling alliances", viewing Germany's continental dominance as a threat to U.S. interests, not just an "intra-European" matter. Wartime collaboration heightened expectations of a new postwar order based on the logic of collective security.

But the Atlantic democracies were not yet prepared for deeper forms of peacetime cooperation; they had banded together only as necessary to respond to common threats. The United States entered World War I and World War II only after coming under direct attack. Britain was similarly reluctant to fight alongside France in both wars. And the interwar period made all too clear the contingent nature of common interest. The Senate rejected U.S. participation in the League of Nations, unwilling to take on standing obligations to collective action. Europe's democracies were more willing to undertake such commitments in principle, but their reluctance to uphold them through action readily became clear during the 1930s. The interwar period proved to be the era of fragile "coalitions of the willing", not collective security.

From Pearl Harbor through the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cooperative security was the guiding logic of transatlantic relations. The Atlantic democracies pooled their defense resources as well as their sovereignty, agreeing to consensual decision-making and binding themselves to each other through integrated military commands, combined forces and multilateral institutions. Far from triggering balancing, material power within the Atlantic community wielded a magnetic attraction, "grouping" states around centers of strength such as the United States and the Franco-German coalition.

During the Cold War, the Atlantic democracies had common interests, not just contingently convergent ones, making their security indivisible and encouraging them to take on institutionalized obligations. Whereas the League of Nations foundered on the shoals of America's reluctance to formalize its foreign commitments, the United Nations enjoyed near-unanimous support in the Senate. Whereas the United States steered clear of Europe's troubles in the 1930s, during the Cold War the United States deployed troops in Germany, legally bound itself to Europe through the North Atlantic Treaty, and took other steps to ensure that the two sides of the Atlantic would not be decoupled.

The compatible identities of the interwar period gave way to a shared Western identity during the Cold War. Individual countries maintained their own national institutions and symbols, but they also worked hard to build a transnational sense of unity and solidarity. Backed up by a discourse of shared values, common culture and durable partnership, transatlantic cohesion took on a taken-for-granted quality during the Cold War years. The Atlantic community was not just an alliance, but also a security community--an international society knit together by a sense of "we-ness."

The third era of transatlantic relations, like the two before it, has been brought to an end by geopolitical change. Yet at this historical intersection, the Atlantic community has suffered a serious reversal, rather than an advance. The deterioration began well before the election of George W. Bush and the tragedies of September 11. The reasons are no surprise. The strategic priorities of America and Europe started to diverge soon after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the absence of a common external threat, Europe and America no longer relied on each other to defend first-order security interests. NATO has continued to exist as a military alliance only in name, its provisions for collective defense having become moot after it shifted its focus to out-of-area missions.

Moreover, in the region that now preoccupies policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic--the greater Middle East--the United States and Europe have often pursued divergent policies. During the Cold War, the impact of such differences was muted by the solidarity resulting from the Soviet threat. Absent a militarized inter-German border, the troublesome issues that used to be distractions have come to dominate the transatlantic agenda. The events of 9/11 have not helped matters. Although NATO now maintains a sizable operation in Afghanistan, Washington initially turned down the alliance's offer of help in toppling the Taliban, dealing a blow to the spirit and form of transatlantic solidarity. For the vast majority of Europeans, taking the War on Terror to Baghdad was both unwise and illegitimate. And Americans and Europeans have embraced different views of the source of Islamic extremism and how best to combat it.

The evolution of the European Union (EU) has added to the transatlantic discord. A Europe at peace and a deeper and wider EU have diminished European dependence on American power. Europeans have accordingly grown more ready to assert their autonomy and chart their own course, upon occasion breaking with the United States on key policy issues such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the war in Iraq. Enlargement also extended Europe's sway eastward and southward, its influence coming at the expense of America's traditional dominance in the strategic heartland of Eurasia.

Essay Types: Essay