Can Joe Biden Revive the Transatlantic Relationship?

Can Joe Biden Revive the Transatlantic Relationship?

The cultural revival of transatlanticism after Donald Trump is shadowed by overlapping difficulties.

The civilization we struggled to save from tyranny demands our protection yet again. Marshall got what he was asking for from Congress.

In the 1950s, Western civilization was a bipartisan foundation for U.S. foreign policy and a commonplace attribute of American culture. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman had begun an Atlanticist foreign policy, putting Washington at the center of the West. The Republican president elected in 1952, Marshall’s wartime protégé, gladly carried it forward. (From 1948 to 1952, Eisenhower was president of Columbia University, where the Western civilization curriculum was born.) Eisenhower described the NATO alliance “as the last remaining chance for the survival of Western civilization,” a term he was fond of using in his military and political careers. As had Secretary of State Marshall, Eisenhower saw a single civilizational thread connecting the Second World War and the Cold War.

THAT THE Atlanticist consensus splintered under Trump is unsurprising. Far more surprising is that Atlanticism lasted as long as it did. Having crystallized in 1945, Atlanticism survived the anguish of the Vietnam War. It survived the rigors of the Cold War: the collapse of the Soviet Union did not eliminate the need for NATO, which was expanded multiple times after 1991. In 2004, the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas published a book, The Divided West, that predicted (and to a degree endorsed) a parting of the ways for Europe and the United States. Atlanticism survived an Iraq War that threatened—for a while—to divide Europe itself into eastern and western or, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, into old and new halves. Yet transatlanticism survived. Nor was it eviscerated by a pivot to Asia that was never meant to leave Europe behind. It survived the Ukraine crisis, the Syria crisis, the migration crisis. It survived for seven decades, an eternity in international affairs. Then, in 2016, the consensus crumbled.

In his own terms, Trump did not seek the unraveling of the West. Sui generis in his foreign policy, Trump cheerfully ignored the past precedents of Atlanticism. In the haze of his Europe-related words and actions, a pattern could be dimly discerned. It was the forging of a transatlantic bond through the invocation of borders, through the curtailing of immigration, through the denigration of internationalism, and the elevation of nation-states tinged with traditionalism and with appeals to Christian belonging. The governments of Hungary, Britain, and Poland applauded this new species of Atlanticism, which resonated with the populations of Europe to the degree that the EU and what it represents were held in disdain. At the 2020 Republican Nominating Convention, Trump was introduced as nothing less than “the bodyguard of Western civilization.”

Trump’s West never made it very far. Most European governments were appalled by it, biding their time until a more reasonable American president reappeared. Trump’s West was undemocratic, reversing Wilson’s legacy, and it aligned poorly with NATO, an international institution par excellence. Trump’s ideal of Western civilization failed domestically as well. It flowed directly from the politicized anger that Trump had a gift for provoking and reflected the worst of America’s long history of racial prejudice. Paradoxically and logically, Trump’s ethnonationalism engendered a corrosive national disunity. A second Trump term, which Trump came relatively close to reaching in the 2020 election, would have signified America’s decline and the end of any meaningful transatlanticism.

THE CULTURAL revival of transatlanticism after Trump is shadowed by overlapping difficulties. The first is an ongoing culture war within the United States. The Democrats are the more “European” of the two American political parties. It can be tempting for Democratic presidents to see their approach to Europe as a restatement of their domestic policies, highlighting what Democrats have in common with mainstream European politics: a shared secularism, a shared commitment to abortion rights and gun control, a shared environmentalism, etc. Biden should do what he can to persuade Americans that a healthy transatlantic relationship is in the interest of all Americans. It steadies international turbulence. It enhances Americans’ security and contributes to their prosperity. It is something for which generations of Americans have sacrificed. If Republicans cease believing these claims, Biden’s transatlantic achievements will be short-lived.

A second difficulty resides in Europe. It is to win over European populations, for whom Trumpist nationalism still has widespread appeal, not least in France where the election of Marine Le Pen is not inconceivable. Viktor Orbán speaks for an entirely different West from the West of Emmanuel Macron, and Macron is by no means guaranteed victory in their disputation. For this reason, the democratic content of the transatlantic relationship cannot be sacrificed to the technocratic language that is too often second nature to European and American diplomats. International politics has its ceremonial and cultural side. John F. Kennedy did not regale his audience with the details of America’s financial and economic contributions to West Germany when he spoke in Berlin in 1963. He did not reflect on the military complexities of the nuclear age. Ich bin ein Berliner: in a few succinct sentences, and standing by the recently built Berlin Wall, Kennedy captured the difference between arbitrary oppression and dictatorship on the one hand and human rights and individual liberty on the other.

Here the Biden administration is off to a shaky start, and not just because Biden and Kennedy are stylistic opposites. On a week-long trip to Europe, in the summer of 2021, in which Biden did not appear before any large European audiences, no substantive cultural diplomacy was attempted. It was all quite empty. The intellectual aridity of Biden’s trip meant that he offered no narrative about history, and although he often appealed to shared values, he said nothing about the sources of these values; nor did he try to give these values any kind of cultural resonance. Biden’s was a visit in prose. It was bereft of poetry and philosophy and rhetoric, unconcerned with symbolism and to this degree a missed opportunity. It is more than a tactical mistake to cede the cultural case for the West to populists, who are eager to make this their signature cause. Trump’s West is by no means a figment of the past, and the democratic West cannot be shored up only at the gatherings of world leaders and only through the joint communiques of official diplomacy.

Finally, the cultural revival of the transatlantic relationship faces the difficulty of balance and proportion. The transatlantic relationship could be animated by a series of friend-foe distinctions. Russia could be labeled an existential threat. So too could China, among other candidates. Thus could the culture of transatlanticism be a weapon in a holy war for democracy, launching a journey back to the darkest days, the horrific overreach, and the most grievous strategic errors of the Cold War. Chastened perhaps by a decade of setbacks, Europe and the United States are in no position to indulge their missionary zeal, or what will remain of it after the exit from Afghanistan and after the pandemic. China, Russia, and many other countries exhibit little desire to be transformed according to Western prototypes. The excellence of the transatlantic relationship is internal to the relationship. It is the perpetuation of liberty, self-government, tolerance, and multiculturalism, globally influential virtues when genuinely practiced by Europe and the United States. This is a tradition ripe for reinvention in 2021. If creatively understood and imaginatively acted on, the best of the past can indeed be repeated. Why of course it can!

Michael C. Kimmage is a professor and Department Chair of History at Catholic University of America.

Image: Reuters.