“YOU CAN’T repeat the past,” says a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald Gatsby the magnificent, to which he responds majestically: “Can’t you repeat the past?” Why of course you can! Condemned to live in the present, President Joe Biden hastened to restore the transatlantic relationship, and Western Europe hailed the partnership with the United States after Donald Trump. Central Europe breathed a sigh of relief. Returning to strategic clarity on Europe, the Biden administration is providing constant support to NATO. He has dropped President Trump’s serial calls for friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It imposes costs on Moscow, while highlighting the gulf between an autocratic Russia and those of its neighbors who aspire to democracy. Biden defends multilateralism and the further integration of the European Union.
This is the way forward endorsed by the lion’s share of DC foreign policy pundits and think tanks. Without a strong transatlantic relationship, Russia and China will become unmanageable for the United States. Russia benefits from the division within Europe and the division between Europe and the United States. In Putin’s eyes, such a division has the potential to reverse sanctions, create ad hoc partnerships with willing European governments, and consolidate a sphere of influence on Russia’s western flank. Meanwhile, Russia’s partner China has integrated its economic, military, technological, diplomatic and cultural might in a way that calls for a transatlantic counter-response. Transatlanticism increases the promotion of democracy and collective security in Europe and Asia, strengthening an international order shaped by deliberation and cooperation.
As obvious as all this may be in theory, the transatlantic partnership is proving tricky in practice. So far, the Biden administration has taken a rather technocratic approach to the transatlantic relationship. Its focus fell on the Common Diplomacy Toolbox in the hope that a set of shared interests will help manage its priority challenges, from geopolitics (China and Russia) to global public health to the many Political puzzles that arise from climate change. So far, Biden has yet to achieve major victories with Europe, and recent debacles in Afghanistan and nuclear submarines have deepened pre-existing cracks: lingering European concerns that the United States may be , as Angela Merkel said of Trump’s America, “unreliable,” and the lingering American frustration with the deplorable state of a European foreign police. Germany and the European Union are also not convinced by the claim that China is no longer a partner and unambiguously a threat. Quite the contrary. They see America as retracing a return to the backdated impulses of the Cold War. On Russia, Berlin led Washington to withdraw the Nord Stream II sanctions, much to the dismay of Ukraine and its champions. Then there is the Middle East. On the Arab-Israeli conflict and on Russian policy, Europe and the United States are not perfectly coordinated. Europe and the United States have a common toolbox. But do they have a common vision?
HISTORICALLY, TRANSATLANTICISM has never depended on the best foreign policy on paper. It depended on a strong cultural foundation, which in the middle of the century was the West or Western civilization. The architects of the Marshall Plan and the NATO alliance had the West as a fine ideal, as did those tasked with transforming Germany from a saboteur of world order into an anchor of European stability. Long outdated, the cultural configurations of the transatlantic relationship have not been rethought since. As Europe and the United States continue to struggle against populism, deepening inequalities and escalating political polarization, cultural fragmentation could be more dangerous for the transatlantic relationship than, dare we say? whether it is Russia or China. This relationship’s near-death experience during Trump’s presidency, of which neither Moscow nor Beijing was the real cause, is proof of this.
Thus, the Biden administration would be wise to give the transatlantic relationship a new cultural orientation. It should preserve the essence of what was once confidently called the West: the commitment to freedom and self-reliance that emerged from the Enlightenment and classical antiquity. Freedom and self-government were the obvious truths of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, but in recent years they have become smelly in some right-wing quarters. The Biden administration should anchor its commitment to political freedom in tolerance and multiculturalism, while doing what it can to ensure that transatlanticism is a bipartisan project at home. Abroad, Biden would have to do more to justify the transatlantic relationship in history and symbol, as previous presidents had often done with the West. More importantly, the Biden administration should avoid nostalgic efforts to repeat the past. The transatlantic relationship is not a museum piece, a precious jewel of the internationalism of the 1940s. It is a living thing in politics and in culture. Either it will be supported by the enthusiasm of the younger generations, or it will be lost.
The CULTURAL architecture of the transatlantic relationship has emerged slowly. It first appeared in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair or at the Colombian World’s Fair. Exactly 401 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, the fair presented the United States as the heir of technological progress and the civilizational generosity of Europe. Its neoclassical buildings and sprawling gardens were so popular that they inspired a redesign of the National Mall and gave rise to Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other iconic Washington spaces and landmarks. In the 1890s, an authoritarian West was exposed to the Age of Empire, which the United States officially joined with the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Two decades later, Woodrow Wilson strived to make the West safe for democracy. He drew inspiration from the Enlightenment – part of Emmanuel Kant’s notion of perpetual peace, part of Thomas Jefferson’s lyricism on inalienable rights – to propose a new international order at Versailles. An interlocking network of democracies and republics would form into a global deliberative body, Wilson hoped. Yet Wilson failed to persuade the British and the French, let alone the Soviets and the Germans. The US Congress was also not impressed. Spheres of influence and empires remained, but in pointing out the contours of a democratic West, Wilson had planted a seed. While contemplating Wilson at Versailles, the Chinese intellectual Hu Shi referred to him as “the supreme product of Western civilization”. His vision was truly visionary.
In the 1920s and 1930s, American universities were engaged in teaching Western civilization. Columbia University, of which Hu Shi was an alumnus, pioneered the “Western Civilization” curriculum during the First World War. Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler was a supporter of reaching out to Germany because Germany was Europe. The project was an academic endeavor to introduce American students to European literature in translation, a modern version of learning Greek and Latin that had dominated American higher education since the founding of Harvard College in 1636. The program of Columbia spread to American universities during the interwar period. , making the West and Western civilization ubiquitous references in culture and in international affairs. These affirmative programs promoted dissonance education. As undergraduates gathered to receive the treasures of the Western intellectual tradition, Europe sank into fascism and war.
The United States entered World War II as a conscious protector of Western civilization. Franklin Roosevelt’s adviser, Harry Hopkins, met Winston Churchill in 1942 “to discuss the grave predicament of Western civilization,” in Hopkins’ words. This meant, beyond the war effort itself, a legacy of classical antiquity passed from Europe – via Britain – to the American Republic. Concretely, Western civilization was a representative government, a constitutional monarchy, a democracy. Or as Dwight Eisenhower put it in a letter to his son shortly before the D-Day invasion, “No other war in history has so definitively aligned the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship against those of human rights and individual liberty “.
After 1945, the cause of human rights and individual freedom fell back on the Cold War. Unwittingly, the Soviet Union inaugurated a new West by being, even more than Nazi Germany, in the geographic East and by being no less arbitrarily oppressive and dictatorial than the Third Reich. The Soviet Union opposed the Euro-Atlantic West, a dilemma of security and civilization for American policymakers. US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Averill Harriman wrote in January 1945 that “unless we want to accept the barbaric invasion of Europe in the 20th century … we have to find ways to stop politics. Soviet dominatrix â. George Kennan also wanted Soviet communism (and Soviet barbarism) to be contained so that Western civilization could flourish.
Western civilization framed American policy in the late 1940s. It also explained this policy to the people who funded it â the legislature and the taxpayer. Before the House of Commons Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 1948, Secretary of State George C. Marshall used the language of civilization to rally his support for what would become the Marshall Plan. He argued:
Left on their own, there will be no escape [by Europeans] of such intense economic distress, of such violent social discontent, of such widespread political confusion, and of the hope for the future so closed that the historical basis of Western civilization … will take a new form in the tyranny that we fought to destroy in Germany.