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Over the Horizon in the Atlantic

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Over the Horizon in the Atlantic

Reflections from Europe on Trump, the Western alliance, and the future July 17, 2018
Politics and law

How will we remember the week of July 10 through July 16, 2018? These were surely among the most astonishing days in the long history of the Euro-American alliance.

NATO’s summit in Brussels ended in uncertainty about American strategic intentions after a fiery salvo of tweets from President Donald Trump against Germany and other European allies’ lack of military spending. While in Britain, Trump gave an interview to the Sun in which he undermined Theresa May, the British prime minister, for her approach to Brexit, and questioned the terms of a future trade agreement between Washington and London. (He later backed off these comments.) Further north, in Scotland, he used an interview with CBS News to characterize the European Union as a trading “foe” of the United States. Finally, in a meeting in Helsinki, the president failed to confront Vladimir Putin on a host of issues, including Russian interference in American politics, in a freewheeling news conference. If one also takes into account Trump’s criticisms of the World Trade Organization and the acrimonious end of the earlier G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is engaged in a frontal assault against the institutions that underpin the 70-year-old transatlantic alliance. The question is, why?

In Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers, David M. Edelstein of Georgetown University argues that “the time horizons of political leaders are critical to understanding why leaders prefer certain strategies to others.” The first year and a half of Trump’s presidency has shown that he sees the status quo in the transatlantic alliance as harmful to U.S. national interests. On this issue, then, Trump has a short time horizon; he is determined to get results for himself, his administration, and his supporters as quickly as possible. In the attempt to achieve these political objectives, he has chosen a policy of simultaneous confrontation with allies and adversaries of the United States.

Strategic history strongly suggests that the results of such a strategy will prove disappointing. Trump, who publicly derides the importance of experience, history, and reflection in the difficult art of strategy-making, doesn’t seem to appreciate that a substantial gap always exists between a leader’s aspirations and the capabilities of his country. Because of its geographical position, internal lines of communication, natural resources, demography, and capital markets, along with its technological, industrial, and military prowess, the United States will remain the most powerful and influential country in the world for a long time to come. This doesn’t mean, though, that the U.S. can defy the laws of strategic gravity with impunity. “Foreign policy consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation’s commitments and the nation’s power,” Walter Lippmann observed in 1943.

The transatlantic alliance faces a paradox. On the one hand, awareness is growing that Trump aims to dismantle or transform radically the main institutions that have supported Europe’s regional order. As Tomas Valasek, the director of Carnegie Europe, a foreign policy think tank, put it recently, “We’ve never dealt with this sort of political animal before. This is a new ballgame and we’re learning how to play it. We’re not necessarily more effective, but we’re getting wiser.” On the other hand, senior European officials and U.S.-based analysts believe that Trump’s challenge will prove transitory. Writing in the Atlantic, Richard Fontaine and Vance Serchuk remind readers that the alliance has endured turbulent times before:

Yet while the Trump administration’s supporters and detractors are both fond of describing its approach to the world as a total break from the past, in reality, periodic crises have been a feature of the transatlantic relationship from nearly its outset. Almost as if by clockwork, a serious breach has tended to flare up between the United States and its European allies every 15 to 20 years going back to the mid-1950s—inspiring fears of a broader, more enduring unraveling of the alliance. . . .

None of this is to suggest that things are predestined to stabilize between the United States and Europe. But it is to recognize this is not the first time the transatlantic alliance has confronted division in its ranks. It probably won’t be the last.

This paradox suggests that the time horizon of supporters of the transatlantic alliance (disclosure: I’m one of them) is as short as Trump’s. While the United States remains seemingly trapped in the 2016 elections, European capitals are stuck in a time period that dates further back: from, say, 1944 to 1991. Many Europeans apparently believe that America foreign policy began only in 1944, with the Bretton Woods agreement. That goes a long way to explaining why they still believe that there is nothing new over the horizon in the Atlantic. Sooner or later, many still maintain, Trump will be gone, and strategic harmony will be restored. That’s why politics in almost every European country continues to consist of day-to-day problem-solving. Many are appalled by Trump, but many are also in denial about the challenges facing Europe, with or without Trump. Almost no one is interested in exploring the political repercussions of what is already visible just over the horizon.

The time has come for transatlanticists to abandon political illusions and strategic laziness. Thucydides, who has been running the greatest seminar about politics, strategy, and war for the last 2,400 years, is perhaps a good place to start this conversation. “I shall be content,” he wrote at the beginning of his History of the Peloponnesian War, “if it is judged useful by those who will want to have a clear understanding of what happened—and, such is the human condition, will happen again at some time in the same or a similar pattern.” I don’t believe that Thucydides is saying that history is merely cyclical and that events will repeat themselves, but rather, that any future that we hope to forge will originate in a deep understanding of the past. As David Runciman of Cambridge University puts it in his book How Democracy Ends: “We should try to avoid the Benjamin Button view of history, which imagines old things become young again, even as they acquire more experience. History does not go into reverse!” Indeed, it does not.

The difficulty is that European progressives and nationalists alike see Trump only as a political comet charting an angry and erratic course over the transatlantic skies. We remain stubbornly fixated on him. Trump is much more than a comet, though. He is an eclipse—one that prevents us from understanding and acting upon what is really going on in a world changing at great speed. As I see it from the Azores, in the heart of the Atlantic, the great Euro-American alliance as we have known it is sinking.

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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