The long read: The foreign policy establishment has been lamenting its death for half a century. But Atlanticism has long been a convenient myth
If you took headlines at their word, you would think that the western world is in freefall. As dozens of magazine articles, op-eds and blogposts will tell you, the post-second-world-war order was built from D-day until yesterday by Americans and Europeans who shared the ideals of peace, freedom and democracy. The system worked well until Donald Trump came along and knocked it down as if he were laying the foundations for a new casino.
This perceived crisis may be the main thing that unites the press in the United States and Europe. Is the Trans-Atlantic Relationship Dead? asked the New York Times in January. A few weeks later, it rang a more definite note: The Post-World War II Order Is Under Assault From the Powers That Built It. In Germany, the heart of the Europe-US alliance, there is talk of little else when it comes to foreign policy. A recent cover of the German weekly Der Spiegel showed a hand giving the finger, except that the finger was a little Trump. Two editors at the German newspaper Die Zeit argued that politicians had to accept that the relationship was over and move on. Too many, they argued, refuse to accept this reality. Instead, they take refuge in argumentative acrobatics.
The idea that the worlds stability and prosperity is defined primarily by a partnership between Europeans and Americans is called Atlanticism or transatlanticism, and the people who care about it are convinced that Trump is out to tear up the alliance. For the politicians, professors, thinktank pundits and journalists for whom Atlanticist is a badge of honour, an end to this partnership is not just a geopolitical issue, but a threat to liberalism and any hopes of political betterment around the world. Democracy, free speech, anti-totalitarianism, constitutionalism and free trade that manages to enrich all of its participants these ideals, to the Atlanticists, depend on the close relationship between the US and Europe. As goes the transatlantic relationship, so goes the possibility of western progress.
At the heart of the crisis of transatlanticism is the legacy of the American effort to rebuild Europe after the second world war through three institutions: Bretton Woods, the Marshall plan and Nato. These were the foundations of the so-called post-world order, a programme to stabilise Europe and prevent the emergence of new forms of totalitarianism. (Transatlanticism sounded better than denazification.)
For the Atlanticists, these institutions were not only the means of shaping Europe after 1945, but an expression of the possibilities for idealistic American power. The high point of the relationship was the end of the cold war, when the opportunities that had shaped the west suddenly became available to the Soviet bloc, validating the Atlanticist strategy. Atlanticism could be a means of bringing the west to the rest, as some Atlanticists proposed in the heady years following the fall of the Berlin wall. No longer simply a response to crises, Atlanticism became a way of conceiving the world and the USs place within it.