The era of estrangement between America and Europe

Presidents come and go, as do their tiffs. Even Macron and Trump get along at times

 US president Donald Trump  and French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris last weekend. Trump would not be the first powerful man to see in an impudent junior a trace of his younger self. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

US president Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris last weekend. Trump would not be the first powerful man to see in an impudent junior a trace of his younger self. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

 

Conservatives know liberal panic about the 45th US president as “Trump derangement syndrome”. Less diagnosed, though presenting similar symptoms, is Macron vexation disorder.

Something about the president of France – his youth, his Molière-quoting polish – makes populists around the world hope for his failure with a zeal that verges on backhanded compliment.

It is soothing to believe that, with different leaders, Europe and the US will close the rift that was so exposed in last weekend’s Armistice centennial. But this is to treat personal squabbles as the problem, not larger trends. Emmanuel Macron deplored the “nationalism” of Donald Trump, who in turn questioned French martial prowess. Both jibes were too stale to land.

The Great War was a folly of multinational empires, not nation states. As for French defeat, the armchair commandos of the Anglo-American right should reflect on what it is to share a land border with a larger enemy.

Presidents come and go, as do their tiffs. Even these two rub along at times: Trump would not be the first powerful man to see in an impudent junior a trace of his younger self.

Continentals often associate the nation state with war and misgovernment as reflexively as Americans equate it with freedom and glory

Just do not expect the estrangement of Europe and the US to stop. Their alliance, which is discussed as though it were as fixed a feature of the universe as the gravitational constant, was improvised for counter-Soviet purposes. In 1945, Washington could not let the razed continent turn red.

When that existential goal was met in 1989, cross-Atlantic disparities in attitudes and interests – transcended, after a fashion, in the cold war – became unmistakable. Quarrels over the Balkans, climate change and Iraq long predate Trump. Others, as yet unknown, will post-date him.

The attitudinal gap between Europe and the US has hardly narrowed since Robert Kagan described it in Of Paradise and Power, 15 years ago.

In his anti-nationalism, Macron still speaks for most of his continent: the latest Eurobarometer poll, from March, records the highest support for the EU since 1983. Continentals often associate the nation state with war and misgovernment as reflexively as Americans equate it with freedom and glory.

Neither side is “right”, just informed by a past that is quite its own.

Donald Trump pauses during the American Commemoration Ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery in Paris, France, on Sunday Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg
Donald Trump pauses during the American Commemoration Ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery in Paris, France, on Sunday, November 11th Photograph: Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg

Official violence

This difference in perspective extends to the means of official violence. Trump is not a total fabulist when he chafes at Nato and its uneven burdens. Europe’s relative underspending on defence is there in the numbers, and is suggestive of a different culture with different priorities.

The nation state and its proper degree of hard power: even without broaching religion, these are epic subjects for supposed partners to disagree on.

The two poles of the west are entwined by ancestral culture, some will say: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the Enlightenment. But this was true when Britain torched the White House in 1812.

It was true when the US fought Spain in 1898. It was true when the US tarried before joining the world wars. The insistent voice of self-interest has drowned out any mystic chords before, and could do so again.

Whatever noun splits the difference, we might be using it to describe Europe and the US in 20 years. They need not fall out

None of which is to suggest that Europe and America will come into active conflict, just that they will grow apart as their interests point them to different areas of the world. Europe has a southern frontier with Africa to tend.

Its citizens, tiring of immigration, prioritise few things more. Meanwhile, geography, power politics and a population increasingly of non-European descent draw Washington’s focus to Asia and Latin America.

Even Barack Obama, a mostly orthodox foreign policy president, aspired to a more Pacific than Atlantic posture.

US first lady Melania Trump and US president Donald Trump look on as German chancellor Angela Merkel talks to French president Emmanuel Macron at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018. Photograph: François Mori
US first lady Melania Trump and US president Donald Trump look on as German chancellor Angela Merkel talks to French president Emmanuel Macron at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on November 11, 2018. Photograph: François Mori

Europe and the US will still have common enemies (terrorism) and zones of interest (Russia, the Middle East). But what gave rise to “the west” in its modern usage was a Soviet menace that has no modern equivalent, yet.

Even if we date the alliance back to 1917, when the US entered the first World War, it accounts for a minority of American history and a sliver of European history. If Nato and other items of cold war architecture now lapse into a kind of benign disrepair, it is not all the work of Trump.

The wonder is that they held as well as they did between 1989 and now.

Unless readers can suggest one, political language has no word for a state of relations that is cooler than “allies” and warmer than “rivals”. Allies act in concert towards the same purpose. Rivals vie for primacy.

Whatever noun splits the difference, we might be using it to describe Europe and the US in 20 years. They need not fall out. But nor must they have all that much to do with each other. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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