“Ireland pursues an independent course in foreign policy, but it is not neutral between liberty and tyranny and never will be.” These are the words of President John F Kennedy in June 1963, from his address to the Oireachtas. They seem eerily prescient of current interest in Ireland’s neutrality as a signifier of the State’s commitments to international affairs.
In March, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney cited these words from Kennedy’s speech and added: “That is exactly the stance we are taking today.” This may seem a pertinent way to rebut criticisms of Ireland’s neutrality but it glosses over the geopolitical realities of very different moments of international tension. It also affects a certitude about Ireland’s international position that belies growing uncertainty about the US’s global leadership.
Kennedy’s commentary on Ireland’s neutrality was made at the height of the cold war. Kennedy visited Ireland on his return from Germany, where in Berlin he gave one of the most important speeches of the era — “Ich bin ein Berliner” — and his speech to the Oireachtas resonated with cold war concerns. In it he emphasised the US and Ireland’s shared histories of revolution and struggles for independence, symbolically bringing Ireland into the cold war on the side of the forces of freedom. The visit provided much-needed international recognition for the fledging state and also marked a shift towards White House activism in Irish affairs.
Biden has poised the defining international conflict of today as one between “democracies and autocracies”, a much less clear and resonant vision at a time of multiple crises in the liberal world order
Fast-forward to today and an Irish-American president once again occupies the White House and keenly references the shared histories and values of Ireland and the US, ready to endorse Ireland’s international role. Speaking in March, President Joe Biden praised Ireland’s support of Ukraine in the conflict with Russia: “Everybody talks about Germany having stepped up and changed motions about being more leaning forward and they have. So has Ireland, a neutral country ... Ireland has stepped up and taken a hit for what they’re doing.” He went on to say that this was evidence that Ireland was “a real actor” on the world stage.
There are echoes of Kennedy’s patronage in these words but the two American presidents were facing into very different international crises. Kennedy poised the defining international conflict of his time as one between forces of “liberty and tyranny” and it was widely perceived and enjoined as such by western publics. Biden has poised the defining international conflict of today as one between “democracies and autocracies”, a much less clear and resonant vision at a time of multiple crises in the liberal world order.
Indeed, there is a growing sense that we are approaching closing time for that liberal projection of international affairs. By uncommon consent, we are in the midst of a seismic paradigm shift in international relations, the painful birthing of a new world order, sometimes termed a “post-American world”.
That emerging order is challenging long-held assumptions about international security and identity.
The sureties of “the West” as the home of “freedom”, so confidently expressed by Kennedy in 1963, are no longer available. Transatlantic relations between the US and Europe have long been viewed as a symbolic linchpin of the West. In recent years, however, the relationship has experienced drift as American interests turn to China, and even rupture with the Trump administration’s promotion of an America First agenda that spurned multilateral engagement with former European partners.
The overtures to European leaders and publics by the Biden administration have been soothing but there is now considerable distrust and uncertainty regarding future relations with the US. The traditional Atlanticist rhetoric of shared values, which Biden has tried to renew, sounds increasingly hollow as emboldened forces of illiberalism rent political cultures on both sides of the Atlantic.
Irish diplomats had to tread carefully in engagements with the Trump administration, developing new relations with a right-leaning Republican Party and working to keep uncomfortable questions about trade balances and tax regimes at bay. Even with the return of a Democratic president and Congress, there remains uncertainty about the direction of US domestic and foreign policy.
If conversations about security and neutrality are increasingly being heard across Europe and not only in Ireland, this is not solely because of the war in Ukraine — it is also because the US no longer provides the assurances it once did as the backbone of a liberal world order.
Along with these immediate, realpolitik concerns we must also acknowledge the longer-term and less tangible shifts in Ireland-US relations.
Throughout much of the 20th century “America” figured as a screen for Irish desires to be modern. Today, however, the spell cast by American modernity in Ireland has been all but broken
The general public animus against the Trump administration in Ireland signified not just a distaste for a particular American president but a deeper disillusionment with the US, and perhaps the ending of a long romance. Certainly, it crystallised the distance we now are from the mythical moment of Kennedy’s visit in 1963.
Writing about that visit in 2002, Fintan O’Toole observed that “much of the public life of my country since 1963 has been an attempt to fill the hole in our self-image that Kennedy’s visit had exposed”. It is a shrewd insight, recognising that what Kennedy most forcefully signified for an awestricken Irish public was modernity, that glittering prize the young nation had not yet grasped.
This is to say that the US has long functioned as a mirror in which Ireland looks at itself, measuring its progress and maturity as a people and a nation. Throughout much of the 20th century “America” figured as a screen for Irish desires to be modern. Today, however, the spell cast by American modernity in Ireland has been all but broken, with younger generations expressing global and cosmopolitan aspirations that are not beholden to American examples. If anything, they are perturbed by the seemingly regressive cultural politics of the US.
Perhaps Ireland is finally over the US. Perhaps such independence is needed as we face into a post-American world.
Prof Liam Kennedy is Director of the Clinton Institute at University College Dublin and co-curator of the Ireland page on Transatlantic Periscope, transatlanticperiscope.org