THE COLONISATION of Europe (and indeed large parts of the world) by the US news cycle for a few weeks every four years has long been lamented on this side of the Atlantic.
It’s easy to sympathise – it’s not enough that we need to have our language, diet, fashion, music and film culture largely captured; we also need to watch debates between politicians we can’t vote for on matters that don’t directly effect us.
There are reasons for this however, and there are reasons we should pay attention. The United States remains the Atlantic power. Since the end of the second world war, it has controlled the vital military and trade on the ocean itself, and that influences extends across to Europe, where its military alliances police the eastern reaches of western power. The end of the Cold War signalled the American victory over its former Soviet rival, rather than the end of this sphere of influence – which indeed continued to expand.
Because of this status quo, we cannot ignore the winds of change in Washington. Many will hope that the displacement of Donald Trump by Joe Biden will mean a progressive turn for US foreign policy. There is some reason for hope here: the global figurehead of the nationalist right is about to lose his throne (if not his pulpit), and the world’s most powerful polluter will abandon the official mood of denial and return to transnational efforts against climate change.
Yet US multilateralism and Transatlanticism are projects of the US ruling elite, conducted in defence of its own interests. By and large, Biden will seek to repair the US’ flagging international reputation and the relationships which underpin its global hegemony. It is highly likely this will mean a return to the project of US as global enforcer.
The great interruption in US global policy
It wasn’t until 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, that basic assumptions about this role were questioned within US high politics. Trump saw his European Nato allies as failing to hold up their end of the bargain in their shared military pact. He first threatened the unprecedented step of withdrawal from the US’ own organisation, before extracting new financial commitments from European partners.
More breaches with traditional US global strategy were to come, causing much squirming in the Pentagon and wider foreign policy establishment; Trump made friendly noises over Brexit, despite British EU membership enjoying long term support from US strategists (his predecessor Barack Obama has spoken against a Leave outcome, which may or may not have informed Trump’s position). He flaunted crudely nationalist ideas as important international meetings like the UN and Davos. In Helsinki in 2018, he made conciliatory noises towards Russian premier Vladimir Putin, even siding with him against America’s own FBI.
The reasoning behind this turn away from traditional Transatlanticism are difficult to unpick. For all his trumpeted ‘America First’ patriotism, Trump had a apparent distaste for ‘American Exceptionalism’ as an ideology, and the obligations that came with it. Its claims for US moral leadership in the world struck him as delusional, and he argued that the US should view itself as just another beast in the jungle of global competition. Defending Putin from allegations that he murdered his political opponents, Trump famously retorted that the US, too, has “a lot of killers”.
His foreign policy, which generally displayed a lack of interest in protracted, ‘boots-on-the-ground’ military commitments, was partly a reaction to the failures and quagmires of the so-called ‘War on Terror’. A seasoned opportunist, he was also likely responding to an organic dissatisfaction with foreign wars in US society. As a result, Trump perceived both the Democratic party leadership and the neoconservative wing of the Republican party – between them, the traditional ‘war party’ – as enemies of his administration. These foreign policy views were arguably the most controversial aspect of his presidency among the US business and governing elite.
The New Atlanticism
The task confronting the incoming Biden administration is three-fold.
First, Biden will unquestionably seek to create a new spirit of Atlanticism, repairing the battered bridge across the ocean into the western parts of what US strategists consider the most important land quadrant of the 21st century – the ‘Eurasian landmass’. Most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels, rising powers, growing populations and emerging markets are to be found here.
The logic of the War on Terror was predicated upon US influence in Eurasia. But Eurasian influence, through proxies like Israel and the Gulf States among others, cannot be secured unless western Europe remains cohesive behind US leadership. Biden will press for a Brexit deal, and to bring London and Brussels closer together. Britain has long played the role of bridge between US and continental interests, and Biden’s administration will want to restore that relationship as quickly and completely as possible.
Secondly, and towards these same ends, new compacts will be established restoring not only American but British prestige. Washington thinkers have been displeased by the events of recent years in the UK, which has been beset with instability and dislocation from its traditional roles.
The UK will formally instigate the so called D10 or Democratic 10 of powerful established US allies. This will include the UK, India, Australia, India, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US. The two powers obviously carved out of the new club are China and Russia. Although its initial aim will be to counter the spread of Chinese tech with western bloc alternatives, it’s remit can be expected to grow arms and legs.
Thirdly and relatedly, measures against China are likely to accelerate, even if the rhetoric moderates in comparison with Trump. The purpose of securing influence over the Atlantic is also about creating space for a more assertive posture in the Pacific.
To these ends, the Washington foreign policy establishment has rallied around the new administration. Former neoconservative thinkers and activists are also flocking to support Biden, who they view as a more consistent advocate of a so-called ‘forward’ (that is, more aggressive) US foreign policy. In the UK too, civil servants are discussing BBV – Biden, Brexit, Vaccine – as the immediate solution to the last five years of acute disorder.
Powerful forces are converging around a new stability. But just as with Biden’s eventual, narrow victory in the US, achieving it is harder than willing it.
Picture courtesy of Gage Skidmore