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America, Europe's Frenemy

America, Europe's Frenemy

The United States serves as a projection screen for the desires and hatreds of many Europeans–and in the process, offers insight into Europe’s own internal tensions.

Peter Hefele

The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine has led to a transatlantic honeymoon. The West now seems more united than ever. But there is precious little scrutiny of what exactly connects Europe and America—and what divides it. Repeated declarations of the importance of the transatlantic partnership is no substitute for an unbiased, critical view of the wedging forces separating Europe and the United States.

There are three dimensions of transatlantic relations that are of longue durée and remain relevant regardless of the outcome of next year’s U.S. presidential election: a renewed anti-American sentiment in Europe; a cross-fertilization of ideological thinking across the Atlantic; and differing geopolitical cultures. These enduring dynamics can be seen as a sort of cultural background noise that can help us understand why the United States and Europe work together smoothly in some instances but are at odds in others.

The first feature to note of transatlantic relations is that they have always consisted of a love-hate relationship. However the persistence of anti-American sentiment in parts of European society long after the Second World War is alarming for all supporters of a values-based relationship between the United States and Europe. More disturbingly, these continent-wide attitudes can be found across a broad range of the political spectrum, not only at the radical political fringes.

Mistrust and outright repudiation of the American political and socioeconomic systems are often built on an appalling lack of profound knowledge. For generations of Europeans, the United States has always been the projection screen of desires as well as hate, saying more about Europe’s own internal tensions than reflecting American reality.

Europe’s complicated views of freedom are crucial in explaining this unpleasant truth. Largely forgotten or taken for granted are the contributions of America’s thinkers, politicians, and its people in creating, restoring, and maintaining free and open societies in Europe. The current war in Ukraine has once again brought the fragility of democratic systems front of mind.

Whether that lesson will stay front of mind is an open question because deeply rooted anti-Americanism is still watering it down. This thinking stems from fantasies of a third way, an equidistance between East and West, and distinctions some are eager to make between culture and civilization or between values and money, to name a few. Even in the face of totalitarian threats, these deceptions blinded both intellectuals and ordinary people in Europe throughout the 20th century. And there is little hope that they will disappear in the 21st century.

This paradoxical mixture of admiration and jealousy on the European side can be seen clearly in European political analysis. On one side, the vitality of U.S. innovation and economic growth are widely acclaimed. Conversely, as an essential part of the European way of Life, Europeans consider the social welfare state superior to the Anglo-Saxon model of harsh capitalism. Yet these same analysts deliberately ignore the overregulation that undermines entrepreneurship and future value-creation. In this respect, the underlying ideological framing of the “green transformation” can be seen as only the latest example of Europe going its own way.

The real danger of this thinking lies in its potential to fuel protectionist economic policies, calls for which can already be heard by more extreme voices on the left and right. These extremist views run the risk of undermining the already fragile economic relations across the Atlantic at a time when closer economic and political cooperation is needed more than ever.

A little-known aspect of transatlantic relations is the co-evolution of ideological concepts on the extreme left and right. Often not visible to the broader public, these political movements have increasingly reinforced themselves across the ocean. The woke movement that originated in the United States has spilled over to Europe, where political thinking on the left is either bereft of ideas or has transformed into climate radicalism, most prominently. On the right there continues to be a more balanced give and take of ideas between the two sides when it comes to reinterpreting conservatism.

Ideological debates across the Atlantic haven’t been so furious since the 1960s. Unfortunately, these debates have so far been dominated mainly by extremist voices, while moderate, centrist ones are missing. Ideological imports from the United States often traverse traditional lines of debate and radicalize European perspectives. The negative impact on political cultures from polarization and the shrinking of public discourse spaces have by far outweighed any positive contributions to rejuvenating liberal and moderate conservative thinking, which still represent the majority of voters in the North Atlantic region.

Yet centrist advocates of these ideas remain pretty silent in the public discourse. For too long, consensus on basic concepts of representative liberal democracy and its underlying values have been taken for granted. Revolutionary forces such as those occurring in Western economies and European demographics call for reinventing the fundaments of Western democracies. Regrettably, constructive and moderate ideas are hardly heard on either side of the Atlantic.

A third defining feature of transatlantic relations is the divergence in geopolitical outlooks. Europe emerged from the Second World War determined to embark on a project of peaceful integration aimed at redefining itself as a normative power that would overcome the specters of war, colonization, and imperialism. This revolutionary step, and break with its belligerent past had long-lasting effects on Europe’s strategic culture and mentality. (Surprisingly, the “end of history” was not coined by a European author; yet it precisely reflected the European elite mentality.) America’s strategic culture, on the contrary, couldn’t be more different—both because of its ideological foundations and out of the sheer necessity of maintaining international order after two costly world wars.

Europeans still resist thinking beyond their own small world, as their global authoritarian enemies are willing to do. Leaving behind the “age of innocence” will be a painful process and could just as easily become a source of major conflict with the United States as it could become a source of deepened cooperation. Dwarfed by other powers’ military capabilities and increasingly dependent on systemic rivals such as China, Europe continues to indulge in pipe dreams of “strategic autonomy.” This thinking is intentionally nurtured by revisionist powers such as Russia and China—giving Europeans a sense of geopolitical importance—who aim to drive a wedge in the transatlantic alliance.

Simply stating, as some European leaders and intellectuals do, that U.S. and European interests are not necessarily the same is hardly a starting point for a critical and open debate on the potential and limits of the transatlantic partnership. Take the example of how to deal with a rising and more assertive China. Narrow economic interests aside, no one in Europe so far can explain any fundamental strategic divergence between Europe and the United States.

The real problem lies in the fact that Europe, as a political entity first and foremost, lacks a coherent strategic outlook. Acting upon the least common denominator among the diverse interests of twenty-seven members will hardly increase Europe’s global impact. Russian aggression has renewed the old clashes between Atlanticists and Gaullists. The relationship between NATO and the EU—whether the latter should function as a complementary or stand-alone pillar of European security—is heavily debated. Central and Eastern European countries, meanwhile, put their faith in NATO and the American security shield.

Whatever a look into the crystal ball may reveal about the current transatlantic relationship, there is a deplorable lack of attention to securing a constructive future for transatlantic relations. The North Atlantic alliance is vital for the survival of free and open societies. To revert this detrimental development, all levels of exchange must reach beyond the well-known “bubbles” and usual suspects of Washington and Brussels. Geotectonic movements are unstoppable, but the widening gap across the Atlantic can be closed.

Dr. Peter Hefele is policy director at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels.

Image: Signage for Kentucky Fried Chicken hangs near a post-WWII-era sector sign in Berlin, Germany. (Unsplash: Azraël Manseng)

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