16th May 2022


Last chance for the West

Dean Acheson, who was US secretary of state from 1949-1953, once said: "Europe, we always believed, was the world."

It is not easy to imagine an American minister saying something along those lines today.

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  • So far the signs are good. In his acceptance speech Biden said that 'we will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example' – a most European idea.

In the coming weeks and months we will find out to what extent president-elect Joe Biden is willing to consider the transatlantic relationship as a vital US interest again, and put it at the heart of US policy.

It is this mindset – that cooperation with Europe is in America's interest - that will determine whether 'the West' still has a future or not.

In his formidable book The Abandonment of the West; the History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, American historian Michael Kimmage writes that the West as an idea has had ups and downs.

But we've never seen such a deep dip like we've had over the past four years. Kimmage mainly holds the US responsible for this deterioration.

The 'West' is a relatively young concept.

It only became en vogue towards the end of the nineteenth century. Then, the hegemony of European superpowers - the German Empire, Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire, England and France - began to dwindle and the United States started to develop its own global ambitions.

At the time the Americans based those ambitions purely on their European roots.

They dove deep into ancient Greek democracy, the Renaissance and the French Revolution to formulate the values and principles underpinning their state and government - essentially freedom and self-government.

They were extremely proud of this. Universities eagerly spread those values in all corners of the country.

In the early 20th century, Washington was filled with neo-classical buildings: the White House, the Capitol (that name only!) and other public buildings on the Mall symbolise the supremacy of the European idea.

It was exactly in those buildings that president Donald Trump shred to pieces all that his country had long stood for.

The United States first intervened as an international, civilisational actor during and immediately after the first World War.

Post Pearl Harbor

Then the country withdrew from the world stage: Congress was reluctant to take up such a prominent role just yet. It was only after 20 years of instability and chaos in Europe, culminating in the Second World War and the Japanese attack in Pearl Harbor, that the US decided to return. This time, they were there to stay.

The West experienced its heyday during the Cold War, because it was the antithesis of communism. Washington helped a ruined Europe to rebuild its economy (Marshall Plan) and provided for its security (Nato).

This was not altruism.

Keeping Europe stable and prosperous was seen as a vital self-interest for the US, while making sure that Europe would be the main battlefield in case of confrontation with the Soviet Union.

For the same reason the US played a crucial role in European integration.

Even the deep American involvement in the wars in Korea and Vietnam was directly linked to its interests in Europe: the containment of the Soviet block in Asia would make it less likely the Soviets would do anything in Europe.

One hundred years ago president Theodore Roosevelt said: "Our chief usefulness to humanity rests on combining power with high purpose."

After the fall of the Wall in 1989 this high purpose – which some, at Nato, defined as 'to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down' – started to lose its vigour.

The West, many thought, had 'triumphed' over communism.

Then, Washington started to expand the mission: the rest of the world should now also be free to adopt Western values and become democratic. It was at that moment that the American focus started to move away from Europe towards Asia, implying that the Europeans take more responsibility.

This should have made Europeans pause and think. But it didn't.

In fact, many Europeans didn't regret this shifting focus. Many could not share the new American zeal.

Although several European countries participated in America's wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, they were increasingly abhorred by the methods used there. The European heart was never in it.

This global 'mission' got bogged down. Europe, in the meantime, kept thinking, perhaps naively, that it could continue to count on American support no matter what.

It also misjudged the slow erosion of the 'West' as a mindset in the US itself: in Washington, teaming up with European partners and allies was less and less seen as a core American interest.

In recent years the idea of the West was hollowed out by both the American left and right.

The left criticises the much-vaunted European idea that Columbus brought to America as too white, too imperial and non-inclusive.

'Might is Right'?

On the right of the political spectrum Americans increasingly despise the universalism and "liberal multilateralism" (as president Barack Obama called it) that the propagation of European values had drifted into.

These two opposite tendencies reinforce one another. It is no coincidence that, after Obama, Donald 'Might is Right' Trump conquered the White House.

With Joe Biden as president, the West has a chance to continue if a new, more moderate purpose for the West can be formulated.

This will only work if Biden can make the case, at home, that a solid transatlantic relationship based on mutual respect is a core American interest.

So far the signs are good. In his acceptance speech Biden said that "we will lead not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example" – a most European idea.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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