America from afar VII - with Europe

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 7 May 2024

Tarek Osman takes a long view at the US in the light of the changing global conditions


Countries have emotional lives. Societies digest and reflect the collective feelings they have experienced and internalised in certain epochs. As America reckons with challenges to its hegemony as well as its health at home, it has exuded feelings of confidence as well as of anxiety.

The coming to power of President Donald Trump was not merely a reflection of hard-right groups rejecting globalisation and the values that the liberal left had espoused over the previous two decades. It reflected rather more than antagonism to the dynamics of American politics in the period post the Cold War. At heart, the Trump phenomenon gained major momentum, and took hold of the Republican Party because it resonated with an idea of America that has deep support among large sections of the American populace.

That idea entails views of America that are hardly palatable to many socially liberal, progressive Americans. It also entails nostalgia for an America before the major social inclusivity and melange of backgrounds that has taken place in the past forty years.

Internationally, that idea of America was a return to many decades ago, extending to the pre-World War II period, when American foreign policy calibrated its engagements in the world and the responsibilities it incurred with direct and immediate benefits it generated for itself.

This is classic American foreign policy anchored in a mindset nourished by almost two centuries of isolationism and a deep conviction that America constitutes a world of its own, a continent not only surrounded by vast oceans separating it from the Old World, but a political construct different from all others, even from societies it shares many cultural aspects with, such as in Europe.

That is why as America has come to reckon with the gravity of the Chinese threat to its global hegemony, Trump emerged, implying a complete change of posture. One of the most significant changes has been America’s assessment of its key alliances.

With Europe, America quickly developed four objectives, ones that began with the administration of Donald Trump, continued with that of Joe Biden, and will undoubtedly remain irrespective of who will be in the White House in the coming four years.

First, America wants European strategic thinking to be anchored in the notion of a wider West. Secondly, it wants Europe to internalise the mindset of a strategic confrontation that wider West must undertake with its emergent adversaries. Thirdly, it wants Europe to live up to the demands of that confrontation. And, fourthly, it wants Europe to engage in this strategic confrontation in alignment with America’s assessment of that confrontation.

Scoping identity as Western and not merely European is relatively easy. Europe has for centuries been the cultural foundation and core of the idea of the West. Europe also faces major internal differences on what the idea of Europe is. And so, using a vague, malleable notion like the West is arguably convenient for many European politicians, especially at the European Union, who must balance and navigate the differences in viewpoints between member states.

The second American objective is more difficult for Europe. Almost all parts of Europe feel that the security and certainty of power, influence, and abundance of the past two decades have gone away, and that the continent faces serious threats from within and without. But Europe is less assertive than America is in defining the nature of those threats. It is one thing to see Russia, especially after the invasion of Ukraine, as an opponent on Europe’s eastern borders, but it is quite another to commit to a strategic confrontation with a rising superpower like China.

Here the differences in societies’ emotional lives manifest clearly. America, much more than Europe, has put forward clearly defined objectives, and a stronger commitment to pursuing these objectives.

Emotional lives also entail dealing with anxieties. For societies, this means understanding the nature of the pent-up energies within different communities and channelling them into collectively desirable ends. But whereas key groups at the very core of America’s foreign policy decision-making are able to draw on old notions of America from the beginning and middle of the 20th century — when America, in the eyes of a majority of its citizens, was truly great — Europe does not have that mental image that can mobilise large sections of its people. It is also much easier for America than for Europe to envisage and invoke collective ends. As with human anxiety, societies sensing threats but unable to summon their collective will to confront them experience fatigue and inability to alter their circumstances.

This makes America’s third demand of Europe — to rise to the requirements of a strategic confrontation — even harder. Given its young demographics, vast and powerful economy, domestic energy sources, and supremacy in the technologies that will shape humanity’s future as well as its political dynamism, America is able to uproot itself from the comforts and familiarities of its thinking and politics in the decades since the end of the Cold War. This is why it was relatively easy for Donald Trump to effect major changes in America’s trade and foreign policy in a short period of time.

For Europe, however, demographics, economic competitiveness, sources of energy, and the true spirit of its political values are all open questions with different answers arising from different quarters.

The fourth demand also implies a dilemma for Europe. Subscribing to America’s grand plan for a strategic confrontation with threats facing the West, particularly the rise of China, would be, in the view of many in Europe, tantamount to accepting that the European project has so far failed to offer an independent strategic route for Europeans, particularly at a moment of immense changes in the global geo-political scene.

Some in Europe prefer to evade that dilemma. And so, there is European political rhetoric that dilutes the nature of the confrontation America is mobilising for, as mere systemic competition.

Prominent voices in Europe, in addition, understand that the European project requires having independent strategic positioning, primarily so that Europe can pursue those objectives it deems its own, but also to evolve its collective security towards true strategic independence. At a deeper level, this view resonates with Europe’s innate sense that this is an emotional moment different from America’s. This is why, for many in Europe, subscribing to America’s grand plan for a strategic confrontation, without having a European sense of collective security and true strategic independence, risks sailing into extremely turbulent waters ill-prepared.

This alignment between America and Europe’s objectives and strategic positioning will be one of the most important questions in cross-Atlantic relations in the foreseeable future, with consequences for global politics. America might try to mobilise Europe and steer its geopolitics, or it might try to embed itself within the fabric of the continent, understanding its complexities, and internalising the fact that Europe’s emotional life is vastly different from its own.


The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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