The big question that hangs over Donald Trump’s trip through Europe is not whether America’s NATO allies should spend more on defence or whether Vladimir Putin poses an overriding strategic threat to the continent.
The big question is this: why should Uncle Sam continue to provide the military assets and leadership across the pond as it has for the past 70 years?
The answer lies in understanding that the concept of a united political West is a tenuous and unconvincing one. Indeed, it should have been moribund since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of Soviet Communism. It’s now collapsing.
True, the West has been and will remain a culture defined by representative democracy, the rule of law, the market economy and so on. But a common civilisation is one thing, political unity is another; and they should not be confused. The political unity of the postwar era was always going to give way to differences of interests and strategies as each of the major actors searches for its own security.
All this was foreshadowed 25 years ago in the most prescient article published about the emerging post-Cold War world, and America’s place in it. Forget Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, Charles Krauthammer’s The Unipolar Moment and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations.
During the Cold War, the conventional wisdom held that “the West” was a given, a natural presence and one that was here to stay. However, as Harries noted, the political West was not a “natural construct but a highly artificial one”.
In fact, notwithstanding the Cold War, the West had almost always been deeply divided politically. Its history had been studded with internecine conflicts and vicious intramural wars, culminating in both world wars – which, in civilisational terms, were essentially Western civil wars.
Again, for most of its history, the US had been deeply suspicious of, and hostile towards, European power politics, stressing its differences from the older continent.
In the brief interludes when Europe and America were together as the West, he observed, “desperation and fear had been its parents, not natural affinities”. They had been the forces that have driven Europeans to unite among themselves and to associate with the US, a nation long viewed by many Europeans as unsophisticated in world affairs.
It’s taken a quarter of a century, but Harries has been vindicated. The clash between Brussels and the most unsophisticated American leader in history will mark the breaking point in the political West.
This is not just because of Donald Trump’s boorish behaviour. Nor is it simply because of disputes over tariffs, Iran, defence spending and climate change. The political West will collapse because of broad historical forces, as Harries identified in his landmark essay.
Take NATO. The Atlantic alliance was a magnificent achievement in containing Soviet power. But the Soviet Union has not existed since 1991 and there was never any clear and present danger to justify NATO expansion in the 1990s and 2000s.
NATO’s problems are compounded by the fact that America’s real threat is China, and its dramatic rise creates powerful incentives for the Americans to get out of Europe and concentrate its forces in east Asia. This, remember, justified Barack Obama’s so-called pivot.
Enter Trump, who wants to avoid what the 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury called “the commonest error in politics”, which is “sticking to the carcasses of dead policies”. He is surely right to complain that an overwhelming majority of America’s 28 NATO allies are free riders on the Pentagon. Even his predecessor, a president who received rock-star status in Europe, repudiated America’s European friends for failing to spend 2 per cent of their economic output on defence.
Trump is deeply hostile to the existing international order, and he is every bit as hostile to the EU as he is to NATO. He swept through the Republican primaries before defeating the queen of the liberal establishment Hillary Clinton. From his perspective, “America First” has a mandate.
And if the Donald wins the next election – a plausible prospect so long as his trade protectionism does not disrupt America’s booming economy – then the game is up for Brussels. Two Trump terms is more than enough time to consign the world’s greatest alliance to the ash heap of history.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.
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