The “Death” of the European-American Relationship

In a column a while back, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, announced his intention to remind his readers of the basic democratic faith and what its core convictions are.  Over the last half year, he has been doing that.  It is a noble project and one that is sorely needed.  But if there is one critique I have of Brooks’ reminders it is that it is deeply revisionist, existing more in the mind of David Brooks than our actual history.

Brooks’ recent lamentation over the “death” of the European-American relationship is exhibit A of this sort of revisionism.  If you have followed Brooks’ work, like I have, for any length of time, you would know that he is essentially a right-leaning moderate.  He professes love for Edmund Burke and the importance of culture over politics.  Michael Oakshott, English philosopher and conservative moderate par excellence, is the mold in which Brooks fashions himself.  But Brooks’ recent declaration of the death of European and American relations is anything but moderate or circumspect.

Brooks argues that Trump’s press conference in Helsinki was the capstone on the decline and death of the European-American project.  We had a shared history with the Europeans, drawing on the substance of European democratic aspirations and embodying them in a way that surpassed the Europeans.  There was a shared cultural heritage that was respected in both continents.

After World War II, the postwar order was forged by American leadership, but there was a sense of a common project.  On the story goes from glory to glory.  We Americans tend towards the sentimental and ideal.  I have no problem with that.  I prefer that to the opposite.  But Brooks bathes in it.  Reinhold Niebuhr, one of Brooks’ heroes, could easily diagnose this sort of history: sentimentalism.

Do I want this history to be true?  Yes.  It would be lovely if the pastoral colors and noble spirit that Brooks infuses into the European-American mystic cords were reflective of history.  But in fact, the history he describes is one that is American-centric with the province of the postwar mythos of the “liberal international order” as the harbinger of all that is good.  It is similar to the invocation of the “Western tradition” or “Great Books” as though it were one harmonious canon that expressed a single glorious debate.  But just as Rousseau and Burke can’t be simply harmonized, the relationship between America and Europe is one that is fraught, turbulent, and sometimes violent.  It is not one of brotherly harmony but one, more often than not, marked by tension and tragedy.

No doubt the postwar order was peaceful and prosperous, perhaps more prosperous than at any other time in human history.  But why was it so peaceful?  Europe had just destroyed itself in the most awful and bloody conflagration that we shall hopefully never see again.  East and Southeast Asia had just been decimated by Japanese Imperialism.  The Russians, who pulled the heaviest load in World War II, had suffered causalities and devastation, along with much of Eastern Europe, that was unprecedented, and would have caused most countries and cultures to collapse.

Into this global devastation stepped the US with an industrial base ready to sustain the world and an army poised to provide global security by opposing the Communist threat in Stalinist Russia and soon-to-be Maoist China.

But Brooks skipped over that little speed bump on his way to painting the harmonious Western portrait of progress and universal brotherhood.  We could also talk about a few other conflagrations that were equally devastating for Europe.  What about World War I, the Great War?  What about the Napoleonic wars which were absolutely devastating to the continent?  What about the War of 1812 when our British brethren burned down the White House?  Was that an act of wonderous devotion to democratic values?

Dare we bring up the French Revolution, which Brooks’ hero, Edmund Burke, decried?  The radical democratic utopianism of the Philosophes spiraled out of control resulting in the decapitation of the French aristocracy.  Then-president John Adams was seriously worried about a potential French invasion of America as the revolutionary French army geared up to lay waste to the rest of the continent.

Contrary to Brooks’ genteel history of American-European relationships, our history has also been one of great tension and sometimes all-out war.  Yes, America has a special historical relationship to Europe, and the United Kingdom in particular, but the actual relationship with European countries is another matter.

But surely Brooks knows all this.  He is an astute student of history.  So why the historical revision?  I am not sure.  Though Brooks has been critical of Never Trumpers, he still has a strong Never Trump proclivity towards seeing every move by Trump as epochal.  There is an over ascription of importance to everything Trump does.  In Brooks’s case, it’s the end of the European-American relationship!  It’s over folks!

If we were being honest, we would say that we are actually entering back into a more historically representative relationship with Europe, with the US no longer playing the outsized role it has played in recent history.  Despite the large overlap in terms of culture, politics, and shared national interests, Europe will continue to move out from under the American thumb.  That means there will be contention, just as there has been contention in the past.  Chancellor Merkel’s retort to Trump’s criticisms cemented this reality: “we can make our independent policies and make independent decisions.”

The relationship with Europe is not dead, despite Brooks’ declarations to the contrary.  The problems that Trump has bluntly raised are legitimate if not diplomatically articulated.  His calling out the Germans for wanting it both ways is a fair point.  The dismal defense budgets of European countries need to be addressed.  Diplomacy and development are not enough to ensure collective security for the North Atlantic.  Europe’s trade protectionism is not a made-up problem either.

Brooks is right to warn against walking away from international institutions, many of which the US created and sustained.  On this, he has a point.  But I worry equally, if not more, about the self-fulfilling prophecies of the anti-Trump faction, which is disproportionately represented in newspapers and media.  If Brooks and others who are deeply unnerved by Trump aren’t careful, their warnings of destruction and doom can actually feed the fires of doom and gloom.  If you say something long enough people just may begin to believe it.

Daniel Strand, a Providence contributing editor, is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in the history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.

Photo Credit: President Donald J. Trump, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister Theresa May | July 7, 2017 (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

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