An old normalcy will do nothing to shake Europe from its complacency
Chicago has produced more than its fair share of colourful politicians. Rod Blagojevich – recently pardoned by Donald Trump – was impeached in 2009 as Governor of Illinois for attempting to sell (among other executive actions) Barack Obama’s former senate seat after the latter was elected president. A half-century earlier, Mayor Richard J Daley ran the city like a fiefdom, making and breaking presidential campaigns along the way. Forty years before that, Mayor Bill Thompson openly colluded in the Capone prohibition gangsterism.
Apart from the corruption and criminality, Thompson is also remembered for promising to punch George V on the snoot, should they ever meet (they didn’t). Why the remarkably undiplomatic campaign pledge? Apart from latent Anglophobia, Thompson had a large Irish-American electorate to play to – and 1927 was less than a decade after the Anglo-Irish War. For Irish-Americans – a large proportion of whom were only first- or second-generation Americans – events in the old country, where close relatives often still lived, were close to the heart.
Those real, lived, physical ethnic communities of European immigrants are long gone by echoes remain, none more so than in what likes to see itself as the Irish-American community. In truth, after a century of the melting pot, such identifications are often no more than a matter of sentimental choice. Joe Biden, for example, describes himself as Irish-American even though the direct Biden line traces to Sussex and his ancestry suggests he’s actually no more than a fifth Irish by bloodline. Does that matter? At the edges, perhaps it does. Identity – even assumed identity – can have a powerful draw; but the raw emotion that the likes of Thompson were able to manipulate? That’s gone: the melting pot has done its job.
However, while that melting pot’s been doing it’s business, immigration hasn’t stopped. Of the 44m living in the US but born elsewhere, immigrants from Latin America and Asia dominate the figures, with half coming from the former and more than a quarter from the latter.
This new immigration is not just changing the ethnic diversity of the US, it’s changing its cultural memory. Both the passage of time and changing demographics mean that the country that did so much to ride to Europe’s rescue in the world wars, and then act as protector during the Cold War, has far less reason now to instinctively feel a kinship across the Atlantic.
That matters because two things that Trump was right about (if not necessarily for the right reasons) was standing up to China and having European NATO members living up to their obligations. Europe may well find the 21st century a rather lonelier place as America’s attention is drawn increasingly to the opportunities and threats across the Pacific – and if the US is increasingly drawn into tension with China, that tends to imply that Europe will have to shoulder more of its own burden. The cosy assumptions of the post-WW2 settlement (now 75+ years old), and even more so, of the post-Cold War era no longer apply.
And China is a threat to the free world, from its expansionist mercantilist trade-security policies, to its use of threats and ‘retaliation’ towards those who criticise it (or, on the other side, its use of financial support to stifle criticism and, less credibly, promote positive PR), to its breaches of commitments on Hong Kong, to its abuses of (often rare) wildlife – note that SARS as well as Covid-19 developed from a bat-to-human species jump in China – to respect for intellectual property or data ownership, to a good deal else.
Likewise, Europe does need to get its act together, especially with an expansionist and revisionist Russia to its east. While Trump rightly highlighted the headline spend, the problem is even worse than the lack of financial outlay: one report in 2018 identified that Germany could only field four combat-ready fighter planes, rather than the 82 its NATO commitments oblige it to, for example.
As long as the US is around to backstop NATO, that’s not an absolute problem because nothing too serious will kick off if American intent is there. But what if Europe ceases to be so central to American geopolitical strategy? Then what?
The complacency within the democracies of the continent is quite staggering. It is as if the governments of too many countries which won the Cold War could dismiss any renewed threats simply by wishing them away; that in the post-1991 world, a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals could simply be imagined into being; that trade and cultural links would ensure there’d be no resumption of hostile competition. Far from it. And the problem with being reliant on assertive and revisionist powers for crucial commodities and good is that the threat to turn that tap off gives them leverage.
Still, for the time being, such questions are not acute – though they do need asking and addressing, if quietly, behind closed doors and with alternative explanations available for the public. The next US president is a man for whom foreign policy has been a central part of his political life since the 1970s. That background inevitably creates its own inertia and it was notable that Biden referenced facing strategic challenges from both Russia and China in a speech just before the New Year. He also spoke of the need to build or restrengthen alliances with like-minded countries. The natural conclusion must be that NATO and Europe remain fairly central to his foreign policy.
But Biden is 78. He may well serve only one term. He may not even serve all of the term to which he was elected. The next US president, whether Republican or Democrat, is unlikely to have the same political or personal history and may well see the world in a different way – even if events don’t force that reassessment in the interim. As America drifts further from its European roots, Biden may well prove to be its last Atlanticist president; Europe’s last American.