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Transatlantic Relations - Confronting the Paradigm Change View other pieces in "The Council on Foreign Relations"
By Mark Danner 1993
Tags: Foreign Affairs Print

An essay published in "Europe and America: Between Drift and New Order", Alton Frye and Werner Weidenfeld (editors). New York: Bertelsmann Foundation and Council on Foreign Relations, 1993.


It strikes me that "The Future of the Transatlantic Relationship" has quite a considerable past. Long before the East European revolutions of 1989, this imagined future had been endlessly ruminated in monographs and essay collections, in quarterly journals and on "talking heads" television programs and, of course, in multi-day conferences bringing together learned men and women. There can be no mystery to this: for near half a century, the "transatlantic relationship" has been both anomalous and crucial, and thus has always managed to draw the attention of those who by their natures find the mix of anomalousness and importance irresistible. The resulting attempts to mitigate that anomalousness, in theory and in policy, trace the history of the "transatlantic relationship" ITom the founding of NATO itself to the decision to emplace intermediate range missiles in Europe. Our ways of thinking about the United States and Europe are deeply imbued with this history; it is hardly surprising that our very categories of thought, no matter how forcefully we struggle to adapt them to the future, turn stubbornly back toward a more accustomed past.

Sometimes the greatest obstacle to building anything new is clearing away the rubble. The central task of our Euro-American Strategy Group, in my opinion, should be to devise ways to clear the ground, to avoid devoting our time and effort to constructing yet another series of papers exploring, however nobly, the usual issues: the security relationship, the financial relationship, the matter of trade, and on and on. That we automatically organize our thoughts in this fashion seems to me only the most readily apparent sign of how tightly the past holds us in its grip. That we should make a strong attempt to surmount this past is necessary, I think, not only because those papers have been written many times before, but because the underlying issues have changed, in ways that - though we are ready and eager to acknowledge, even to assert the fact of change - we have scarcely begun to plumb. It is, in fact, precisely those ways in which the issues have changed that this project should attempt to discover.

Writing three decades ago about "the structure of scientific revolutions," Thomas S. Kuhn pointed out that during those rare times of revolution in world view he called "paradigm changes," the central concepts underlaying the old order become emptied of meaning and untranslatable to the new. "[A]t times of revolution," wrote Kuhn, "when the normal scientific tradition changes, the scientist's perception of his environment must be re-educated - in some familiar situations he must learn to see a new gestalt. After he has done so the world of his research will seem, here and there, incommensurable with the one he inhabited before..."

In my view, the task of "re-educating" our own perceptions must come first, the necessary precursor to constructing a new agenda for the "transatlantic relationship." Designing the means by which such a re-education can be effected, I believe, should be the first goal of our Euro- American Strategy Group.


How to do it? This, of course, is a much more difficult question. I put forward a few, very hesitant suggestions, keeping in mind the need to define issues in new terms and, perhaps, to attack them with new methods. I do so acknowledging that these suggestions remain rather vague, and that in undertaking to use them to guide our study we will be, to some extent, floundering about in the dark, with no assurance that in the end we will be able to lay hold of any definitive answers. Still, in my view, this is unavoidable if the goal is really to redefine the problem, and to seek new and profitable means to approach it.

I would like to see, for one, attention paid to the issue of "the movement of peoples." I mean by this not simply an accounting of the flows of refugees and illegal workers, though both of those matters are obviously of great importance, but a look at the question of how the populations in the countries carrying on "the transatlantic relationship" have changed since the early postwar era and, more important, how they are changing still. A thoroughgoing exploration of this would touch not only on the pressure felt, both in Europe and the United States, from the people of what has come to be called "the South," but on the question of what defines and what will continue to define the Transatlantic World itself.

How to go about looking at this issue, or rather, this cluster of issues? Obviously, it is partly amenable to familiar social scientific methods - to creative demographic and economic analysis, for example _ and such analysis might well form the bedrock of a more interdisciplinary study. The key question, though, is exactly how to go about building on this bedrock - how, that is, to carry the analysis from the evidence of demographic changes to the impact of such changes on cultural and political forms within the transatlantic societies. Some of these effects appear obvious, of course, and have been the subject of much comment: the so-called guestworker issue in Europe and its links to the rise of "non-mainstream" political parties; or the increasing "Latinization" of many American cities, and the repercussions of this on some aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

Key here, again, is the need to develop an effective lens through which to view the larger questions. My very tentative suggestions point not so much at what to do but what not to do: Don't limit the discussion to the contributions of the social scientists, or to the customary methods of summarizing evidence. Don't exclude documentary film or videotape as a more economical and pointed method of addressing the issue than the standard five-thousand word essay. Don't exclude methods that examine mass communications, for example, or popular entertainment, as a means to study how the cultures of the transatlantic nations and their constituent peoples are changing. Indeed, "mass culture" itself is another term that comes to mind when I think of the future of the transatlantic relationship - mass culture as a symptom of change, as a sign of the future. I would like to devise a way for the project to examine television in Europe and North America, whether televised entertainment or, perhaps, televised information, such as television news. This might offer a way to see how the transatlantic relationship is popularly conceived and pictured, day to day - how our largest mirrors reflect back to us our unexamined preconceptions.

A second cluster of issues, obviously related quite closely to the first, is the so-called "return of history" (or, in some cases, the strongly promoted impression of such a return). Nationalism in southeastern Europe, leading to the unfortunately named "ethnic cleansing" there, is the most obvious example, and one can think of similar, if less brutal instances on the horizon slightly to the north. More interesting, though, is the manner in which historic rivalries and antipathies, and the newly opened questions of national borders, have brought out from the shadows the historically distinct interests of the European Community nations, and divided their interests from those of an increasingly perplexed United States. This is highlighted, once again, in the case of the former Yugoslavia _ Germany's ill-fated initiative in favor of recognizing the independence of the republics, for example - but it is a phenomenon that might well reappear.

A third cluster of issues centers on "borders and sovereignty," matters, again, quite obviously related to some of the others I've mentioned. I'm seeking a means to address the ways in which the notion of sovereignty is changing in Europe and North America - the idea would be to attempt to go beyond the issues raised by the European Community's current troubles and to try to examine broader trends that reflect changes in the degree of control exercised by the nation state over its peoples and its wealth. Evidently, these trends touch on trade, immigration, capital flows, environmental and consumer regulation, and so on; the challenge lies in bringing these together and analyzing how they will affect the transatlantic relationship in the future. Finally, there is the matter in many of the key countries of the transatlantic relationship of "the exhaustion of democracy." The weary cynicism and contempt for the familiar politicians, pervasive in the attitudes of many of the European publics as they contemplate their generally too long-lived governments, mirrors the quite extraordinary rise of an American third-party movement last summer, and the shadow of that movement's continuing importance in Washington. With the abrupt collapse in 1989 of "the other" - the "anti-self' beyond the Iron Curtain against which the West could positively judge itself - a case can be made that the transatlantic world may be moving, however slowly, in the direction of different political forms.


Many of these vague remarks may seem to do little more than lead us away from familiar categories without providing anything even nearly fully formed to take their places or, in some cases, to cloak familiar categories in more contemporary, "soft focus" disguise - to offer new terms in place of new thoughts. To all counts I plead no /0 contendre, offering in mitigation only the excuse that I have sought not to offer an agenda but to prepare a field fertile for discussion, a field in which the boundaries must be, by necessity, indistinctly drawn.

How, for example, might our group take up the cluster of issues I've christened, somewhat grandiosely, "the exhaustion of democracy"? We are dealing here in the realm of comparative politics, seizing on a striking and unprecedented phenomenon that, as I write - in the wake of the July 1993 G-7 economic summit - has become impossible for any serious political observer to ignore. As the elected leaders of the major industrial democracies met in Tokyo, all found themselves in deep - in some cases, unprecedented - political trouble at home. The long serving German Chancellor and French President, and the more recently installed (though at the head of a no less long-lived ruling party) British Prime Minister, had in common approval ratings that had dropped to, or near, historic lows. Only days before the meeting, Canada's Prime Minister, who had become the most unpopular leader in his country's history, had been supplanted at the head of his party. In Italy and Japan, meantime, matters were considerably worse, for the problem had gone far beyond the political weakness of a particular leader; in both countries, political systems that had governed for four decades and more were succumbing to historic scandal and turmoil, with no clear sign of what might appear to take their places.

To all this, the exception might appear to have been found in the United States, where a new President and new party had taken power fewer than six months before. And yet in many ways the situation in the United States was the most striking and perplexing of all. For, only a few months into its four year term, the young Democratic Administration had found itself in severe political trouble. By April, President Bill Clinton's popularity had dropped below thirty-six percent in several national polls - which meant that roughly only one American in three approved of how the new President was doing his job. Not only did this constitute the lowest rating on record for a President at this point in his term - a moment which fell, after all, in what was traditionally still the "honey moon" period for a new incumbent. It also represented, after the national euphoria that had accompanied Clinton's inauguration a few months before, an astonishingly swift collapse, on the part of the citizenry, of political faith in the man they had elected.

It is not my purpose here to delve into the immediate political causes of this collapse but rather to suggest that the Clinton Administration's troubles are a symptom of a larger phenomenon that may well have significant repercussions for the "transatlantic relationship." For I believe that despite the press's preoccupation with "two-hundred dollar haircuts" and "gays in the military," Clinton's political plunge has more to do with a general exhaustion in American politics that in its broad outlines and its implications, bears some similarities to the more dramatic crises in Italy and Japan. I have called this the "Exhaustion of Democracy," though in truth "Exhaustion with the System" might be a more appropriate title. To look at its roots in the United States we must go back beyond President Clinton's early troubles, back to the election of November 1992 and the months leading up to it.

The most remarkable single fact about the election of 1992 is not that it marked the end of twelve years of Republican executive ascendancy but that its winner managed to attract only forty three percent of the votes cast: the lowest winning percentage in an American presidential election in well over half a century. This astonishingly low number can be described to an astonishing phenomenon: that of a man virtually unknown to the broader electorate six months before the election emerging ITom nowhere, without benefit of political party or Congressional allies, to attract nineteen percent of the vote. Ross Perot's abrupt apotheosis in 1992, and his continuing presence as a pivotal factor in American politics, is the single clearest affirmation of the politics of exhaustion in the United States.

Perot's dramatic rise in popularity was made possible by the simple fact that "Perotism" existed as a political movement long before most Americans had heard of Perot. Perot is only the current personification of a movement that came to prominence as early as 1978, with the "Proposition 13" anti-property tax movement in California, and that was embodied, two years later, in the Reagan "supply-side revolution." That movement is middle class, predominantly Southwestern and Western, suburban and rural, anti-elite, antigovernment, anti-tax. If in 1980 many in the movement were willing to believe, with Reagan, that the way to cut government was to "cut off its allowance" through massive tax cuts, these same voters have emerged ITom the decade, and the enormous Federal deficits that it brought, bitter about government and deeply pessimistic about the possibility of reforming it. They see government, and the Federal government in particular, as something that 'Just doesn't work."

Thanks to Perot, the budget deficit has become the symbol of this general breakdown - which is why American political observers were to witness, in 1992, the strange spectacle of those very voters who had proved to be most resolutely anti-tax for a decade and more, flocking to a maverick candidate who promised quite forthrightly to raise their taxes an unprecedented amount. Perot put himself forward as someone who could "get under the hood and Get it done!" He stood for action. The strength of his appeal lay in the profundity of the vacuum he was striving to fill. In that vacuum could be found contempt for government and those who governed, cynicism about the ability of government to solve problems, despair about the functioning of the political system itself. These feelings, of course, are by no means new to American politics. What is new, I would argue, is their current strength and their encapsulation in the program of one man who has not only placed himself outside the traditional two-party structure but who personally commands the wherewithal to take advantage of the powerful new communication technologies that make an "anti-elite" campaign more plausible than ever before.

Perot, however, js not the point. More important is the way that the feelings he epitomizes - cynicism, impatience, alienation, political disgust - have come to dominate American politics. These feelings, and the erosion they have effected in the system, partly account, I think, for Clinton's precipitous slide (together with his own self-engineered pratfalls), and they should stand as a warning of what may be to come when the Administration tries to take on enormously complicated issues - issues that the government, even in the best economic and political weather, would have difficulty mastering. The deficit, a product of a true clash of interests and, secondarily, political ideologies, is the most obvious of these; but health care reform is another, and so might be - particularly with Perot's loud stance against it - the North American Free Trade Agreement. The present Administration's willingness to confront these issues is admirable; but it has remarkably little political capital on which to draw, and a perceived failure on ~y of them - particularly on an issue like health care, as personal and sensitive a matter as government touches - could be politically devastating, leaving in its wake a deeply wounded Administration and a paralyzed government.


What has all this to do with the transatlantic relationship? The American government, after all, is not paralyzed by scandal, like that ofltaly; nor is its most powerful party splitting down the seams, like that of Japan. I would argue, however, that the United States is suffering from a deep crisis of faith, and the fact remains that faith - faith in democratic institutions but, above all, faith in a national mission - has always animated American foreign policy.
It is strangely easy to forget, when discussing the "transatlantic relationship," that the term (as traditionally defined) really describes something that endured less than half a century - half a man's lifetime. America was firmly brought back to Europe only by the beginnings of the Cold War, and by a brilliant political effort on the part of the country's leaders, notably President Harry S. Truman and Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. The Truman Doctrine is a peculiarly American document, for it has about it a tone of mission, almost of zealotry; of American exceptionalism: the worldwide mission it envisages for the United States is couched in deeply moral terms, as the protection and advancement of freedom - "that it must be the policy of the United states to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures... that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way."
It was this very messianistic strain that led many prominent diplomatic thinkers, from George Kennan to Walter Lippmann to disapprove of the Truman Doctrine. They felt that the voting of aid to Greece and Turkey (the issue that occasioned the Doctrine) should be presented to the country narrowly and pragmatically, as exactly that the need to aid certain countries that were under specific Communist threat - not as part of some universal anti- Communist mission. It is important to realize that this moral streak, this presenting of the United States as the leader of a universal crusade for freedom and against tyranny, had its roots in domestic necessity - that is, in the felt need to justify the enormous broadening of American global responsibilities in moral terms and thereby enlist the support of the citizenry for a worldwide role unprecedented in the country's history.

The requirement of a moral necessity, the need to justify American action abroad in easily comprehended ethical terms, has persisted throughout the postwar period. Witness the rhetorical scrambling the Bush Administration found itself forced into when it was struggling to build support during the months preceding the Gulf War: Secretary of State James A. Baker's homely remark that the effort against Iraq was about "jobs, jobs, jobs" proved an embarrassing political failure. Only when President Bush seized on the mission of standing up to a repressive tyrant, one who was "worse than Hitler," did the Administration have significant success in convincing Americans that war was necessary. When the moral justification begins to fray, as it did, most prominently, during the Vietnam War, so too does domestic political support.

For American foreign policy, the problem today is not that the mandarins have produced no new "Long Telegram," no new doctrine to replace containment as the animating global strategy; it is that our leaders have failed to enunciate any moral mission that can replace the anti-Communist struggle as a justification for American action in the world. Into this vacuum has rushed a de facto rationale of timid self-interest, a rationale that, as we have seen in the Clinton Administration's confusion over the war in Bosnia, begins to look painfully like the cynical calculus that Americans commonly attribute to the Europeans (particularly to the French). The politically weakened Clinton Administration's contradictory statements about Bosnia last spring, the moral grandstanding and the vacillation and ignominious backtracking that followed, set alongside the terrifying and moving scenes of carnage Americans were watching on their television screen each evening, have been deeply corrosive of any claim the government has to moral leadership in foreign affairs. It is corrosive, that is, of the very notion of a strong interventionist role for America in the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, the American people have been asking, in effect, Who are we? What is our role in the world? What are our responsibilities as a nation? When we see tremendous suffering and carnage on the screen, as we do from Bosnia, are we obliged to do something to stop it? So far, they have had no answer. George Bush, notwithstanding his role as leader of the effort in the Gulf, did not have the predilection, nor the rhetorical talents, to provide one. Bill Clinton, though he frequently couched his foreign policy positions in strong moral terms during the campaign, has repudiated virtually all of them since his inauguration. Even if he had been inclined to intervene forcefully in Bosnia - as he once appeared to be - Clinton's political weakness has banished from his agenda any notion of strong action in the Balkans.

To guide them in their thinking about their country's role in the world, Americans are left with little more than fragments: bits of history (the United States' traditional role in Central America, for example); shreds of ideology (the country's stated support of human rights and democracy); here and there a piece of tactical advice (Secretary Warren Christopher's proviso that any American intervention abroad must envision an "exit strategy"); and a pinch of humanitarian sentiment (the effort in Somalia) - all mixed together with the confused and violent postwar world they see depicted nightly on CNN. To this stew may well be added - in the event, say, of a bloody conquest of Sarajevo - substantial resentment of and contempt for our European allies, who might be forced to reassume, with the rhetorical assistance of mortified American officials, their late 1930's role as duplicitous weak sisters constitutionally unable to stand up to tyranny and addicted to appeasement and other low forms of diplomatic double-dealing.

Whatever this may be, I doubt it is a recipe for strong American support for a revitalized transatlantic relationship. The transatlantic relationship as we know it was built by confident leaders who put forward a convincing, farseeing vision of what America's postwar role would be and who were able to describe in vivid terms why it must be that way. These men were, in the best sense, "elites," and they benefitted from a trust and a respect of a sort that seems now, in our incalculably more cynical age, forever consigned to history.

The movement of which Perot is currently the personification, on the other hand, is proudly populist and defiantly anti-elite - witness Perot's resentful assault on the North American Free Trade Agreement and, more intriguing, his angry criticism of the Gulf War as a product of State Department malfeasance. When it comes to foreign affairs, resentment (in the manner of "it's about time our allies have to start paying their own way!") appears to be his motivating emotion. He and his supporters have no inherent love for, and a good deal of suspicion of, NATO and the other classic institutions of the postwar world. His influence is likely to remain strong. For the transatlantic relationship, it is unlikely to be a positive one. These are but a few of the lines of thought that might be drwan from the cluster of issues I have called "The Exhaustion of Democracy." They are at most a starting-point. Our task is to build on this startingpoint, to flesh out these issues and devise ways and methods to study their implications. In this way we might begin to clear the ground, "reeducate" our own perceptions and thereby confront the challenge of the paradigm change in transatlantic relations.


© 2021 Mark Danner