Culture

Fewer and fewer Westerners are buying the ‘Atlanticism’ idea

A recent poll has shown a growing number of people in the US and Western Europe are tired of NATO’s professed goals

By Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian from Germany working at Koç University, Istanbul, on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the history of World War II, the cultural Cold War, and the politics of memory

By Tarik Cyril Amar, a historian from Germany working at Koç University, Istanbul, on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe, the history of World War II, the cultural Cold War, and the politics of memory

@tarikcyrilamartarikcyrilamar.substack.comtarikcyrilamar.com

FILE PHOTO. Polish (L) and British (R) soldiers prepare for a visit of the Polish and UK prime ministers and the NATO secretary-general in Warsaw, Poland, April 23, 2024. ©  Sergei GAPON / AFP

As a political de-facto entity, the post-Cold War West has always struggled to articulate a common purpose. The underlying cause of this difficulty is that the real existing (as opposed to the ideologically imagined) West – despite appeals to historical, cultural, and value commonalities – is defined by geopolitics. It emerged out of World War II as a sphere of Cold War US domination and hegemony, especially in Western Europe. The declared purpose – subservience to US empire? This is not the kind of thing that lends itself to open acknowledgement. 

The reach of this American empire, dating back to at least 1823 – the year of the original if somewhat casual announcement of the Monroe Doctrine – has, of course, not been restricted to this West. Ask those it bruised, bought, subjugated, and often killed in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. But the West is special, in that it holds a particularly important and privileged position. Some American strategists – such as the late, Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski – have made a fetish out of arguing that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be an empire. While it is by no means clear that post-Cold War Russia wants an empire (not the same as a sphere of influence), it is certain that the US cannot be one without its hold over Europe – that is, the Atlantic edge of the Eurasian ‘heartland’.       

And yet, when the Cold War ended, there was no conceivable good security reason for European states to remain subservient to the US. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European military alliance – the Warsaw Pact, an organization that President Joe Biden can now only remember as “that other outfit” – were gone, and the EU, with all its flaws, could have provided an institutional basis for establishing an autonomous European power bloc second to none in the world. 

There would have been no need for abrupt economic or, for that matter, political disruption either. Ideally, Europe could have maintained a cooperative-competitive relationship with the US, while gradually but persistently transforming it into one between equals. Now, a third of a century after the end of the Soviet Union, we should be living in that kind of world. If the end of the Cold War liberated Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony, it should also have ended American hegemony in Western Europe, too. Instead, it brought that hegemony to almost all of Europe.

Read more Biden to Ukraine: You’re not getting into NATO, but that doesn’t mean you can stop bleeding for us

For Western European elites – most of all in Paris and Berlin (London would always have been a spoiler) – failed abysmally at what Bismarck called “seizing the mantle of history.” Rather than responding to a fundamental geopolitical shift with a strategy of their own and in Europe’s interests, they held tight to Washington and – with few, ultimately irrelevant exceptions – obediently followed its power-drunk elites into their ‘unipolar moment’ delusions, including catastrophic interventions in the Middle East and the expansion of NATO.

Ironically, the main result of this pusillanimous non-strategy was to produce the world of conflict and extremely high tension that we see now. If Europe had acted as a balancer between the US on one side, and Russia and China on the other, it could have made a decisive contribution to making Washington more rational, and ultimately, smoothing the inevitable transition to a multipolar world.

The Europeans could, for instance, have stopped the reckless dead-end policy of offering a NATO membership perspective to Georgia and Ukraine. They knew it was dangerous, which is why they objected at the Bucharest meeting in 2008. But then, of course, they caved. The result: Two wars, one (Georgia) short and lost, the other (Ukraine) long, ongoing, devastating, and with the real potential to go first regional and then global.

This brings us to the present. The ‘unipolar moment’ which never really was is well and truly over. Russia has the upper hand in the Ukraine conflict, that is, the single most hubristic and risky undertaking of the post-Cold War West. If in 2022, Westerners mused about how Moscow could possibly quit the war without a catastrophic loss of face, that shoe is now on the other foot. It is hard to see how the West can wind down its proxy war without suffering unprecedentedly severe damage from a combination of mutual blame-game recrimination and loss of credibility.   

Against this background, the New York-based Institute for Global Affairs of the Eurasia Group geopolitical consulting firm has published a report, based on representative polling, that points to some important divergences within the West. As the authors of the report acknowledge, their sample of the West is limited to the US, France, Germany, and Great Britain, and the European states were “selected for their geopolitical influence and geostrategic importance to the US,” even though they are “not especially representative of Europe – or even Western Europe – as a whole.”

Read more The US chose this country to become its proxy in Africa. Will it be better off?

While the polls were conducted according to professional standards and much of the accompanying commentary is reasonably factual, ideological bias should also be considered. Eurasia Group is deeply in sync with American geopolitics. The dissidents’ voice this is not, as attentive readers can guess, for instance, from the grotesquely cautious phrasing of a question about Israel’s atrocities in Gaza – respondents are coyly asked if they feel that what Israel is doing ‘resembles’ war crimes. Sure, the way Al Capone ‘resembled’ a mafia don.

Yet the mainstream angle of a survey that also comes with lofty rhetoric about the ‘rules-based order’ and ‘beacons of liberal democracy’ makes signs of divergence and dissonance within the West only more pertinent. While the report covers much ground – including attitudes toward ‘democracy’, China, and Israel – two points stand out with regard to the relationship between the US and its Western European clients. First, the polls found majorities in all four countries surveyed in favor of a negotiated end to the Ukraine war. Second, they revealed that many European respondents distrust the US.

Regarding the Ukraine conflict, there “is broad transatlantic support for urging a negotiated settlement to end” it. Note the details here. These respondents are not simply articulating a desire for peace. Rather, they believe that Western governments should push Kiev to accept a compromise. Across the US and the three European countries, the three factors shaping the respondents’ positions the most are their concern to avoid “escalation to a wider regional war that draws in other European countries,” to avoid “direct war between nuclear-armed powers,” and to prevent “the further suffering of the Ukrainian people.”

Importantly, positions associated with the declared policies and propaganda of both Ukraine and Western governments did badly. Compare, for instance, 38% of American and 47% of European respondents in favor of “avoiding escalation to a wider regional war,” against 17% in the US and 22% in Europe who still believe in “fully restoring the pre-2022 invasion borders of Ukraine” (already excluding Crimea, incidentally, and thus a more moderate position than Kiev’s official war aims). And the answering options: “deterring strong autocratic countries from invading weaker democratic neighbors,” and “weakening Russia to punish it for its aggression” – classics of anti-Russian information war – found even less agreement. 

Concerning European attitudes toward the US, there is a preponderant consensus – shared, as it happens by the US respondents – that Europe should either “be primarily responsible for its own defense, while aiming to preserve the NATO alliance with the United States” (the majority view) or even “manage its own defense and seek a more neutral relationship with the United States.” In France, Germany, and Great Britain, 86-93% of respondents chose one of these two options. On the other side, only 8-13% opted for “The United States should be primarily responsible for Europe’s defense.”

Read more Ivan Timofeev: Russia and NATO are drifting towards a major war

Clearly, many Europeans do not like their massive dependence on Washington. While many of them want a cooperative relationship, including NATO, they would prefer a Europe that could take care of itself. Others want that and, in addition, more distance from America, and while this is a minority view, those minorities are substantial. Even in Great Britain, which traditionally is especially close to the US, 17% are for more neutrality toward Washington; in Germany, 25%, and in France, once the home of Gaullism, 31%. 

One reason for these attitudes is that Europeans do not trust the US very much. While a majority still believes that Washington’s commitment to its security obligations is either ‘somewhat’ (46%) or ‘very reliable’ (6%), almost as many respondents think the opposite: 36% see America as ‘somewhat’ and 10% as ‘very unreliable’. In Germany, the share of the skeptics approaches – and in France reaches – 50%.

The survey’s authors speculate that these results could reflect anxiety over a future Trump presidency or “be connected to a perception of a longer-term decline in America’s status as the sole superpower in a unipolar world.” In reality, both factors are likely to play a role. More importantly, in the long run, this is a distinction that will not make a difference. Donald Trump’s isolationism (for want of a better term) is a symptom of America’s decline. As is sometimes the case, the disruptive candidate is merely the one uncouth enough to draw the inevitable conclusions in public.   

It is ironic but also telling that this survey bears the title ‘The New Atlanticism’. Ironic, because if anything, it shows that Atlanticism is tired. Telling, because it raises an obvious question: What is this rather ersatz ‘ism’, haplessly named after an ocean? The authors would probably answer that it has something to do with history, liberal democracy, individualism, the rule of law, civil society, etc. But even if we accept at face value – for the sake of argument – these simple ideological memes and Western self-idealizations, how do they add up to a relationship in which the US keeps subordinating Europe? 

Indeed, these high ideals contradict the brute realities of American empire. In that sense, Atlanticism is what modern ideologies usually are – a fundamentally dishonest story rationalizing the powers-that-be. The most interesting thing about this survey is the evidence that even now, exposed to intense and systematic fearmongering, substantial numbers of Western Europeans are not fully persuaded by this story. 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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