I. The Consternation
Very few trans-Atlanticists ever thought an American president could become the greatest danger to the West.
This weekend more than 500 trans-Atlanticists will gather in Munich for the Munich Security Conference, an annual touting of the West’s solutions for the world’s problems through "trans-Atlanticism," the belief in the importance of cooperation between Europe, the United States and Canada on political, economic, and defense issues, with the purpose of maintaining the security and prosperity of the participating countries, and to protect the values that unite them. For almost 70 years all top diplomats, advisors and journalists were trans-Atlanticists. The credo of the experts organized in many clubs, think tanks, and networks can be summarized like this: The security and prosperity of the West depends on the alliance with America.
But what if, of all people, the U.S. president undermines both by attacking democracy, the rule of law, and free trade? Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly are all slated to attend the conference. But the real focus is on the man who has upended the world of the trans-Atlanticists, Donald Trump. He is a threat to the very existence of trans-Atlanticism.
If these days you talk to deeply committed trans-Atlanticists in ministries, universities and think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic you’re hearing from deeply distraught people who no longer know what’s up or down, what’s still valid, and whom they can still believe.
In talks with more than a dozen high-ranking officials and experts you hear words that used to describe the activities of one’s enemies: "frontal attack on shared values," "final blow against the West," a White House-driven "firestorm" against the iron-clad alliance between Europe and America.
"It's like the ground is falling out from beneath our feet," wrote a horrified Europe expert in the former Obama administration. "We Europeans can’t rely on this America anymore," warns a high official in the German foreign ministry, "we have to stand on our own feet as soon as possible." They all want to talk to get their frustration off their chest, but in most cases only on condition that they are not named. Because their jobs require them to maintain contact with the Trump administration and to forge relationships with its foreign policy officials.
Many who see things up close describe the contempt this administration has for trans-Atlanticists. They regard them as being part of the hated elite who in Trump’s view drove the country and the world to the edge of the abyss. Trans-Atlanticists who bank on multilateral alliances, liberal values, and institutions don’t jell with his nationalistic policies. This was why, before taking office, the new president sent no one around to the Europe section of the White House to discuss the handover. Trump is simply not interested in what the trans-Atlanticists did and thought and what experiences they had gathered. He regards policy hitherto as totally misguided.
So if Donald Trump regards the instruments of the old liberal order, NATO, the United Nations, free trade as obsolete, what is to replace them? Can the "West" continue to exist without America leading? Haven’t the trans-Atlanticists themselves contributed to such a president even becoming possible? What remains of a way of thinking about foreign policy that for 70 years was shared by the world’s strongest power and is now being attacked by it?
II. How It All Began
To assess what’s looking like disintegration – and how radical Trump’s shunning it is – one has to look at how that began. The primary document of trans-Atlantic policy is the Atlantic Charter, signed on August 14, 1941 by then U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the British prime minister, Winston Churchill – secretly, on a ship off Newfoundland, Canada. In eight tightly formulated principal points the two old men set the foundations for the new post-war international order. It was an amazing act given the murderous spirit of the time, just as the German killing machine was reaching its zenith in Eastern Europe.
The demands of the charter included a right to self-determination for all people, a rejection of "enrichment" and violent changing of borders, as well as commitments to economic cooperation, free world trade and access to raw materials "for all peoples." It banned military violence "for realistic as well as spiritual reasons." The Atlantic Charter was to form the basis of the United Nations following the end of World War II. The Soviet Union also signed up to it. But the normative framework was recognizably Anglo-American.