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Can Europe Make the West Great Again?
European Straits #78
For more than 24 hours now, my Twitter feed, and yours too most likely, has been caught in a frenzy. No, not about the French team winning the World Cup 🇫🇷⚽—although that was definitely there as well. Rather it’s a much more worried one following Donald Trump’s Monday press conference alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
I’m still not really sure what will unfold within the US political system in the coming weeks and months. But you can sense that Trump has reached the breaking point of what used to be tolerable, even in a Trumpian world. Just consider the words used by journalists and pundits: a “sad, embarrassing wreck of a man”, the “end of the Trump presidency”, a “national-security emergency”, even “geopolitical suicide”.
As I’ve said in , I’ve long been a believer in the transatlantic alliance and the US serving as a beacon for the entire Western world. When he was elected in 2008, Barack Obama appeared as the new Franklin D. Roosevelt: not only a leader who would rebuild the American economy for a new techno-economic age, but also one that would reshape the international order so as to strengthen American power and values. In an interesting article published in May 2016, New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait went so far as to suggest that Hillary Clinton would be Obama’s Harry Truman, a successor that would burnish the former president’s legacy while consolidating the new international order brought about in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis.
For me, this line of thinking goes back a long way. I majored in American studies when I was a student at Sciences Po and I later spent time as part of the United States desk in the French ministry of foreign affairs. This was right after France had refused to participate in the Iraq war, triggering a brutal wave of Francophobia in American circles (remember “freedom fries”?). It was also at that time that I was deeply affected by a strange book written by French left-wing intellectual Régis Debray, L’Édit de Caracalla (which unfortunately was never translated into English).
The book’s narrator, a veteran diplomat named Xavier de C***, explains how he became convinced that the only way for our civilization to go forward was for all Western countries to surrender their sovereignty to the US, thus building the “United States of the West” (the book’s subtitle). Just as the Roman emperor Caracalla made his empire stronger by granting Roman citizenship to all barbarians, Xavier de C***’s obsession was that the United States should welcome all Westerners as American citizens. The book is the sad story of him trying to lead the way—and disappearing while fighting under the American flag in the dry hills of Afghanistan, leaving only his diary behind.
As a sincere long-time admirer of the US, I must say I shared parts of Xavier de C***’s fictitious fantasy. However unlikable the US was under George W. Bush, the idea that the West should become more integrated really made sense. Alas I must say it sounds totally irrelevant now that Trump is president.
It’s not Trump alone that has done away with that dream. The drifting apart of the US and Europe has been a process long in the making. There are the tensions following the war in Iraq and its catastrophic consequences, from Yemen to Syria, as well as the migration crisis that has devastated European politics. There is also the shocking realization that despite our common set of liberal democratic values, there are irreconcilable differences when it comes to key parts of everyday life such as access to firearms or universal healthcare coverage. And now Trump, aided by plotters, opportunists, and cowards in the US and abroad, is wrecking what was left of old alliances and the very idea of a Western world.
This is yet another sign of the end of Louis Hartz’s “Liberal Tradition in America”. In his landmark book, the late political scientist dedicated the concluding chapter to the idea that the US can only pursue the dream of being a liberal democracy (despite many flaws that are mostly traceable back to slavery) if they complement it with the idea of American exceptionalism. America’s moral standing and influence on the world stage is the necessary detour that makes it possible to keep building the monument that is the Republic. Conversely, if the US renounces its exceptionalism, it will shatter the dynamics that corrected the many flaws in its politics, leading the country toward closing down borders, massive voter disenfranchisement, and ultimately the rich exploiting the poor in a modern reenactment of feudalism.
The other conclusion is that from now on Europe should learn to live without the US, because there’s no real reason for us Europeans to go down with Trumpland. When it comes to trade, we already make do without relying too much on the US—and obviously Trump’s trade war will hardly make things better! We do still have a macroeconomic dependence, notably on the dollar and the financial services industry. But this is not necessarily an eternal given. The dollar is now ceding ground both to the euro and the renminbi, notably when it comes to buying oil (and breaking the Iran deal will not help in that regard). As for financial services, we can expect a major reshuffle in Europe following Brexit.
Defense is more complicated. For many years now, China has set a course of catching up on the US in strategic terms, and they acknowledge that it will likely take 20-30 years before they can match US military power. If NATO becomes void, Europe could embark on a similar course. And like the Chinese (and Putin’s Russia), we should leapfrog to what will make military power in the future: not more ground troops or more aircrafts, but rather more cyberwarfare capabilities.
That brings us finally to technology. I’ll come back to this a lot in the coming months, as growing large European tech companies is our main focus at The Family. In the meantime, I think that technology is the strongest link still binding Europe and the US together. European entrepreneurs need US tech companies, while the US tech industry needs the European market. This unique alignment is why I retain a small hope that the West can rally again around its common values. But for that it needs to move forward and build new institutions, like Roosevelt did with the New Deal. If we want to remain the West, we must imagine a new Safety Net that will restore economic security and prosperity in both Europe and the US—and hopefully get rid of Trump and its many surrogates in the process.
Here’s the extract of my book Hedge in which I discuss the fate of the Western world and how China could beat us by strategically building a Greater Safety Net for the Entrepreneurial Age. I hope it’ll inspire you to buy and read the book during the summer! Simply follow the relevant link: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES.
Warm regards (from London, UK),