THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Navigating the Difficult Postwar Years
Most of the goals and methods of America’s new global role
were hammered out in Europe during the difficult years after
1945. The same holds true for the global reach of American
multinational corporations: as of 2015, American investment in
Europe was two and one-half times larger than it was in China.
As Richard Holbrooke stated in his groundbreaking article in
the spring 1995 edition of
, circumstances had
conspired to make America a European power.
The “normality” of this status, of which my bosses were so cer-
tain in 1964, was not, however, a natural occurrence. To achieve it,
we had struggled with a Europe beset by historic conflicts, unsta-
ble in its existence and unsure about its future. The “normality” of
Europe was to be deeply divided and strategically paralyzed. This
remains the case today. Had America not been on the scene, it is
not hard to imagine what would have happened.
In addition, the Cold War gave an essentially isolationist
America a reason to be engaged in the world. Distrust of Europe
was replaced by a sense of joint commitment to maintaining the
peace. Loss of that sense of common purpose after the Cold War
is one of the reasons there is so much debate on both sides of the
Atlantic about the future of the Western world.
But the news is not all bad. Since 1990, America’s digital
leadership has resulted in a virtual integration of our economic
systems. Whatever Pres. Trump and his advisers may believe, it
would be difficult if not impossible to unravel the complex ties
that have been built. And the
effort to keep the partnership
running is minor compared to
the costs of its collapse.
But if this is so, why is there
again a wave of isolation-
ist sentiment in the United
States? A sentiment so strong
that it helped propel Donald
Trump into power? Why, in
the flush of victory in the Cold
War, did the Bush administra-
tion turn its back on “old Europe” in favor of “coalitions of the
willing”? And why did Barack Obama run so fast from leadership
in Europe that, after 2014, he essentially turned relations with
Russia over to Germany to manage?
Behind the Isolationist Impulse
There are two answers to that question. The first is
dramatic, rapid and fundamental change. As the late Alvin
Toffler suggested in his 1970 classic,
, too much
change overloads us psychologically, affects our decision-
making and weakens our ability to act rationally. The relentless
pace of globalization has led to a sort of collective post-trau-
matic shock disorder among Western leaders and publics. It
will not end soon.
The second answer goes back to the beginnings of America’s
relationship with the rest of the world. From the earliest days of
their existence, the new United States felt pushed and threat-
ened by their cousins in Europe—often rightly so. Europeans
were ready to pounce on the weak new republic. George Wash-
ington warned against foreign entanglements in his famous
farewell speech in 1796, and his words have been repeated
regularly ever since.
Even after the horrors of the two world wars, President
Franklin D. Roosevelt shocked Winston Churchill in 1945 by
telling him the United States would take care of Japan, but
Europe was Britain’s to put back together. Luckily the Russians
changed our minds.
America’s skepticism about global engagement has always
been more than a policy; it is an expression of a national point
of view about ourselves and our place in the world, a view that
contrasts the simple virtues of our republic with the subtle
and complex qualities (some say corruptions) of foreigners.
We always feel somehow cheated by others, even by our clos-
est friends. One need only follow the Trump Islamic scare to
understand the point.
Once challenges such
as the Cold War were over-
come, packing up and going
home became the essence
of our long-term strategy. In
1992, Francis Fukayama even
proclaimed the end of history,
suggesting that Pax Americana
was now an automatic thing.
By 2011, Europe’s loss of
strategic importance was certi-
fied by none other than the president of the Council on ForeignRelations, Richard Haass. In “Why Europe No Longer Matters,” published in June 2011 by The Washington Post , Haass suggeste
that Europe had become irrelevant to American interests. He
concluded: “If NATO didn’t exist today, would anyone feel com-
pelled to create it? The honest, if awkward, answer is no.”
Haass may have, in fact, accurately predicted the way
many Americans would answer his question. But his answer,
Most of the goals and methods
of America’s new global role
were hammered out in
Europe during the difficult
years after 1945.