The Foreign Service Journal - April 2017
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APRIL 2017



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

Foreign Affairs

, 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,

Future Shock

, 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 Foreign

Relations, 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.