In June, German politician Norbert Röttgen offered a sober of the frayed relations between the European establishment and the Trump administration.
He observed, correctly, that simply waiting out the Trump presidency won’t work. Röttgen calls for a more unified Europe capable of assuming a strong, independent role in foreign affairs. He’s right, but he fails to grasp why Europe is so weak—and why the current administration is rocking the boat.
It is worse than Röttgen allows himself to imagine. The cultural-political foundations of the transatlantic alliance are eroding. A technocratic mentality confuses prosperity with sovereign power and consumer satisfaction with the capacity to act decisively on the world stage. The American-guaranteed peace among NATO allies is recast as the fruit of post-national institutions such as the European Union and global markets. National cultures are disintegrating due to low birth rates, mass migration, and multicultural ideology. Many imagine, wrongly, that the West will lead the way to a world knit together by commerce and governed by international institutions, and that this hoped-for future makes the Western alliance of strong nation-states unnecessary. These are ideological dysfunctions, even spiritual ones—and they, not Trump or any other character on the public stage, undermine the transatlantic alliance.
After World War II, the United States put much effort into encouraging liberal democratic forces in Western Europe. American policy empowered Adenauer in Germany and resisted communism in Italy and France. After the Helsinki Accords (1975), America and her NATO allies embarked on a successful human rights diplomacy that encouraged and supported anti-communist dissidents. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe was reunified under a consensus that favored basic freedoms and liberal democracy.
The achievements of the transatlantic alliance have been remarkable. After 1945, the alliance brought unprecedented peace in Europe and sustained economic growth. After 1989, a liberal-democratic consensus was consolidated that now runs from the Baltic states to Portugal, from Poland to the western edge of North America. These achievements have contributed to the worldwide influence of Western cultural and political ideals.
Today, the achievements and influence of the transatlantic alliance are at risk. The political cultures of core European countries—German, Italy, and France, as well as other NATO members—are being undermined from above by utopian transnationalism and from below by utopian multiculturalism. These tendencies weaken civic unity and call national sovereignty into question.
Transnational utopianism encourages the illusion that a global system is emerging that will make national sovereignty obsolete. This utopianism detaches elites from the life of their nations. The economic rewards of globalization reinforce this dynamic, as does the educational consensus that seeks to produce “citizens of the world” rather than national leaders. Voters increasingly sense that “citizens of the world” are not attentive to the national interest. The resulting distrust undermines the perceived legitimacy of democratic institutions. NATO’s European members are unable to meet the NATO requirement of spending at least two percent of GDP on defense—a consequence of transnational utopianism and its hostility to national sovereignty.
Multiculturalism envisions a utopia of diversity, one in which civic life is not based on shared ideals and norms. Multiculturalism weakens the transatlantic alliance by fragmenting member nations into tribes. Mass migration exacerbates balkanization. In its most extreme ideological expressions, multiculturalism attacks the West’s cultural confidence. It encourages elites to doubt the superiority of the ideals that form the moral core of the transatlantic alliance. This weakens our collective will to defend those ideals.
Together, transnational and multicultural utopianisms make the nations of Europe less jealous of self-government and less capable of effective action. They breed an intellectual elite unable to promote national solidarity and hostile to national sovereignty—including American sovereignty. The elite in the United States is not immune from these utopian dreams.
Our immediate dangers include:
1. The erosion of our capacity for action. In the contest with China, a debilitated Europe will be a liability for the United States. China will feed on the rotting carcass. The Italian commitment to Belt and Road is a harbinger. Russia will nibble on the edges. Strong sovereign nations are necessary for an effective transatlantic alliance capable of meeting the challenges of Russia’s adventurism and China’s rising power.
2. The hollowing-out of NATO. The United States cannot withdraw from Europe without a catastrophic loss of prestige. In the event, European elites covet American military protection and don't want the United States to withdraw. But weak nations lacking a strong desire to remain sovereign are easily exploited and can become economic colonies even as they remain rich. This is already happening. Economic dependency on China will, over time, detach European interests from ours. Huawei 5G is an example. An ideological divergence is underway as well. European elites increasingly criticize America’s jealous defense of her national sovereignty. This undermines the foundation of NATO’s credibility as an alliance of mutual defense, an alliance that in reality comes down to the capacity of the United States to project power globally. We are in danger of entering an unsustainable situation in which America anchors a defense alliance with countries that are not America’s economic or ideological allies.
3. Threats to American sovereignty. The post-national and multiculturalist consensus is gaining ground. It seduces American elites. It makes the concept of American national interest suspect, disintegrating it upward into the “rule-based international order” and downward into identity politics. American sovereignty is crucial for the transatlantic alliance, and the captivity of European elites to post-national and multicultural utopianism—and the reinforcement of such ideas among American elites—poses a significant threat. These ideologies are hostile to the national unity and democratic sovereignty necessary for a vigorous defense of our freedoms.
4. Discrediting liberal democracy. Post-national globalism fused with multiculturalism is becoming obligatory among Western elites. Recent European elections show, much like the 2016 election in the United States, that this dominance is at odds with popular sentiment. The divergence of establishment post-nationalism and multiculturalism from so-called populist nationalism sets up a dangerous dynamic. Elites seek to suppress reassertions of sovereignty and cultural unity with techniques of delegitimation (charges of fascism, racism, etc.). This prevents the emergence of a democratic politics of legitimate dissent. Political correctness can be ruthless, and it makes a mockery of liberal civic norms of free and open debate. The greatest achievement of the transatlantic alliance was the establishment of liberal democracy as the norm for Western nations. This achievement is in danger of being discredited by a Western elite imbued with post-national and multicultural utopianism.
In the face of these dangers, we should move forward by focusing on three goals:
1. Re-orienting American diplomacy. At present, the cultural diplomacy of the United States remains stuck in the anti-fascist and anti-communist patterns developed by earlier generations. These patterns are counter-productive today. The transatlantic alliance faces a new, different ideological threat: globalist and multicultural utopianism. As the leader of the transatlantic alliance, the United States must recalibrate. Trump's 2019 U.N. speech was a strong defense of national sovereignty. But this is only a first step. We need a multi-tiered cultural diplomacy that rejects post-national and multicultural ideologies and encourages responsible affirmations of national unity, core freedoms, and democratic sovereignty.
2. Finding anti-utopian allies. The post-national and multicultural consensus in Europe has become anti-liberal in spirit. It rhetorically assassinates opponents by charging them with political extremism (fascism) and moral crimes (racism). Such tactics must be countered by American engagement and encouragement of responsible dissenters in Europe. After 1945, U.S. strategy required finding trustworthy liberals in Germany and Italy whom we could back. We are in a similar situation today, though we face different ideological challenges. In 2019 we need to find the responsible proponents of democratic sovereignty and national solidarity in Europe. American-led cultural diplomacy must encourage and support them.
3. Working outside the establishment. Major institutions in Europe are beholden to globalist and multicultural utopianism. To some extent, this is also true in the United States. Therefore, in a recalibration of transatlantic diplomacy, the United States cannot engage Europe solely through its official representatives. An anti-utopian approach must find and empower those committed to democratic sovereignty, political freedoms, and national unity. Some will hold governmental positions, but for the most part they will be working outside the Brussels-Berlin-Paris-London establishment. Here, an analogy to 1980s Cold War diplomacy in eastern Europe is useful. At that time, American-led policies and programs defended and empowered dissidents. Today there are institutions and initiatives in Europe that are candidates for this kind of support. There are also political parties that need to be engaged, encouraged, and guided toward a liberal-democratic vision for renewing national vitality. Our goal should be to nurture strong allies with strong commitments to self-government and freedom. This requires a media strategy, conferences, consultations, and working groups, as well as other forms of engagement.
The West nearly destroyed itself between 1914 and 1945. Our cultural legitimacy was undermined by massive bloodletting in the trenches of World War I and then, less than thirty years later, by terrible crimes committed by Germany, a core Western nation. Against this background, the liberal-democratic rebuilding of Europe and our successful transatlantic alliance have been achievements of profound historical significance. They have secured the peace, prosperity, and freedom that are the basis for the West’s global leadership.
This leadership is threatened. The most dangerous threats arise from internal weaknesses and self-doubt, not from Russian adventurism or China’s growing economic power. A transatlantic alliance of confident nations committed to principles of democratic sovereignty will have more than enough economic and military power to meet those and other external challenges. Our problem is this: transnational and multicultural utopianism within the West undermines the very principles and confidence that are the sources of our power.
We have been in this situation before. Fascism and Nazism arose within the West. Communism was an ideology born within the West. The civilization that unites us on both sides of the Atlantic is fertile—even to the point of producing the diseases that afflict us. Today, we must face down yet another ideology born within the West. Transnational, multicultural utopianism threatens our democratic sovereignty and undermines our national solidarity.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.