Empty Pews in the Church of Atlanticism

Oct 3, 2018

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog on October 2, 2018.

Timothy Garton Ash uses the image of "empty pews" to describe a declining commitment, not only on the part of the U.S. public, but even some American foreign policy experts, to the cause of Atlanticism—the notion that the United States has compelling interests to remain involved in European affairs. As he notes in his essay in The Guardian, "the wider American congregation is turning away from international commitments and entangling alliances to address its own pressing domestic concerns."

Garton Ash is the latest in a series of high-profile commentators and former officials wrestling with the reality of the narrative collapse that defined the 2016 elections in which the American public questioned the degree of American involvement in European and by extension world affairs. I am concerned, however, that the lament about the rejection of Atlanticism and a corresponding rise in a more internal orientation is missing one of the key findings that the Carnegie Council's project on engagement (and other such initiatives) are finding: Americans are less isolationist than they are skeptical about the continued value of robust forward engagement. In related terms, the evidence suggests that an American re-commitment to engagement follows not from harangues about the duty of Americans to act on behalf of global civilization but from greater attention to what Asha Castleberry and Simran Maker pointed out at recent meetings at the Carnegie Council: the importance of connecting the broad swath of American foreign policy engagement to "doorstep" or "pocketbook" issues of the citizenry.

One element that must be squarely faced is that Europe has once again become a security consumer, not a security provider, for the United States. A revival of pro-Atlantic sentiment cannot rest solely on the warning that the next Hitler or Stalin is about to take the stage but on, as Julian Lindley-French reports from the 2018 Riga Conference, a sense that Europeans themselves are willing to take the steps necessary for their security. As he worries, "The real threat to NATO and by extension to Latvia and the people of Riga is that Europeans come to believe that the responsibility for the security of Europeans ultimately rests elsewhere. It does not."

In some cases, the American public has forgotten that acting as a security provider, whether to Europe or to other parts of the world, is in fact essential to American doorstep issues (such as facilitating trade or sustaining the role of the dollar in global commerce, which brings so many unsung benefits to American consumers and borrowers). Yet another step will be to more explicitly re-link American security policy with economic policy—in other words, that those who seek security assistance from the United States must also work to ensure that the U.S. is seeing concrete benefits from playing this role. As Lindley-French comments, "to keep America strong in Europe, Europeans must do far more to help America."

Does this sound more mercenary and transactionalist than an appeal to shared values as the basis for action? Perhaps. But as Garton Ash points out, "America First is not just a Trump slogan. It is a national mood, to which even the most internationalist president would have to adapt."

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