The accelerating feud between the EU and Washington over the Iran nuclear deal has been correctly identified as a pivotal crisis of Atlanticism. With the threat of a full-blown trade war between the Continent and its Island offspring-cum-hegemon and the exchange of a number of antagonistic signals, the question increasingly begs itself: if Atlanticism is on its way out, then what’s next?
In order to answer this question and forecast the future of Washington-Brussels relations and the European Union as a whole, it is necessary to first clarify what Atlanticism is and what it has entailed for Europe up to this critical point.
Atlanticism might best be summarized as a two-part phenomenon. On the one hand, it is an ideology which holds that the United States, Europe, and the Anglo 5 as a whole share a common civilizational history and trajectory predicated on their Liberal and capitalist mode of modernity. On the other hand, it is a geopolitical project aimed at realizing this ideology through the political, economic, military, and cultural alignment of these states under the hegemony of the United States against perceived antipodes. The aggressiveness of Atlanticism lies in that its Liberal paradigm has universal pretensions – it claims the historical and moral right to impose its model upon all.
The European Union itself was a product of the American colonization of the Western half of post-WWII Europe. The structure of the EU was designed in such a way so as to ensure Washington’s dominance through a unique arrangement of internal European antagonisms (“center vs. periphery”, “Old Europe vs. New Europe”, “conservative vs. liberal”, etc.) with manipulable variations of centrifugal and centripetal integration.
The formation of the EU was, from the very beginning, tied to military allegiance to NATO – the US’ main instrument for political and military hegemony in the decision-making of who the Atlanticist project’s enemies should be (whether the USSR, “rogue states”, the Russian Federation, Islamic terrorism, the People’s Republic of China, etc.).
The peculiarity of the European Union is such that, on the one hand, it has integrated a considerable portion of states on the European continent into an entity which is hypothetically capable of posturing itself as a formidable pole; on the other hand, the Atlanticist form of the EU has not only restricted such an integration project from constructive independence, but has made such integration increasingly undesirable for a number of European states due to the inlaying of certain commitments which are per say unnecessary and not conducive to any European integration, and by creating an unequal and unjust system of relationships between some of the union’s states and cultures. The priorities, standards, pace, and facets of European integration have been subordinated to the priorities of Atlanticism.
The dialectic of contradictions here is thus clear: a bloc has been created on the European continent which in theory, and indeed all likelihood, has the combined capacity to act as an independent pole, but the framework of this integration has been designed to prevent such from happening as long as it is not in the interests of the United States.
But here is the real problem: the US’ unipolar moment was short-lived, and the US has been in a profound state of decline and crisis. In 2008, the United States National Intelligence Council admitted that by 2025 the international system will be a “global multipolar one”, that the West’s conception of modernity “will not necessarily provide the dominant underlying values of the international system”, and predicted decline for the US in all spheres. The National Intelligence Council’s forecasts have not changed in ensuing years.
The rise of Donald Trump was both a symptom of and attempt to address this unsustainable situation. Trump’s instrumental assignment was to start the process of saving the declining US empire through drastic geopolitical austerity and revision: by switching geopolitical emphasis from Europe and Russia-Eurasia to China and Latin America. This was intended in combination with hyper-destabilizing the domestic situation in the US to both provide diversion for such and to further instigate the preconditions for the institution of an increasingly totalitarian state capable of manipulating and clamping domestic antagonisms during the turbulence and losses sustained over a protracted period of imperial decline and reform.
Trump’s proposed strategic withdrawal from the Atlanticist project in Europe and “debt collection demands” set the stage for a crisis of US-EU relations and existential crisis of the European Union. The two gravitational poles that have developed within the EU’s political life, the liberal and the anti-liberal/anti-Atlanticist (“continentalist”) wings, have now uniquely, temporarily converged in their opposition to the United States’ forcing of the costs of its imperial decline and reform onto European shoulders while continuing to prevent the EU from developing relations with other increasingly formidable poles, such as Russia, China, Iran, etc., and their massive integration projects.
The liberal wing insists on the EU inheriting and reforming the Atlanticist project from the US, while the continentalist wing advocates the rejection of Atlanticism and the strategic situation of some kind of European union in a position to become a pole on the Greater Eurasian continent through closer relations with Russia-Eurasia and an identity project capable of withstanding the projected influence of relatively socio-culturally alien poles such as Chinese economic hegemony and African demographic projection.
The European continentalist tendency’s vision corresponds with part of the strategic vision of Russia’s Eurasianist project – hence the hysteria surrounding allegations that Russia is behind the rise of “populist”, “nationalist”, or “far-right” forces in the EU. In reality, however, one of the specific hallmarks of the European predicament is that it has led to a transcending of old boundaries of left and right in favor of popular syncretic political and intellectual movements with both pronounced socially-oriented and identitarian tendencies, the mainstream permutations of which have been decried as “populist.”
These two poles of the European political class reacted to Trump’s victory accordingly: the liberal European establishment fretted that the very basis of the EU’s Atlanticist structure and liberal values were threatened with Washington itself pulling the rug out from underneath them. European continentalists have largely adopted a double-vectored position: on the one hand they have indulged in portraying Trump as a model strongman conservative on a popular mission to renovate the establishment; on the other hand they have seized upon the “Trump factor” to carve out some leeway and pressure the redirection of European apperception.
Only upon appreciating these deep dynamics can we understand why June 2018 has seen a climax in the rift in Atlanticism. In response to Trump’s announcement of the US’ withdrawal from the Iran deal and Washington’s intention to impose sanctions on businesses who continue to operate with or in Iran, the EU has been caught in a corner: it has trailed the US in the creation of an un-winnable war in Ukraine, deteriorated relations with Russia, failed regime change in Syria, exacerbated inter-member disputes, Brexit, the looming threat of an Italexit, unsustainable demographic trends, and, to top it all off, the EU has been demanded to not only cease the Iran deal to which it has been committed, but also to “pay up” to the US for all the supposedly gracious economic and military security that Washington has forced for decades.
Part of the EU establishment, and the continentalists, have converged in throwing down the gauntlet to Washington, proposing to abandon the US dollar in dealings with Iran, demanding that the US exempt European firms from Iran-related sanctions, and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker himself calling on Europe to “stop attacking” and “reconnect” with Russia. What’s more, as Rostislav Ishchenko has pointed out, the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum held two weeks ago was a symbolic rallying of EU elites around Putin.
So after Atlanticism, what’s next?
The process of Europe’s departure from or clinging to Atlanticism, with all the dramatic implications, and the process of Europe’s “refitting” in the new multipolar world, will be among the most definitive events of the century.
But there is no determinism in geopolitics. As follows, the dividing lines and overtures in European politics over this period are not preordained. The main obstacles to any change of course remain firmly in place. One of them is, of course, NATO, i.e., the American occupation of Europe, particularly the US’ military operations in Poland and Ukraine whose raison d’etat is the prevention of EU-Russia reconciliation. Another factor is the sheer inertia of Atlanticist ideology which has ensnared EU policy structures and intellectual life for decades.
Europe needs an alternative security, economic, and integration framework to break free from Atlanticism and survive in the 21st century. Only partnership with the heartland of Eurasia, Russia, and involvement in Eurasian integration projects can offer it that. But in order to achieve such, Europe also needs ideological forces which can subjectively materialize this transition and address the EU’s internal contradictions. In this sense, Atlanticism isn’t finished in Europe until it is uprooted on the level of ideas. The shape which this new ideology for European integration takes will in no small part also determine the shape of Europe after Atlanticism. And this shape is already being molded in the very media and analytical angles that are narrating the European crisis now.