A Century of ‘America First’: The history of American exceptionalism in transatlantic relations

A Century of America First

Speaking at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, former US Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden attempted to reassure America’s European allies about the strength of the transatlantic relationship. The American people, he said, “understand that it’s only by working in cooperation with our friends” that opportunities can be harnessed and threats can be avoided. He pledged that President Trump’s ‘America First’ attitude will soon give way to renewed cooperation and that “we will be back, don’t you worry”.

For transatlantic observers wondering exactly when and how America might return to a more Atlanticist outlook, the history of relations between the US and Europe offers useful clues. Over the past century, the United States has sought close ties with Europe only when political arrangements acquiesce—implicitly or explicitly—to America’s concept of its own superiority. This notion of ‘American exceptionalism’ is a core component of the country’s founding myth and has had a profound influence on its foreign policy for the entirety of American history, including both the ‘internationalist’ cold war period and the present era of more uncertain transatlantic links.

In this Commentary, Edward Knudsen reviews the history of the relationship between the US and Europe and argues that Europeans should not be optimistic that relations will be better under the next US president.

Download the full Commentary here.

Edward Knudsen is a Dahrendorf Forum Research Associate based at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.