Foto by Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times via CC BY 2.0

The Transatlantic Relationship Has Always Been ‘America First’

Today, the US pivot away from multilateralism is a phenomenon associated with President Trump. However, as Edward Knudsen argues, it is in reality not new at all.

Speaking at the 2019 Munich Security Conference, former US Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden attempted to reassure 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 ties 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 implicitly or explicitly acquiesce to America’s concept of its own exceptionalism. When this condition is not met, the US either refuses to accept formal ties or seeks to undermine the existing system. Accordingly, regardless of the next US President, Europeans should expect to United States to either demand what it sees as its rightful place as the senior partner in the transatlantic relationship, or further withdraw from international agreements.

A Century of American Exceptionalism in Multilateral Cooperation

A century before leaders from Europe and America were fretting about the state of transatlantic ties in Munich, they were attempting to build the foundations of the alliance in Paris. When US President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe in 1919, he brought with him a firm belief in American exceptionalism. Widely remembered as the quintessential liberal internationalist who sought multilateral governance, Wilson in fact had a deeply hierarchical view of how the international order ought to be crafted in the years following the First World War. In The Deluge, Adam Tooze describes Wilson as “an exponent of turn-of-the-century high nationalism, bent on asserting America’s exceptional claim to pre-eminence on a global scale.” Contrary to later descriptions, he did not seek to subordinate US interests to international institutions, but rather to establish the US as the “neutral arbiter and the new source of a new form of international order.”

The Republican-led US Senate’s refusal to ratify the Treaty of Versailles is often described as a triumph of isolationism over multilateralism, but this view distorts the facts. Republican opposition to Versailles was not to transatlantic alliances per se, as they supported alliances with France and Britain. Rather, their objection was specifically to the treaty’s collective action clause, which they felt could have necessitated US military action without congressional approval. Lacking the ability to set the rules of its international engagements on an ad hoc basis, the Senate refused to ratify the agreement, displaying an early instance of what would become a predictable pattern over the next century.

The interwar period would show a continuation of the American tendency to avoid international agreements when it could not set the rules. Predictably, successive Republican presidents made no effort to join the League of Nations. But Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt—later hailed as a great internationalist—displayed foreign policy tendencies similar to those of his predecessors. Following the beginning of the Great Depression and the contraction of US credit to Europe, Roosevelt refused any agreement to forgive European debts and stabilise international exchange rates at the 1933 London Conference. This in effect ended efforts at cooperation, with the refusal of the US to forgive European war debts a significant factor in the length and severity of the Depression.

By the end of the Second World War, the US finally possessed the preponderant power to dictate the terms of a new international order. The Bretton Woods system placed the US dollar at the centre of the world economy and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) institutionalised US foreign policy goals. Still, this period was not the bonanza of magnanimous internationalism that is often portrayed. The US rejected legally binding labour and environmental commitments of the International Trade Organisation (ITO) in favour of the much weaker General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). It also torpedoed John Maynard Keynes’s proposal for an International Clearing Union (ICU), preferring conditions more amenable to its creditor status. The imbalance in power, and the willingness of the US to use that imbalance to its advantage, was not lost on contemporary observers: Harper’s magazine remarked in 1951 that “the Atlantic alliance is not and cannot be an ‘equal alliance.’”

This imbalance continued into the Cold War. With the US running a balance of payments deficit in the 1960s and increasingly unable to defend the dollar’s gold parity, the US sought to force adjustment costs onto western Europe and pressured the Bundesbank not to sell its dollar reserves. The US urged Germany to revalue the Deutschmark relative to gold, open its markets to US imports, and contribute more to collective defence. If these demands sound familiar, they should: the Trump Administration’s claim that Germany is a ‘currency manipulator’ and its demand that the EU accept more imports and raise defence spending to NATO’s 2 percent targets bear a striking similarity to US policy positions from over a half-century prior.

When these actions proved insufficient, the US displayed its trademark of withdrawing from any international arrangement it cannot dominate. After forcing the UK to declare a bank holiday and suspend the London Gold Pool in 1968, it ended the dollar’s convertibility to gold in 1971, and with it the Bretton Woods monetary system. In doing so, the US managed to force adjustment costs onto its allies while keeping the dollar at the centre of the world economy and relieving itself of balance of payments concerns. This pattern of behavior was not confined to the twentieth century. Indeed, a consistent feature of US policy both before and after the Cold War has been to use “its privileged position within [the] international order to serve its own particular ends”, as international relations scholar Michael Mastanduno observed in 2009.

The post-Trump Outlook

In light of this century-long pattern of American behaviour, the actions of President Trump seem far less surprising. Trump’s rhetoric may be appalling to European leaders, but his tendency to issue demands to allies and withdraw from cooperation if they are not met is a time-honoured practise. As political economist Susan Strange noted in 1987, the US has never hesitated to spring “unilateralist surprises” on its partners across the Atlantic.

Although European leaders may be hopeful that a new US president will usher in a renewed age of transatlantic partnership, to wish for such cooperation is to long for a golden age of the transatlantic alliance that never truly existed. While the US and Europe have long been important partners, their relationship has always been lopsided, and America has consistently rejected binding agreements and treated its obligations as optional. No matter who the next occupant of the White House is, Europe would be wise to examine the United States’ past behaviour before getting too hopeful about what it might do in the future.


Edward Knudsen is Research Associate at the Hertie School of Governance.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.