In 1831, Americans arrived in Sumatra on a vessel that it amused fate to call Friendship. As its captain haggled onshore for pepper — the island’s staple — some locals boarded, slew his first mate and plundered the cargo. Apprised of the raid, Andrew Jackson, the US president, the first not to come from Europe-facing Virginia or Massachusetts, sent a warship to Asia on a punitive mission. The ensuing violence scandalised Americans but did not, in the end, discourage them. The Sumatran expeditions were trailers for the opening of Japan and the conquest of the Philippines by the turn of the century.

That one-time Jakartan, Barack Obama, sought to bring about America’s “pivot to Asia”. When it stalled in 2013, the emissary he dispatched to shore it up was his vice-president Joe Biden. But both men should have known that it is a pivot back to Asia. A century before D-Day, it was Asian sand that was scored with US bootprints. Forty years before Bretton Woods, Theodore Roosevelt brokered a Pacific (and pacific) deal between Russia and Japan, becoming the first US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

We who cherish America’s commitment to Europe sometimes speak of it as eternal and all but encoded into nature. Hence the anguish when Donald Trump draws down US garrisons in Germany, or picks at the seams of Nato, or puts tariffs on European goods. Hence, too, that parochial tic: the damning of each US break with Europe as “isolationist”, even as other parts of the world get more, not less, America. In 2006, the Quad — a security forum of the US, Japan, Australia and India — did not exist. In July, some of its fleet held naval drills in what the Pentagon now calls, with a wink at Delhi, the Indo-Pacific. A rum kind of isolation, an observing China might have thought.

If the Atlantic is widening, it is not because of the caprice of one president. It is because Europe was never the sole or even main geopolitical draw on a nation that has had a Pacific coast for 200 years. Europe had no formal pact with the US until the Nazis and then the Soviets forced them into the partnership of convenience that we now read as a union of souls. When the last of those enemies dissolved in 1991, so did the bonding agent between two — how subversive it feels to state the obvious — vastly different places.

There have been schisms ever since: over Bosnia, Iraq, the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court, digital taxation, the nuclear pact with Iran and the Covid-19 pandemic. For a rich and peaceful Europe, the US is no longer such an indispensable patron. For the US, Europe is no longer the strategic crux of the world. Beneath the high politics, trends in demography and public opinion on both sides of the water reinforce the estrangement. It is beyond the power of a President Biden, if elected next month, to reverse it.

US president Barack Obama, right, and Chinese president Hu Jintao pass a portrait of Harry Truman at the White House in 2011 © Getty Images

More ominous than the catalogue of tiffs in recent decades is the mounting indifference. To live in Washington is to sense Europe at times all but slide off the Earth. It is invoked often enough, but less on its own terms than as a swing vote in the US-China showdown. Which way, wonder the locals, will the perfidious continent tilt? And even this hinge role it has to share with India. Of the 45 presidents, perhaps no two are less alike than Obama and Trump. Yet both have tried to turn America’s posture towards Asia. Both have struck the Europeans as disengaged. George W Bush before them was another cause of cross-Atlantic froideur. This is getting to be quite the run of bad luck.

If the divergence is structural, not personal, then France has been quicker to sense it than Britain or Germany, where Atlanticism can be an article of faith. Perhaps it is an aid to lucid thought about America to not have a large diaspora here.

Stream chart showing foreign-born population of the US, by region or country of birth from 1850 in both millions and as percentage of total

Last year, in an interview with the Economist, Emmanuel Macron diagnosed Nato with “brain death”. As much as the line scandalised London and Berlin (it had much less effect here), the image of an organism that is living off muscle memory is apt enough. And if the alternative is to count on a Democrat in the White House, it is no alternative at all.

A President Biden would reaffirm Nato, perhaps, and certainly the Paris climate agreement. He would defrost relations with Germany at a stroke. But the North Atlantic of old — each side the other’s focus, their elites entwined — is not coming back. The call of Asia is too loud in Washington. For Europe, the challenge is to avoid mawkish threnodies for the “west”, and adapt to a process that might have unforeseen benefits.

A rife (and cross-partisan) notion in Washington is that Europe, mesmerised thus far by Chinese demand for its goods, will come to see “sense”. It will then fall unambiguously into America’s share of a bifurcating world. As a wager, it does at least go with recent form. Britain has reversed its decision to wave Huawei into its 5G system. Much was made when the EU named China as, among more benign designations, a “systemic rival”.

Beyond this, however, any assumption of loyalty is a complacent read-across from the cold war. Even if the 27-member EU were to form a — don’t laugh — coherent view on China, it would be characterised as one of heightened vigilance. That is not the same as enthusiasm for open-ended confrontation. The US and China seem bound for nothing less, and on terms that are now as ideological as economic.

The Washington in which I landed in the summer of 2018 was several months into a trade war. It was vicious, no doubt, but somehow reassuringly practical too. Among the neo-Roman grandeur was the bathos of washing-machine tariffs and soyabean shipments.

Having grown up under another Washington Consensus, the sight of two governments “agreeing” to cut their current account imbalance jarred. Trump’s idée fixe, that every transaction has a winner and a loser, is the near-opposite of trade theory. The speed and thoroughness with which his view on China infused America’s elites — political, diplomatic, corporate — was startling to see up close. For good or bad, it remains the central feat of his presidency. Call it electioneering, but Biden has felt compelled to match and sometimes exceed the rhetoric.

Some hardening of the US line on trade was probably due. And material grievances can be finessed away. It is when “values” get involved that Europeans might start to research fortified bungalows in New Zealand.

The US-China feud has widened since 2018 from negotiable economics to first principles. And the Democrats have registered few qualms about the mission creep. It was to little dissent that Mike Pompeo pitted the “free world” against a new “tyranny” over the summer, in language that evoked Bush’s at the time of the Iraq war.

The dualism here, the black-and-whiteness, unnerved Europeans even in the prime years of Nato. Graham Greene lanced it in the snide, caricaturist but — there is no getting around it — sinisterly prescient novel The Quiet American. Among the clubland jokes about people who have “milk at lunch”, there was insight into the American faith in democracy as an end in itself. Coincidence, no doubt, but when Europe-born émigrés steered US policy (Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski), the stress was on cold interest.

Where it comes from, this moralist vein in US statecraft, is for a Chinese George Kennan to divine. If there is one in Washington, drafting a memo on the Sources of American Conduct, he or she might theorise that a non-ethnic nation gains its sense of self in opposition to something external. Alternatively, it is a byproduct of the religiosity that, while on the wane, distinguishes the US among rich countries. Or perhaps it is Europe, made risk-averse by its 20th-century traumas, that is unusual in its tentativeness.

Either way, we need not know the source of the idealism, or even dread it, to see that it is as Democratic as it is Republican. For Biden, Xi Jinping is a “thug” atop a “surveillance state”. His foreign-policy advisers are diverse and legion but united by a stress on values. Antony Blinken, an influential voice, wants them “back at the centre of our foreign policy”. Ely Ratner, who worked for Biden when he was vice-president, faults Trump’s China policy for its “total disregard for human rights”.

Spine chart showing percentage who think the current US president will do the right thing internationally in various countries

We are left here with a conundrum. Trump the nationalist has joined
a generational conflict with China. But Trump the cynic, indifferent to how other countries rule themselves, is also a check on it. A Democratic administration, or the next Republican one, is likelier to make this a clash of governing systems, and all the less containable for that.

The EU is hardly above righteousness but for all sorts of reasons — French raison d’état, German self-doubt, general mercantilism — it is rarely militant about it. Its impotence against democratic backsliders in its own club is a tawdry example of a mostly benign prudence. Far from bringing the US and Europe together then, China is likelier to tease out their distinct ways of seeing the world. “We have the right not to be outright enemies with our friends’ enemies,” said Macron, in an epigraph of French realpolitik.

A US aircraft carrier in the South China Sea last year © Getty Images

In the cold war, non-alignment was never an option for Europe. Much of the continent was all bread queues and debris when it took Marshall Aid in exchange for US leadership. It is now wealthy and secure (which, in chiselling America’s share of the Nato bill, is Trump’s fair point). And the threat back then was as near as East Berlin. The second cold war, if it warrants such breathless billing, is not unfolding on European soil. The continent is a “player, not a playing field”, in the words of European Council president Charles Michel.

None of this is lost on the public. Last year, Europeans were polled as to which side, if any, their country should take in a US-China “conflict”. By crushing super-majorities, the answer was neither — 73 per cent of Germans felt that way. Of the few who picked a side, America beat China by 10 per cent to six. And that was before a pandemic which, according to Pew research last month, drained the continent’s respect for the US more than China. There is still plenty of evidence that Europeans identify with the democratic superpower over the autocratic one. That is not the same as wanting any part of a tussle between them.

Small multiple chart showing percentage who had a favourable view of the US in UK, France and Germany from 2000 to 2020

“It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world,” wrote Robert Kagan on the eve of the Iraq war. His point was that America, possessed of awesome power, believed in the usefulness of force. Europe, with much less of the stuff, saw everything in legal-bureaucratic terms. The passage of time has complicated his Mars-and-Venus metaphor: it was Europe that dragged a sceptical US into Libya in 2011. But on the subject of China, it holds well enough. The US, recently overtaken as the world’s largest navy, is defending a position as the number-one power. Europe isn’t. It would be strange if the two sides viewed China in quite the same way. And perverse if a continent so rich and storied could not eke out its own position.

The mystery is whether it can hang together without a doting US. Since Europe’s postwar integration took place under American auspices, it is natural to fear for the one without the other.

Or it was, until the summer’s Hamiltonian breakthrough. Two centuries from now, it is unlikely that Angela Merkel will serve as the star of a musical for middlebrow biens pensants. The EU’s new borrowing scheme is too piecemeal to match that of the first US Treasury secretary for drama. Still, not since 1992, when the euro was sired at Maastricht, has the project for continental union deepened by so much so quickly. The EU is gaining a triple-A-rated asset with which to fund its economic convalescence and, in time, other missions too.

The impetus for the reform came from the pandemic (Brussels tends not to waste a crisis). The political decisiveness owed something to Britain’s absence (it was the club’s historic foot-dragger). But what also concentrated minds was a sense that Europe was now on its own. Trump is the first US president to oppose the supranational project. And precisely because he does, the project has a new urgency.

For more than 60 years, Washington’s goodwill, sponsorship and constant attention freed Europe to integrate, yes, but also to excuse drift. There was always the “guarantor of last resort”, as Macron calls America, to fall back on. It looked after Europe’s territorial integrity. It gave its moral imprimatur — after the second world war, no small thing — to an idea of continental unity that might have otherwise lacked credibility. As a result, Europe could be tentative and incoherent to no great cost.

That complacency ended with Trump’s election in 2016. An event that should have been a trauma has empowered Europe’s federalists. This, they can say, pointing to a chilly world, is what awaits us as disaggregated nations. The project has become less of an ideal than an existential must.

If Europe’s destiny is gradual neglect by an Asia-gazing US, then the Trump years have been a kind of immersion tutorial in it. The provisional lesson is that abandonment can have perverse advantages.

We will never find out either way, insist the more confident Atlanticists. Even if structural forces are prising Europe from America, they are as nothing against the immemorial substance that binds them. The trouble is eliciting a clear answer as to what this is.

The Nato charter cites “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” as a basis for the alliance. In 1948, few enough countries practised these things for the fact to define and unite them. As late as the 1970s, even, the majority of states were autocratic. But in a world where most are law-governed democracies of some flavour, what ties the US to Europe any more than to, say, the Quad?

Perhaps culture, more than political practice, is the real content of the
relationship. But if the North Atlantic is a civilisational club, two branches of a western family that descends from Athens, then that was true in 1814, when Britain torched the White House. It was true in 1940, when the US watched its fellow Enlightenment republic France fall. It was true in 1898, when America and Spain fought each other.

No, it took a shared dread of specific enemies — the Soviets — to seal the
US-Europe bond that we now regard as somehow hard-wired. It took mutual interest.

Yet a third definition of the west, and one that is ever more awkward to put forward, is ethnic. The Nato charter certainly refers to the “common heritage” of its signatories. When the US was of overwhelmingly European ancestry, and Europe had few immigrants from outside the continent, that was true enough. It is a less tenable claim in the 21st century. Even if a certain kind of Englander still refers to the Americans as “cousins”, a vast and growing share of them trace their lineage to Latin America or Asia.

And this is if we take seriously the ethnic determinism of the premise: that a nation’s DNA decides its geopolitical orientation. The most strident isolationists in interwar America were recent descendants of Europe. They had not left the continent to partake of its bloodlettings all over again. Gore Vidal, who never forgave the republic its entry into the second world war, could not have been more European by ancestry and temperament. After the war, George Marshall, Averell Harriman and the other US statesmen who called time on Europe’s empires were — to everlasting pique in London — Wasps almost to a man. Interest overrode genealogy.

One of their number, Dean Acheson, felt “present at the creation” of a new world, as Nato and Marshall Aid reduced the wide Atlantic to a puddle. If that world is now passing, the trend began before President Trump, and promises to outlast him. The alliance will not collapse tomorrow. But its high summer is long in the past. Europe and America will not fight. But nor will they join in some common endeavour. The grandiose language of geopolitics is all “rivals” and “allies”, “competitors” and “partners”. It will have to learn how to describe two parties who have little to do with each other.

Janan Ganesh is the FT’s chief US political commentator

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Letters in response to this article:

US navy is still unmatched in its projection of power / From Andrew Moretti, Plainview, NY, US

Freedom is once more the value that binds the US and Europe / From Maximilian Terhalle Visiting Professor, King’s College London/Potsdam University

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