Since the beginning of 2017, the world has been adjusting to the idea of “America first.” The United States’ shift towards isolationism and protectionism came as no shock under the incoming president, but – lest there be any mistake – he’s been very clear on the matter from the get-go.
Europe has rolled with that punch, responding with resolute determination to stand on its own and fill any potential gap left by America’s retreat from the front lines of the international forum. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Europe cannot only rely on the US to solve problems, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently proposed further globalization, integration, and a stronger EU presence on the world stage. This is good, and necessary, because President Trump hasn’t changed his tone.
In his addressto the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, the US president reiterated his America-first stance, and, perhaps in an attempt to make the idea more palatable, insisted that every country should take the same approach (he used the word “sovereign” 21 times in 42 minutes). The thing is, a lot of countries don’t want to. The leaders of the European Union, save for one notable exception, believe that they are stronger together. Continue reading “Trump to UN: You’re Welcome”→
For over 70 years, the United States has upheld an international order that has not seen a single major power war, brought wealth and prosperity to dozens of nations which adopted open and free markets, and has advanced issues such as democracy, human rights, women’s rights, and other progressive issues through the international institutions the US helped to create at the end of World War II. Yes, it is easy to point out when the US’s foreign policy has aligned with countries that did not uphold similar values, or that the US has violated international law through its military undertakings, or assisted in overthrowing foreign governments – even established democracies. But even when acting against its own founding values, the American president has always at least rhetorically upheld the values of a liberal world order, albeit it sometimes hypocritical. But it seems that era has come to a screaming halt.
Many see the election of the American president as an opportunity to change the status quo and to embark on a new set of policies. Take for example the election of Barack Obama who ran on a progressive platform and repeatedly vowed to drastically change the foreign and domestic policies of past administrations. To be fair, Obama has accomplished several of his stated goals and changed American policies in a wide range of areas both domestically and abroad. However, the US has a larger portion of its population incarcerated than any other country; its governing apparatus more resembles an oligarchy than a democracy; its security state has only grown further at the expense of Americans’ civil liberties; and the undeclared wars in the broader Middle East have continued and expanded with no end in sight. Although Obama vowed to change America, the similarities are more striking than the differences.
But Obama is not an exception. It has been nearly the same for every modern American president. The change and reform they promise during the campaign quickly collides with the reality of the presidency. Career bureaucrats and civil servants that constitute the majority of the federal government do not change together with the president and his staff – even if the presidency is won by the different party. This leads to a continuation of policies across party lines. However, the recent change of presidents is different in more than one way.
Donald Trump’s surprise electoral college victory may not constitute a dramatic change in the country’s foreign or domestic policies. But his victory did not happen in a vacuum. It was coupled with an emboldened and in many ways radicalized Republican Party and a highly volatile international order, which relies heavily on American leadership. The combination of these factors will most likely disengage the US from the international community, including Europe and the European Union.
It is first worth examining the governing philosophy of the Republican Party, which won the presidency, Congress, and appointed a judge to the Supreme Court to ostensibly tip the court in the party’s favor. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Republicans – under the banner of conservatism, neoconservatism and most recently the ultra-conservative Tea Party – began shifting their bellicosity from foreign powers to domestic foes, such as American liberals and progressives. From their unprecedented partisan 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton to their obstructionism towards Obama, the party has repeatedly obstructed democratic processes for electoral gains.
Over the course of the last eight years, the Republican Party has engaged in political tactics and rhetorics more common in authoritarian regimes than a developed democracy. As an opposition party they praised foreign leaders over their own president, they attempted to delegitimize the Obama presidency through the birther movement (with the movement’s leader eventually becoming the new president) and even denied millions of elderly Americans healthcare by not expanding Medicare at the state level, which would have been completely subsidized through federal legislation commonly referred to as Obamacare.
On the international stage, a resurgent Russia is using hybrid warfare to influence other country’s domestic politics and elections – its greatest succes being the recent US presidential election. Through propaganda, disinformation, and financing of nationalistic parties, Russia aims to install more pro-Russian governments or, at the very least, undermine Western democracies. Due to the civil war in Syria, Europe has experienced the largest migration of refugees since World War II. The influx of refugees coincided with a rise of lone-wolf and small-cell terrorist plots inspired by ISIS. The destablization of the international order has been exploited by nationalistic politicians around the world with racist and xenophobic rhetoric, all to gain power and all to the expense of the values of liberal democracies.
The Trump administration has so far expressed the desire to pursue more realpolitik on the international stage, although detailed positions are unknown or do simply not yet exist. The ‘America First’ slogan translates into a parochially defined set of national interests, most likely limited to the economy and military. Trump’s comments on NATO being obsolete actually fit into this parochial nationalist rhetoric. Moreover, Trump has shown an inclination to align with authoritarian leaders around the world rather than traditional American allies. He has also displayed a strong tendency to be more bellicose and provocative confronting friends and foe alike, most shockingly evident in the conversations with the Australian and Mexican heads of state. This will most likely worsen if the domestic situation in the US further destablizes.
It is also evident that Trump will not so much turn a blind eye towards Europe as he will take positions that are explicitly contrary to the EU’s interests. For example, Trump has shown to be rather indifferent about a united Europe and even openly admired nationalistic European politicians. This will force the EU into an uncomfortable situation. Will it stand up against Russian meddling and American rhetoric and pursue a robust and united EU, or will it allow the nationalists to win-out? Any attempt by the EU to stay united and robust can easily backfire due to the growing nationalist sentiments accross the continent. However, the situation has proven to be a Catch 22. If the EU does not stand up against the threats posed by the disruptions in the international order, the existence of the EU could be in grave danger. This would pose an existantial threat to free trade and the peaceful relations on the continent.
As 2016 proved, nothing can be taken for granted anymore. The chaotic and unpredictable behavior of Donald Trump will most likely become the norm and not the outlier in the coming years. This will not bode well in an already volatile international order. The special relationship between the US and the EU (and its individual nations) may be in for some hardship – especially if Trump follows through with his proposed Russian alignment. But if one thing is certain, expect uncertainty.
Tyler is a local news reporter for the Alpena News in Michigan. When escaping from his unhealthy obsession with international politics, you can find him traveling and exploring the great outdoors.
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?
In Europe, the so-called refugee crisis (better: refugee protection crisis), revealed deeply grounded reservations of Europeans against Islam and Muslims. Across the Atlantic, Islam is currently a controversially debated topic as well. Also in the United States questions about the Islam and the influx of Muslim refugees dominate public debate: How to deal with a religion in whose name fundamentalist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS commit violent terrorist attacks? How to deal with a religious group whose culture is perceived as fundamentally different from Western values? In this climate of uncertainty, a general feeling of mistrust, fear, and hatred against Islam and Muslims is gaining ground. These feelings are usually subsumed as Islamophobia, that is, according to researcher Serdar Kaya, “unfavorable prejudgments of Muslim individuals on the basis of their religious background.”
To name just a few examples: In his victorious campaign for the presidential elections of 2016, President Donald J. Trump called for surveillance against mosques and this week, the Trump administration banned people from mostly Islamic countries from entering the United States. While editorial cartoons in American newspapers regularly express attitudes that are hostile against Islam, some authors even bring claims forward that Islam does not deserve religious freedom protections under the First Amendment of the American constitution.
Especially in contrast to Europe, the U.S. have always claimed secularism and religious freedom to be at the centre of American identity. The hostility now expressed towards Islam does not fit in the dominant national narrative. How could Islamophobia evolve in the US? And is it indeed a new phenomenon?
In the decades prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islam and Muslims were hardly on the political agenda in the U.S. Apparently, no coherent image of ‘the Muslim’ and the religion had been constructed in this period. Also, Americans did not have explicit negative sentiments against Muslims. American indifference towards Islam might be explained with the design of American secularism that declares religion to be a strictly private matter. American identity is therefore, as Zolberg and Woon put it, “no longer anchored in Christianity narrowly defined” but because of the massive influx of immigrants around the 20th century, developed into “a more diffuse deistic civil religion that easily embraces other faiths.”
Post-9/11: The Muslim as Security Threat
In the context of ideological and geopolitical struggles in the Middle East such as the Palestinian armed actions, the hostage crisis in Iran, as well as the Iran-Iraq war, Muslims were increasingly depicted as aggressive individuals that were easily seduced by ruthless religious leaders from the 1980s onwards. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conflation of Muslims and terrorism was fueled and has now gained significant ground in public debate. Hence, Muslims are now mainly associated with the fundamentalist positions of Islamist terrorist groups and are often framed as a threat to the safety and security to American society. Accordingly, Islam is constructed as an inherently violent and intolerant religion. The image of the Muslim as an extremist criminal and of Islam as a violent ideology is successfully enhanced by right-wing populists such as Donald Trump who exploit people’s anxieties for their own electoral successes. Moreover, Islamophobic sentiments were reinforced by further terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, and Paris in 2015. In the course of these events, Muslims became seen as both a threat from the outside (Middle Eastern terrorists attacking the Western world) and from within (so-called “homegrown terrorists” planning attacks, as has happened in France in 2015).
The Muslim as Cultural Other
At the same time, the Muslim is increasingly constructed as a cultural Other in America, especially by anti-Islam think tanks. Muslims are depicted as an out-group that is essentially “un-American”. This perception was revealed first and foremost in the political debates related to Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency. Many prominent voices implicitly questioned if a Muslim could ever become president of the U.S. – even though in Obama’s case only his father identified as Muslim. In addition to that, the presumed anti-American character of Islam has also been articulated in the controversies on banning Islamic Sharia law as a source of American law.
Muslims are not only perceived as different, but also as a threat to American culture and identity. In the aftermath of 9/11, multiple books have been published that contribute to the spread of conspiracy theories of Muslims planning to dominate the world. These theories, e.g. in America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It by the Canadian author Mark Steyn (2006), use the relatively higher population growth of Muslim minorities in Western countries as a key argument to predict the decline of Western civilization.
American Islamophobia – Not as New as One Might Think
Many political analysts argue that American Islamophobia is not a recent phenomenon, but that the terrorist attacks rather served as a catalyzer for a longstanding fear and hatred of Muslims in America that preceded 9/11. Hence, although the anti-Muslim discourse became visible only after 9/11 in America, it has a longer history. In fact, American Islamophobia embraces cultural tropes that predate the US itself: British Islamophobia that developed during the colonization of Islamic parts of Asia fuelled Islamophobia in the US. As a consequence, Muslims usually had to fight for their whiteness in order to get naturalized – even if they were phenotypically white. Once arrived in the U.S., the Muslim minority has been regarded with the same suspicion as any other religious minority such as Catholics, Jews, etc. Last but not least, the Islamic religion might have also played a role in racial discrimination against people of color throughout American history and still in the 20th century. All in all, it seems as if the anti-Islamic propaganda of the post-9/11 era merely revives old racial and religious prejudice.
As in previous years, the ACLA 2017 will host a seminar for BA and MA students. Looking at current changes in the political climate and in what is acceptable political discourse in Europe and America, this year’s (under)graduate seminar will examine the role of literature, media, and the narrative arts as agents in society, whether for change or stability. The role of the arts as a mobilizer in society is in no way an unexplored arena. Edward Bulwer-Lytton first coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than sword” in 1839, and Thomas Hardy reflected on the way reading fosters critical literacy for social life when he suggested that in reading fiction “our true object is a lesson in life, mental enlargement from elements essential to the narratives themselves and from the reflection they engender.” Unsurprisingly, art’s capacity to engender this critical reflection of society has intermittently resulted in book bans and burnings. In recent times this potential, its limits, and its actualization have come under close scrutiny. James Baldwin caused a stir in 1949 when he published his essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” characterizing protest fiction as a “rejection of life” and dismissing its paragon Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as self-righteous and dishonest. Baldwin has continued to loom large in reflections on narrative arts’ activating potential, acting recently as an interlocutor to Robert McParland when he discussed Django Unchained, and as an avowed inspiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the most celebrated artists today to engage in both writing and activism. Sixty years after Baldwin’s famous essay, with the veil pulled from the capitalist machinery underlying cultural production and with renewed appreciation for the role stories can play in deciding communal values, what can be said about the narrative arts and the wider world?
We warmly invite (R)MA students and senior BA students of the humanities to send in their 300-word proposals and short bio to email@example.com before January 31st.
Some suggested themes:
– Literature, transmedia storytelling and pedagogy
– Cultural production and the nexus between individual and society
– Storytelling for personal and collective empowerment
– Capitalism, cultural production and criticism
– Literature, film, critical thinking and politics
– Authority and moral agency
– Rereading, revisiting and remediation stories nestled in the collective imagination
– Social novels and the stylistics of social commentary
– Changing media, new publics and changing storytelling
If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”
My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events.
On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”
I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.
I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?
So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?
A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit. Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.
A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.
We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.
Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.
Throughout history, the struggle between the West and the East has fallen on the shoulders of the U.S. and Russia. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West’s relationship with Russia has always been testy. With the disintegration of the USSR, the US was deemed victorious, while spreading its influence and liberal ideology throughout the world, while Russia and its stalling economy was seen as the loser. Twenty-five years of US hegemony, good or bad, was felt in every corner of the globe, whilst Russia’s global headlines comprised of its propaganda, sniggered at by Western nations, poor economy and the propping up of dictatorships. However, in recent times, it is evident that Russia is somewhat gaining its influence back via foreign policies and especially through the soon-to-be new alliance with president-elect Donald Trump. It is now difficult to ignore the growing power of Russia throughout the world, especially as even its classic nemesis, the US, appears to be bowing to Putin’s charm.
After the events of 2014 there was an agreement in the West to isolate and punish Putin for his actions in, the now-annexed, Crimea. Russia was placed under economic sanctions that were intended to weaken its trade with the western hemisphere and contributed to the poor state of the Russian economy. Also diplomatic ties suffered between Russia and the West and at times have stalled, especially due to Russia’s role in Syria. It had looked like Russia would continue to play second fiddle to the US in the global political field, until the recent turn of global events.
Most significantly, president-elect Donald Trump has not hidden his admiration for Vladimir Putin. During the campaign, Trump praised Putin and his leadership qualities. Trump’s actions are drastically different from previous US presidents who had a frosty relationship with Putin. The oncoming US-Russia relations boom have alerted governmental figures and they have questioned if Putin would have influence in future US policies. Even in choosing his cabinet, Trump causes concern. Rex Tillerson was announced as the new Secretary of State and within hours of this declaration, concerns were raised by both Republicans and Democrats about Tillerson’s close ties to Putin. Were Putin to somehow have influence in US policies, then it is clear that the tide would clearly change in global politics. During the campaign, Russian hackers were blamed for leaking DNC emails, which destabilised the Democratic Party with Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation and the raised questions about the DNC’s authenticity. Post-election, Barack Obama called for an enquiry to examine if Russia had any influence on the final result.
Without a doubt, European leaders are concerned that Trump will have a soft approach to Putin and his foreign policy. This year, tensions escalated between the west, especially the US, and Russia due to its involvement in Syria and the continuous breaking of agreed ceasefires. Previously, there was no doubt that the Western block would stick together against Russia, but the stronghold alliance is not as stable as it once was. In France, Marine Le Pen secured a €9 million loan from Europe-Russia Bank (ERB), for her political party, Le Front National, to strengthen her far-right rhetoric which ultimately disrupts mainstream European values. Russia’s growing influence in Europe further demonstrates its tactical aim to have a strong hold in the continent à la pre-fall of the Berlin wall. Recently, during presidential elections, both Bulgaria and Moldova elected men who lean closer to Russia and distance themselves from the Western block. With uncertainty mounting in post-Soviet countries; it is evident that Putin’s foreign policies point to a wish for a quasi-USSR looking map. Trump’s limp response to supporting NATO may only encourage turning Putin’s attention towards the Baltic and Balkan states. In Germany, a warning has been issued from head of security that there may be interference in next year’s elections in Europe by Russia.
Further afield, in the strategically important Pacific region, the Philippine president, Roger Duterte, described Putin as his “idol”, recently claiming that the two have much in common. While creating a gap between the Philippines and the US – for instance calling Obama a “son of a whore”- it is evident that Duterte would welcome a strong alliance with Russia. This would diminish the US’ influence in the region, which has been essential for US interests for many years.
Despite its recent influence in global politics, some political leaders will still create obstacles for Putin and his Russia. Angela Merkel claimed that the sanctions placed against Russia must continue due to the lack of progress in Ukraine. Furthermore, Alexei Navalny, leader of Progress Party has declared that he will run in the 2018 Russian presidential elections and will “speak about things people refuse to talk about”.
Pockets of once assured Western alliances around the world are quickly being challenged by different leaders. With Russia’s frosty relationship with the West thawing with the election of Trump, and other global political party leaders, one thing seems certain: Russia is is finally coming in from the cold.
Europe is at a crossroads and the coming months will determine its stability for the foreseeable future. The unforeseen victories for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise in populism makes us question how there is such momentum behind these campaigns. Therefore, the leaders who have grabbed headlines over the two years must be examined in order to understand how they have shaken the world.
“Post-truth” was awarded by Oxford Dictionary as the word of the year. Defined as “appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored”, it has led to escalation of support for populist leaders and a growing support of their beliefs. With anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment rising in Europe, there is an obvious shift in mentality as opposed to previous years, which mainly rests on the shoulders of the post-truth rhetoric. Various populist campaigns stemmed from post-truth and used emotion to escalate fear and incite hatred in various nations. Donald Trump’s stinging remarks about Mexicans and Muslims have been accompanied by a spike in hate crimes post-election, likewise in post-Brexit Britain. The leaders rely on fear and stirring emotion, rather than sense or logic, in order to gain a large following. In a pre-Brexit world, no one would have given Farage a chance, or have thought that Trump would claim the victory across the pond, nor that Le Pen may have influence in the French Presidential election. However, the Brexit campaign spurred Trump to follow the same rhetoric and yielded a similar result. Post-truth tactics and hate rhetoric have grabbed Europe by the throat and won’t let go, so much so that talk of the demise of the European Union has begun to bubble up in public discourse.
a.o. Bundesparteitag der Alternative für Deutschland am 4./5. Juli 2015 in Essen, Gruga Halle
Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen are disturbing the political establishment of liberal Europe.
Throughout Europe, there is a growing urgency to discard the base of what has been guiding the political norm for the last decades. Moderate politics has typically dominated politics but we are witnessing a change in European sentiment. As elections in France, Germany and The Netherlands loom, Europe’s future could potentially be vastly different within a year. Marine Le Pen is making noise in France with a rhetoric that highlights the use of post-truth in politics, with much focus on the fear that a foreign ‘other’ will steal your job and earn more than you. This kind of rhetoric is hardly new, but as of late it has begun to feature more prominently in political discourse. Just last week, Geert Wilders was once again convicted of hate speech and also wants to ban all mosques in the Netherlands, is leading the most popular party in the country. He also relies on the tactic of post-truth and the manipulation of citizens’ emotions to gain popularity, rather than on logic and clear policy goals. Before the recent rerun of the Austrian Presidential election, a Holocaustsurvivor spoke out and pleaded with the public not to vote for the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer, because the consequences petrified her and reminded her of pre-World War II Austria. This is a clear signal that surely it is time to think about which direction current politics is taking.
Nigel Farage’s Brexit quoted as a stand up against the establishment and Donald Trump being carried as the ideal ‘anti-establishment’ candidate in the U.S. election. But for me it is difficult to confirm that they are truly ‘anti-establishment’. Trump resides in a Manhattan apartment “decorated in 24K gold and marble” and has a net worth of 3.2 billion dollars. It is hard to imagine why people labelled him anti-establishment despite having more in common with Hillary Clinton than many people would like to think. Prior to the election, he rubbed shoulders with the Clintons, their daughters are friends, and he had even donated money to the Clinton Foundation and to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It would be foolish to think that Trump is anything but the ‘established’. Moreover, Nigel Farage who officially resigned as UKIP leader, but still receives 84,000 pounds salary as an MEP, immediately denied the NHS their supposedly ‘guaranteed’ 350 million pounds after the Brexit result. Since the Brexit campaign, he has stuck to Trump, like a remora fish on a shark. Pictures recently circulated of him at one of Trump’s parties in London. How are these men seen as anti-establishment since they reap so much from the establishment? Granted, there is disenchantment with politics, but those leading the opposition do not know more than those already in government. One just has to look at Farage’s disappearance act or Boris Johnson’s reaction post-Brexit. Just this week, a Tory aide was photographed with a notepad with Brexit plans which included “What’s the model? Have cake and eat it”.
However, maybe not all is lost. In the recent Austrian Presidential election, the Green Party won the vote by a bigger margin than the original election in May. Moreover, in the Richmond Park by-election in London, the Lib Dem candidate unseated the Tory, Zac Goldsmith. This may just be a symbolic victory for the left, yet, it may be the penny dropping in people’s minds that unity and harmony will undoubtedly be more beneficial than discord. However, with papers and polls indicating that populism is here to stay, the more centred people must surely find a way to stop the post-truth tactic and potential destabilization and disintegration of the European Union.
Ben recently graduated from Leiden University with a masters’ degree in International Relations. From Ireland, Ben graduated from University College Cork with a BA in Spanish and History and is currently interning in The Hague.
On June 6 2016, a group of experts and students of European studies including Daniele Carminati, Christopher Heumann, Jesse van Amelsvoort, Marek Neumann, Senka Neumann-Stanivukovic, and Yining Chen, had a roundtable discussion on the November 2015 Paris attacks and 2016 Brussels bombings. Yining Chen, then the Editor-in-chief of The Euroculturer, had the original purpose of organizing this discussion to trace and reveal a specific mode of governance, a certain assemblage/arrangement of interlocking concepts, substances, forces including human and non-human agencies and organisms. If we see ISIS attacks as a specific part or so-called “event” of this assemblage/arrangement, how is this mode of governance organized/arranged/assembled within and through those attacks? For instance, who and what are made accountable? What kinds of affects, such as grief, anger, what forms of condemnation or approbation are deployed and mobilized? How do those two attacks rivet scholarly or political attentions? How is their “eventfulness” utilized by market and state actors to make sensible the social distribution of life and death, emergence and extinguishment?
“Elements” thus refer to those “who”s and “what”s, and the “security/governing nexus” can be one of the “how”s. But we are not focusing on those “elements” and “how”s/dispositifs/mechanisms as independent or closed entities, but rather as dispersed and competing discourses and material anchors that constitute the aforementioned mode of governance/arrangement/assemblage.
What and how are the various elements made relevant in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks?
Is there any interaction, interrelation or interdependency among those elements?
What do those interaction, interrelation and interdependency reveal about how we are governing and being governed?
What I am expecting from the discussion, is a collaborative research on what is continually being cited, circulated, and formed among those various practices, and how those various practices produce substances that meet and mirror the presumption of the cited, circulated and formed.
My personal opinion on the various elements in the discourses and practices revolving around the two recent “ISIS” attacks is that there is an excessive focus on ideological belief. There are two main arguments that support this statement: the factors for radicalisation in Western European Democracies and political power that rests on radical Islamism.
First, the individuals who carried out the Daesh attacks in Paris and Brussels were radicalised in a predominantly non-muslim environment and factors such as social exclusion, identity crisis and lack of perspective for personal success are overwhelmingly responsible for this radicalisation rather than muslim socialisation. The perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, grew up and were socialised in French and Belgian “banlieues” or “sensitive neighbourhoods” that feature high crime rates, high unemployment rates and poor living conditions. The dominant factor for their radicalisation was the resentment for the French and Belgium society resulting from these conditions, with radical islamism presenting itself as an outlet for this resentment. Although radical muslim ideology is a dominant factor for radicalisation, I believe that the factors pushing individuals towards radicalisation are overlooked.
The second argument is that the leaders of terrorist groups pursue radical ideologies in order to strengthen their own power through traditional legitimacy in the Weberian sense. Just as the power of European nations was legitimised by a holy alliance with Christianity, leaders of Daesh use radical Islam to inspire loyalty and obedience. Other examples include Wahhabism, a religious sect that the Saudi-Arabian royal family rests much of its power on since the creation of the Saudi Arabian State in the middle of the 18th century.
Overly focusing on increased presence of radical islam in Western societies distracts from pertinent social issues and polarisation of society. Neglecting the role of radical islamist ideology in strengthening the position of power of political actors such as Daesh leadership or the Saudi Royal family harms a crucial argument in delegitimising movements exploiting religion for their own political gains.
The song mentioned in the discussion: IAM – Demain c’est loin live Egypte https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYNeFxSrjHU. According to Christopher, “it is a critique of precarious living conditions in French suburbs that is still relevant today.”
The subtopic I covered attempted to gather the reasons, known and speculative, of why people join ISIS or support their ideologies, both the ones actually going to fight in Syria and the ones embracing the ‘terrorist’ actions in Europe. There are several theories recognizing the fact that most of the recruits are outliers, borderlines, people with mental problems or purposeless people who supposedly ‘failed in life’ and are seeking revenge against society. Yet, according to several experts, the reasons are deeper and more complex than it is commonly known. After every terrorist attack the media attempts to cover singularly every known suspect, deceased or not, while creating an aura of negativity around the attackers. This behavior is legitimate but oftentimes abused. One of the most recent cases has been acknowledging that there may be some specific areas where people are more prone to subscribe to ISIS ideals (e.g. Sint-Jans-Molenbeek). It is not fair to negatively label whole communities because of such events and, additionally, it fails to consider the greater picture. Recruits come from sensibly different walks of life. Several newspapers and experts wondered about what may lay behind the reasons pushing such a different array of people to these final acts, which are commonly fatal for the perpetrators. My part will attempt to gather most significative ideas revolving around the topic and combine them with the main discourse and, eventually, the recent events. A second step would be trying to speculate on the roots of recruits’ reasoning and how to oppose it without causing further social discontent from both parties (Muslim and non-Muslim). The final goal should be to demystify the idea that recruits are all coming from similar backgrounds of criminality and dig deeper into why, even people who apparently have no connection with such extremism, may be willing to join them.
We should always historicize current events, put them in a historical overview. Certainly, choosing the right perspective matters. Following the “wave theory” of terrorism, we could say of the current wave of Islamist terrorism that it comes after anarchist violence around 1900, decolonization violence around the 1950s and revolutionary resistance in the later decades of the Cold War and thus is part of a fourth wave of religious violence. To me, such a perspective seems to include both dispassionate historical observation as well as political motives. It is history of the longue durée, it does not reveal anything particular about our present moment.
For what is distinctive of contemporary Islamist terrorism with which the West is faced, as well as the West’s response to the recent attacks in Paris (of course “Bataclan” and other locations in November 2015, but also Charlie Hebdo in January of that year) and Brussels (just some months, but I am also thinking of the attack on the Jewish Museum) is that it feeds into Europe’s difficult and fractured history with Islam. Islam created Europe as we know it: for the Greeks, “Europe” referred to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and it remained so for the Romans. Yet when Islam spread from the Arabian peninsula into the Middle East and Northern Africa, “Europe” moved – emigrated – north, and became synonymous with “Christendom.” The Moors were stopped in Southern France, and consequently pushed back; the Turks came to Vienna, and were pushed back. Isabella and Ferdinand ended the Reconquista when they conquered the last lands of the Emirate of Granada in 1492 (and, in the process, expelled all Jews, too). Islam was pushed beyond Europe’s borders once more. (The Balkans, where we find the most Islamic countries, percentage-wise, have never had a place – that is to say, have held a very awkward place – in the European imaginary, of course.)
Somewhere after 1683, when Ottoman forces besieged Vienna, “Europe” lost interested in Islam and turned its eyes to the world. As the Ottoman Empire went into a long decay, Europeans conquered lands all over the globe and gained wealth until then unimaginable. And so it went, until September 11, 2001, when a small number of airplanes and an outrageous response refocused Western eyes on the Middle East.
It is the premise of scholarship on postcolonial Europe that Europe today has not sufficiently, nor adequately, nor even substantially, dealt with its colonialist and imperialist history. And although it has become accepted that “the Empire writes back,” when the Empire strikes back, those attempts are ill-understood. Europe and the U.S. have ruled over countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa for decades, if not centuries, and have muddled in its politics ever since. The result is chaos, disorder and anger at those Western interventions. Yet we in the West have forgotten about these histories, or chosen to neglect them; instead, we present these attacks come out of nowhere. That is blatantly untrue – could it ever not be?
What’s new or contemporary about postcolonial Europe’s pains? That “they” – Muslims, Islamists, terrorists – are no longer “there,” if they ever were. Pretending that Islam is not part of Europe is senseless and in fact dangerous in our day and age, yet I wonder if politicians and the media understand that.
The discourse surrounding the emergence/existence of ISIS and the recent tragic terror events has, in my view, revealed several interesting elements, of which I would briefly like to discuss two; the different ways of translating international events into domestic courses of various EU member states and the increasingly evident lack of true political statesmanship among EU countries. Furthermore, I will briefly assess which implications these will have on how the EU will govern us.
In the aftermath of recent terror attacks claimed to be committed by supporters of ISIS, all eyes were on the European political elite as these, with both their words and actions, would set the tone of fighting Islamic fundamentalism. It is here that I was puzzled by how the “Islamic terrorism/refugee wave” nexus got pronounced differently among the EU member states. More interestingly, one could observe the reemergence of a soft border between – what is often termed – “old” and “new” Europe. Even more interesting, however, is the fact that while it predominantly were the old, Western, EU member states that were directly affected by the terror, it was the political elite of the new member states that explicitly linked Islamic terrorism to the recent migration issue. Certainly, while the Western European states are not immune to increasing nationalism/populism, whether in the form of the German Alternative für Deutschland, its French counterpart Front National, or the Austrian FPÖ), at the level of the highest political leadership, the discourse was one of caution, moderation, and warning of hasty conclusions that could spark further controversy (think of Merkel, but even Hollande). On the other hand, what we have witnessed in the new member states was a political elite contributing to an atmosphere of fear among the society, heightening political tensions. Here, one only has to think of statements by such politicians as Czech President Zeman, or Slovak and Polish Prime Ministers Fico and Szydlo, respectively.
What, then, is such a division in discourse and way of governing one’s population indicative off? I believe that it speaks to three things predominantly. First, there is a clear difference in the level of democratic consolidation among the two “parts” of the European Union. One again only has to look at the recent policies introduced in Hungary or Poland. This is the more surprising as we have been led to believe that through close observance of the Eastern European countries’ transition towards democracies, the EU has ensured that only consolidated democracies would join its ranks. The recent events, however, beg to differ. Second, the political cultures among the individual EU member states are as far apart as they were two decades ago. The idea of an “ever closer Union” has not materialized. Of course, while now pronounced markedly, this comes as no news to those following EU politics over the last few years, particularly the intra-EU debate surrounding the Greek debt crisis. Third, I see that scholarship on the EU’s enlargement policy is not yet obsolete. While a few years back, the 2004/2007 EU enlargement round has been presented as one of the EU’s most successful foreign policy endeavors, with the recent events enfolding, the EU’s enlargement policy – both past and future – should be revisited critically.
The second element the ISIS-related discourse revealed is the process of political statesmanship giving in into political populism. Naturally, in any times of (perceived) crisis populism flourishes, but the more important it becomes that mainstream political parties row against such populist waves. However, lately, we have seen very little of this among major European political parties. Rather, what we observe is a slow pupulization of mainstream politics, with the extremes becoming acceptable and promotable. We have seen this in the recent Slovakian presidential elections, but also in parliamentary elections across Europe, whether in France, Finland, Croatia, or Hungary. This further impacts on how liberal democracies understand the term “party politics.” First, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average voter to distinguish among the many competing parties as these increasingly become each other’s lookalikes. Second, by incorporating some radical rhetoric – yet never going the extra mile to becoming fully extremist – into their political programs as they fall into the populist trap, traditional mainstream political parties alienate some of their core voters. Third, as a result of the first two, we see new political movements emerge to answer very specific electoral wishes. This further adds to the political fragmentation that we have been observing in the past few decades in EU members states, making deliberative politics increasingly difficult.
Finally, I would like to conclude by a short political forecast. The domestic political fragmentation described above will have – and to some extent already has – far-reaching implications also for EU politics. The EU’s carefully crafted compromise between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism also worked thanks to the underlying logic of carefully balancing the interests of the center right and center left. As such, for instance, introducing the single European market has been offset by more emphasis on re-distributory and market-correcting policies. With the center right and center left losing in strength at the national – and by extension at the EU – level, it will becoming increasingly difficult for the EU to govern us.
Senka Neuman Stanivukovic
Every year, students of the Euroculture program are asked to organize a trip to Brussels for themselves and their fellow students. The trip takes place in the second semester of the 1st year; usually in March or April. Students go to Brussels to gain a glimpse of the Brussels bubble. Sooner or later, some of them will also become a part of this bubble. This year, the trip was scheduled for early April. On the morning of March 22nd, only a few days before planning for this year’s Euroculture trip was to be finalized, Brussels was attacked in three coordinated bombings; one bomb exploded at the Brussels Airport and one and the Maalbeek metro station. A third bomb was found during the Airport search, but it failed to activate. The attack left 35 killed and 300 injured. In my contribution to the panel, I would like to revisit the debate among the Euroculture students and staff that took place in the aftermath of what soon became the Brussels attack. The debate concerned if we should proceed with the trip or not.
I start my discussion – rather unoriginally – with a simple static. On average, 2 million people younger than 75 die yearly in the EU-28. The leading causes of death are heart-attack and cancer. 3% of all deaths are non-natural. The dominant cause of non-natural deaths are transport accidents; 0.3 %. The second most dominant cause of non-natural deaths is falling accounting for 0.2%. Since 1980, there have been roughly 4000 terrorist related deaths in Western Europe. The highest number of deaths by terrorism was in 1988, when 270 people died in the attack on the Pan Am flight. Last year’s attacks in Paris left roughly 150 dead. This year, 35 people died in the Brussels attack. That is roughly 59,965 deaths less than those caused by transport accidents and 39,965 deaths less than those caused by falling.
Now, Euroculture students and staff are a fascinating crowd; surely not easily upset or frightened. We tend not to be afraid of flying, driving, or eating fries. We travel gladly and extensively. We take stairs, ride bikes and walk, so falling is not perceived as life-threatening either. But, in the aftermath of the Brussels attack, whether or not to travel to Brussels was extensively debated. Some were relatively reluctant to go for safety reasons or a general feeling of discomfort. Others were supportive of the trip taking place, arguing that life should continue regardless of (or in spite of) the attacks.
So, why were some of us afraid and why was the trip debated in the first place? Cultural studies (partially security studies also) will tell you that being afraid of terrorism is similar to being afraid of ghosts as neither are real. Terrorism, accordingly, is interpreted as a discursive construction that prevents us from reading these violent acts as counter-hegemonic forces. This is certainly not a justification of terrorism. Rather, the analysis examines practices through which the state, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, disgraces its rivals and reinterprets old disputes. Furthermore, by way of labeling something as “terrorism” or “an act of terror”, the state makes its citizens feel vulnerable and consequently more supportive of illiberal practices such as surveillance or even torture. Accordingly, in some very twisted way, terrorism legitimizes and enhances the state.
Good, so now we know what happens when and after we feel frightened. But, why are we so afraid of terrorism when statistics tell us the real danger lies in the innocently looking patat met mayo? Here, focusing solely on discourse and politics of fear does not provide a complete picture. I will therefore argue that problematization of terrorism as a discursive strategy is a serious case of reductionism. I would therefore, slightly rebelliously, like to move away from the script that was so kindly provided to us by Yining and say that there is more to the story than just discourse.
I therefore argue that – rather than deconstructing the official discourses – we should start by agreeing with them. First, terrorism does present an ultimate challenge to the Westphalian system. It is more than an act of war. It is more than an act from the fringes of society. Terrorism is an anti-thesis of the system because it is fluid, irrational, non-hierarchal, and constructed through the affect. Second, terrorism shifts the us-them binary because it comes from the in-betweens/the lack. Terrorism comes from the gaps of our society. Terrorist organizations may replicate state structures or mode of organization and we do see terrorists relaying extensively on modern technology. But, terror itself denies sovereignty as the main principle of social organization. As such, it is anti-us rather than against-us. Terror is not a counter-sovereignty or counter-reason, but it is anti-sovereignty and reason. Third, and this brings me to my final point, Bush jr. was correct that one can’t negotiate with terrorism. Once negotiations begin, reasons starts and terrorism ends. Bush jr. was, however, wrong on multiple other points including the illusionary that one can fight or enter a war with terrorism.
Good, so, Bush was right, your books were wrong. Still, why are we afraid? Terrorism is ultimately subversive. It destroys the order through which the system is created and shows potentials of a different one. In terror, we are all equal as potential victims. Immediate reactions to terror are physical; we are shocked, afraid, disoriented, angry or unprotected. Terrorism destroys reason. We see production of discourses (legitimizations) before and after terror, but these are always dislocated. Terrorism is therefore not a counter-force to the self, it is the negation of the self. The only way a state can respond to terrorism is through destroying itself. Fascism, as an extreme form of a control society, is ultimately self-destructive.
I will end with an anecdote. Last Saturday, the City of Groningen has organized an open-day at a Groningen police-force and fire-brigades. My son follows “Fireman Sam” almost religiously, so we went to see firetrucks, etc. Among others, we were shown a police-bus used for transport of inmates. We were explained that because the Dutch penal system is highly efficient, home-grown convicts are no longer held in prison but often serve time under house arrest. This, however, creates a surplus in a prison capacity and these busses are often used to bring Norwegian and Belgian inmates to Dutch prisons to serve a part of their sentence here. It is a good system, we were told, because in-house sentences have proven a dropping rate of recidivism, while the expensive prison system continues to be financed by foreign capital. However, this situation turns Foucault on his head. Is the fact that “the mad”, “the bad”, and “the ill” are no longer closed away, but are walking freely among us, a sign of diminishing state and a greater liberty? Alternative being that we are all – in the eyes of the state – potentially “mad”, “bad”, and “ill” and live in an overarching yet invisible madhouse, prison, and a hospital.
In conclusion, I gladly accept Yining’s request to discuss discursive responses to the recent terror attacks in Europe. We can discuss how acts of terror were reasoned/normalized by the elite, media, or even Euroculture discourses. Yet, we should not forget that terror and terrorism is not normal, that it is anti-normal. Accordingly, I would like to push the debate towards terror as a subversion of normality.
James W. Leigh (Absent due to illness)
I broadly propose that many of the narratives concerning recent terrorist acts perpetuated in mass media do not reflect carefully enough on the relationship to certain ‘internal’ issues in European or Western societies. Here I am not referring to questions of foreign policy (and therefore to a view of terrorism as a response to the actions of Western states), as I see this as another potentially misleading argument. Instead I suggest that because recent acts of terrorism in Europe have tended to be perpetrated by citizens of European countries, people who grew up in those states, our understanding of them needs to become more focused on internal factors.
Essentially what makes an act ‘terrorist’ is not just the act in itself, but more so the framing of it and the transmission of fear/terror via mass communication. Thus when an attack takes place, it is our mass narration of it which determines its precise nature. Yet in our desire to construct a terrorist bogeyman, a frightening ‘other’, out of the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris and Brussels, we do not merely fulfill the destiny of the act by constructing it as ‘terrorist’; we may also overlook the more ordinary/banal (criminal) nature of those responsible. This is problematic, as it means we focus on a particular set of extremes, those which can be tied to religion/belief and therefore fit in with the idea of Islam as the ‘other’, the non-European enemy without.
Instead we could look towards the more commonplace social problems of those who carried out the Paris and Brussels attacks, which may be considered as challenges ‘within’. These individuals appear drawn to extremes, whether religious or non-religious. Prior to religious fanaticism, the majority were at some point involved in activities which would appear somewhat contrary to social norms; drugs and arms dealing, etc. Thus radicalisation is important, but it is only one factor, and moreover is a later stage in a larger process; it is not necessarily the root of the problem. Focusing on the Islamist character of the attackers or links to ISIS has two particular effects; it emphasises the alien, ‘other’ nature of the perpetrator without reflecting that they originate ‘within’, and it overlooks the somewhat broader sociopathic and criminal characteristics of these individuals (and how they arise). The result: We are too focused on asking how to address radicalisation itself, rather than asking how certain people become open to radicalisation in the first place, and how we might deal with the social ills which give rise to such openness before it gets to that stage.
In 1946 Winston Churchill famously proclaimed that another devastating war could not surely be prevented “without what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples… a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States.” The term ‘special relationship’ has been used ever since by leaders of both countries to explain the uniquely close relations between Great Britain and the United States in cultural, historical, and political matters that go far beyond a shared language. However, relations between Great Britain and the US are more complex than the sentimentalized notion of a ‘special relationship’. The intensity of the relationship has always depended on coinciding interests and the personal relationship between leaders of both countries. The last eight years the relationship has become weaker. Instead of focusing on an Anglo-American alliance, Obama repeatedly stressed the need for multilateralism. However, in times where both the electorates of Great Britain and the United States have decisively rejected multilateralism the relationship is bound to become very special again.
Strong bilateral ties between the United States and Great Britain existed long before World War II. But after the war there was a strong urge- particularly in the UK- to articulate the exceptional character of the relationship more explicitly. Whereas Great Britain had historically been the strongest in the relationship, the war radically altered power relations between the two countries. The British government needed US support on the continent in order to keep communist influences limited in the shattered countries of Western Europe. The UK was not as materially affected by the war as the countries on the continent, but the fight against the Nazis had put a great strain on its economic resources. In order to overcome the debt and stagnant economy the UK hoped for US economic assistance after the war. The US did of course stay very much involved in Europe and it is in these first postwar years that the fundaments were laid for a ‘special relationship’. The UK was able – partly through American financial aid- to revitalize its economy and although poverty was still widespread, the country was still considered to be one of the victors of World War II and consequently recognized as a global power. The US also feared a Communist take over in Europe and cherished the strategic alliance with the equally anti-communist UK. The extensive cooperation in matters of defense and intelligence that were established during World War II continued after the war, only this time to fight a different enemy.
The strength of the ‘special relationship’ always heavily depended on the political situation in both countries and has usually been stronger in times where political agendas coincided. This is most clearly seen in the last two decades of the 20th century. In the 1980s UK Prime-Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan pursued a similar neoliberal economic agenda and the two leaders developed a relationship that “was closer ideologically and warmer personally than any relationship between any other British prime minister and American president”. Also after the Cold War the ‘Special Relationship’ endured. The 1990s saw the rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour in the UK and the election of Bill Clinton in the United States. Blair and Clinton also developed a close relationship and the former described themas “political soul mates”. Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush was more problematic but at the same time proved the strength of the ‘special relationship’. Bush and Blair were political and ideological opposites. However, when Bush made clear to Blair he was going to invade Iraq in 2003, Blair felt compelled to join his most important strategic ally. The disastrous consequences of the Iraq War are well known and Tony Blair is probably painfully right in hindsight when he sarcastically called a possible invasion “my epitaph”.
In the last eight years the ‘special relationship’ has been under great pressure. Instead of cherishing the Anglo-American alliance, Obama pursued a more multilateral foreign policy. This strategy is of course a consequence of the Iraq war, where the UK and US have arguably left Iraq as a more destabilized and sectarian country than it was before the invasion. The biggest strain on the relationship followed from the military operations in Libya in 2011. In a recent interview in The Atlantic Obama saidhe “had more faith in the Europeans” but that the Europeans were not committed enough to the intervention. In the same interview he especially mentions David Cameron, who according to Obama got “distracted by a range of other things”. He also criticized what he called European “free riders” that pick and choose where to military intervene. In the UK these remarks did not go down well. Former UK foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind stated, “if there’s criticism, looking at your own actions is sometimes appropriate” and also other British politicians spoke out against Obama’s criticism. The British outrage over Obama’s statements reveal a deeper-laying development in the ‘special relationship’. Whereas the US enjoyed the UK as a partner in times where it needed an ally in Europe, nowadays its scope is way broader. Under the Obama administration the US has increasingly consolidated its relationships with other countries like Germany, China, and Australia. Some authors even called the relationship with Germany the new “special relationship”, a very sensitive statementin the UK for evident reasons. In times where the global power of Britain is steadily diminishing, a potential break-up in the ‘special relationship’ is a real concern.
However, 2016 might go down as the year where the ‘special relationship’ became great again. The relationship has always been dependent on coinciding political agendas, and the election of Trump in the United States and the Brexit-vote in the UK might realign these interests once again. Both votes revealed that the electorates have had enough of multilateralism and extensive international cooperation. Both Trump and Brexiteers promised to give the countries back to the people in times where the people felt it was taken from them. In his campaign Trump even mentioned that his election would bea continuation of what the Brexit-vote started. In this climate of isolationism it might very well be, ironically, that both countries will need each other more than ever. When the UK loses its access to the single European market, it will need to rely on its economic ties with the US. While Trump’s cabinet is slowly taking shape, it is still very unclear what his international position will be. The UK sees an opportunity here as it hopes to be able to influence his agenda like “Thatcher was able to do with Reagan”. We are yet to see how the new episode in the ‘special relationship’ will play out, but it is clear that the foundations for renewed extensive cooperation are there.
Another important factor also points towards a more intensive relationship between the UK and US. It seems that for the first time it may become a love triangle. During Donald Trump’s campaign UKIP-leader Nigel Farage, one of the lead supporters of Brexit, took the stage on multiple occasions. This has lead to rumors about a role for Farage in Trump’s administration, and Trump himself has spoken of Farage as a potential UK ambassador to the US. Especially the photo of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in a golden elevator spoke to the imagination of many speculators. Although it is merely gossip at this point, the fact that a British politician could play a role in the American Presidential elections and Trump’s remarks on Brexit show that the ‘special relationship’ still plays an important role in both countries. It proves that the foundations for more extensive cooperation have not been eradicated by Obama’s presidency.
Will Donald Trump and Theresa May reignite the special relationship?
The election of Donald Trump and the British vote to leave the EU dominated world news in 2016. For many people it has been a confronting year, a year where it turned out that polls and numbers are sometimes grossly mistaken. Also many will perceive it as a year where global and European cooperation seem to be under grave threat. The actual political consequences of both votes are yet to be seen, but it is clear that the Trump-victory and Brexit created a new impetus for a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK. In a time when both countries have turned their back to the rest of the world, they will need each other more than ever.