As President Trump kicks off a bruising NATO summit, trans-Atlantic relations are said to be in the grip of an unprecedented crisis. On multiple fronts—defense spending, Iran sanctions, trade, and immigration—the United States appears to be on a collision course with its European allies. Running through these disputes is a deeper sense of division inside the West, as Trump questions the cost and wisdom of American troop deployments in places like Germany, criticizes the European Union as a threat to American interests, and seems more enthusiastic about reconciling with an authoritarian Russia than standing in solidarity with democracies like Germany and France.
For their part, multiple European leaders have made clear the unease they feel toward their American counterpart. “With friends like that, who needs enemies,” tweeted European Council President Donald Tusk earlier this spring, subsequently warning of the EU’s need to prepare for “worst case scenarios” in Western unity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has declared that Europe can no longer rely exclusively on Washington for protection but instead “must take its destiny in its own hands.”
Yet while the Trump administration’s supporters and detractors are both fond of describing its approach to the world as a total break from the past, in reality, periodic crises have been a feature of the trans-Atlantic relationship from nearly its outset. Almost as if by clockwork, a serious breach has tended to flare up between the United States and its European allies every 15 to 20 years going back to the mid-1950s—inspiring fears of a broader, more enduring unraveling of the alliance.
The current crisis, according to this calendar, is happening pretty much on schedule. And in every case so far, the West has bounced back.
Could this time prove different? Perhaps. But there are good reasons to believe that this too shall pass. At the very least, it’s useful to situate the current tempest within the context of past storms that have swept across the Atlantic. The point of reviewing this history isn’t to diminish the seriousness of the present rift or to encourage complacency. But it does offer an important corrective to the doom and despondency about the future of the West—increasingly heard among foreign-policy thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic—as well as the counterproductive amnesia that overlooks just how much we’ve already gotten through together.
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