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Toward an “Atlantic Community”

Of all the great “conceptions” (plan, idea, design, image, cause) on the political globe, there is none so noble, majestic, nor so idealistic as the union of the western democracies in a single sovereignty stretching beyond both shores of the Atlantic Ocean. This notion has been dominant in theoretical/philosophical circles even before the nation-state (1648) but has received strategic momentum from the carnage of two world wars between political units from each side of that great ocean. 

The key expression from both the U.S. and EU is “union,” the essential political goal of half the experiment. The challenge ahead is to unite and reinforce the two halves. 

More familiar than the evolution of the term “western world” is the prominent role that the U.S.A. has played since the 1917 intervention in World War I. The First World War provided the catalyst for new conceptualizations of “the West,” in which developments in American policy and the fast-breaking advances in communication, transportation, munitions, and economies practically shrank the Atlantic – a phenomenon famously described as uniting the “New” world with the “Old.”   

Thus, the concept of the “Atlantic community” was created then, which transformed the northern Atlantic into an “ocean of freedom,” endowing the older dichotomy between Western “sea power” and continental “land power” with emphasis upon modern “sea” power as the uniting principle. This point was first published by Yale professor Nicholas Spykman in his Geography of the Peace (1943), with support from Life magazine editor Henry Luce, in which the United States became “inheritor of all the great principles of Western Civilization” (The American Century, 1941, p. 39).   

This momentum first surfaced with Woodrow Wilson’s conception of a global “League of Nations” (1919) in which the political world would “be safe for democracy.” While the League as an instrument failed miserably, the idea of the U.S.A. as a focus for democracy in the Atlantic region took hold. Thus, the U.S. transferred from a “city upon a hill” into a force for western values in the areas in which those had grown and developed.  

While this reflected the “libertarian” political experience between America, Britain, and France, the fundamental ideas for liberty, democracy, and constitutions go deep into history. Hellenism, the Judeo-Christian religions, and Roman law stand at the cradle of the North Atlantic civilization. 

But these origins also were created in the Mediterranean area, where Hebrew prophets and Christian Saints competed for values and traditions that were to become universal. Both the Gospels of Christianity, the growth of Judaism and Islam, developed in areas before they influenced the North Atlantic. Russia and Armenia began as Christian, Ethiopia remains one of Christianity’s oldest countries, while Roman law and rule dominated Byzantium in Constantinople and lands beyond.   

Yet it was Western Europe that embraced the Judeo-Christian concept of man’s individual relationship to God, Greek ideas of political and individual liberty, and Roman law. These traditions were synthesized in the Medieval Crusades for theological and geopolitical domination and the long and destructive European Religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   

Eventually, these all gave way to a new and different civilization that flourished in the North Atlantic, on the shores of an open sea with a new spirit of scientific inquiry, starting with Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton while simultaneously embracing Greek notions of intellectual curiosity. 

While these conceptions may serve as a (brief) background, it was not until the nineteenth century that the notion first arrived toward the political community. Many on both sides of the Atlantic – de Tocqueville, John Hay, Henry Adams, Lord Bryce, Admiral Mahan, Thorstein Veblen, Norman Angell – encouraged unity, but the idea was first developed conceptually by the great French historian Michelet in 1871: 

“I call here to a European congress … the English, the French, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Swiss, I call the Germans. I call here the two worlds. I solemnly call upon young America. Let her justify our hope, let her be deaf to all the petty interests, free of all petty rancours … with the cause of liberty which she has supported so recently and which she has made so gloriously victorious.”    

But, as usual, World War I first provided the impetus toward “community.” Walter Lippmann, who advised Wilson at Versailles, was in 1914 the editor of The New Republic magazine and inventor of the term “Atlantic Community.” What we must fight for, he wrote: 

“ … is a common interest of the western world, for the integrity of the Atlantic Powers. We must recognize that we are in fact one great community and act as a member of it … by showing that we are ready now … to defend the western world toward the cornerstone of federation.”    

In 1917, as the U.S. entered the war, Norman Angell, the famous British Quaker, advanced this notion forward:   

“The survival of the western democracies … depends upon their capacity to use it as a unity … that unity we have not attained … because we have refused to recognize the necessary conditions, a kind and degree of democratic internationalism to which current political ideas and feelings are hostile.”   


Are ideas such as “Atlantic Unity” too ancient to consider and develop? Does history “stop” at some point in time?   

Reflect on two “recent” (in my own time) comments on unity by two gentlemen who might be considered the most prominent men of world politics in our time. 

First, Churchill at Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1945:     

“Thus, whatever happens, and thus only, shall we be secure ourselves and able to work together for the high and simple causes that are dear to us and bode no ill to any. Eventually there may come – I feel eventually there will come – the principle of common citizenship, but that we may be content to leave to destiny, whose outstretched arm many of us can already clearly see.” 

Second, President Truman dedicating the War Memorial, Omaha, on June 5, 1948:   

“We must make the United Nations continue to work, and to be a going concern, to see that difficulties between nations may be settled just as we settle difficulties between States here in the United States. When Kansas and Colorado fall out over the waters in the Arkansas River, they don’t go to war over it, they go to the Supreme Court of the United States, and the matter is settled in a just and honorable way.” 

Are both men too “utopian” toward political unity to matter?  

I will close with the writings of my own historic “Mentor,” Robert Strausz-Hupe, fifty years Professor at Penn and five-time American Ambassador. In 1996 he wrote this: 

“Consequently, the time has come for leveling with the country and the world, and to state, in language understandable to all, the purpose and requirements of American foreign policy. Now less than ever can American democracy tolerate a world half free and half unfree. To abdicate from this mission as the federating power of democracy would be not only a colossal strategic blunder but also a betrayal of the ideals that led American democracy from a remote corner of the globe to the heights of world power.”  

Is Western unity less important than Trump’s personality or Biden’s age?