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Atlanticism in 20th Century US Foreign Policy

Panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations - June 24, 2005


The panel addressed the question of whether American foreign policy could resolve some popular antitheses - notably the European soft power versus American hard power choice offered by Robert Kagan - and determined that the Atlantic integrationist approach had provided an effective synthesis during much of the twentieth century.

The panelists also analyzed why the Atlanticist postwar strategy of integrating an initial group of democratic countries succeeded in attracting other countries to democratize and join, contrary to the view of much of the academic and activist worlds that this would cause other countries to unite against it. They argued that the Atlanticist approach had combined universalism with regionalism in two ways: a "nucleus" strategy of moving from the regional toward the universal by attracting others to join; and a concentric circles approach favoring both inner (Atlantic) and outer (global) layers of international organization, with the inner circle providing leadership and dynamism, and the outer circle providing global legal norms and legitimacy. This approach emerged out of the traumatic experiences of the World War I and II generations. After 1947, internationalists were able to implement, in a partial Euro-Atlantic form, both strategies - concentric circles and open nucleus - raising their conception to the core project of twentieth century American foreign policy.

Donald N. Jensen, Director of Communications, Radio Free Europe, chaired the panel. Donald Dennis led with a discussion of the League of Free Nations Association (LFNA) and its efforts to influence policymakers in the direction of a union of democracies during World War I. Author of Foreign Policy in a Democracy (2003) - the only book yet published on the LFNA and its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Association - Dennis showed how the idea of an Atlantic Union as an open nucleus first took shape as a form of planning for postwar peace organization. LFNA offered the most far-reaching of the proposals for institutionalizing instead of dissolving the WWI Atlantic alliance. Many who had supported LFNA would become supporters of the WWII idea of a federal union of democracies as proposed by Clarence Streit in Union Now (1939). That idea in turn spawned a political action group, the Atlantic Union Committee, that had a significant impact on U.S. policy and NATO's development.

Richard Arndt, author of First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (2005), followed with a discussion of the Atlanticist spirit underlying postwar US cultural diplomacy as designed by Welles, MacLeish, Fulbright and others. In 1945, said Arndt, "the Atlanticist vision was firmly in place....These visionaries spelled out a cultural internationalist Atlanticist vision, designed to help Europe rebuild, then to provide an extendable area of cooperative prosperity for which educational linkage and organic growth would slowly put in place a global infrastructure. The goal: a cumulative process aimed at embracing all other countries, as they achieved the political, economic and educational maturity to play their role in a global system. Its implicit and explicit rhetoric projected the slow but natural growth of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, prosperity and, in time, peace."

Ira Straus, coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO, recalled that the supranational integration of the Atlantic area had already emerged as a focus of thinking among intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic in the second half of the 19th century. They developed an approach coupling soft and hard power, intertwining them in a number of ways. The idea of an attractive "nucleus" union was the greatest soft power element; the empirical fact of the hegemonic global strength such a union would hold was the hard power element. This approach was gradually implemented in practice, though never completely, but it reached far enough to test its major elements. In the long debate between Atlanticism and its critics, the main question was whether deep and formal Atlantic integration would serve to attract those still outside, as Atlanticists argued, or alienate the rest of the world and drive them into counterbalancing alliances. The latter view was widely held by realists, neutralists and pacifists along with nationalists and globalists, citing the Warsaw Pact as proof of their views, and treating it as the inevitable realpolitik counterpart of NATO which was merely seen as one wing of a bipolar world system. However, this view was shown to be mistaken when the Soviet empire collapsed, leaving a concentric unipolar system in which successor regimes all sought entry into NATO and other transatlantic institutions. The Atlanticist approach of an "open nucleus of attraction" proved more successful than the wildest dreams of its proponents.


Tiziana Stella, the Streit Council's Executive Director and panel organizer, discussed the emergence of the US Federal Union movement in 1939 and its impact on US diplomacy during and after WWII. It was the first transatlantic transnational movement to attempt coordination between transatlantic elites and transatlantic popular mobilization. It embodied the strand of American thinking that sustained the sentiment of federal democratic unification expressed in the American constitutional experiment of 1787, and it transposed it up to the international level. Thanks to the Federal Union movement, American internationalism, when it finally triumphed, took a refurbished form that went beyond mere internationalism to incorporate elements of supranationalism. This spawned a postwar system of Euro-Atlantic institutions that linked the United States closely with other industrial democracies.

Panelists' Papers

Ira Straus: "Atlanticism as the core 20th century U.S. strategy for internationalism"

Donald Dennis: "The League of Free Nations Association, the First Organized Attempt to Move Policy,Toward a Union of Democracies"

Richard Arndt: "Welles, Macleish and Fulbright As Architect-Exemplars of Early Postwar Cultural Diplomacy"


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