Countries have emotional lives. Societies digest and reflect the collective feelings they have experienced and internalised in certain epochs.

As America reckons with the challenges its hegemony in the world as well as its heath at home face, America has exuded feelings of confidence as well as of anxiety.

The coming to power of President Donald Trump was not merely a reflection of hard-right groups rejecting globalisation and the values that the liberal left has espoused in the past two decades. It reflects much more than antagonism against the dynamics of American politics in the period post the Cold War. At heart, the Trump phenomenon gained major momentum, and took hold of the Republican Party because it resonated with an idea of America that has deep support within large sections of Americans.

Entailed in that idea are views of America that are hardly palatable to many socially liberal, progressive Americans. Also entailed in that idea is nostalgia for an America before the major social inclusivity and melange of backgrounds that has taken place in the past forty years.

Internationally, that idea of America was a return back to many decades ago, extending to before the Second World War, when American foreign policy calibrated its engagements in the world and the responsibilities it incurred with direct and immediate benefits it generated for itself. This is a classic American foreign policy anchored in a mindset nourished by almost two centuries of isolationism and a deep conviction that America constitutes a world of its own, a continent not only surrounded by vast oceans separating it from the Old World, but primarily a political construct different from all others, even from societies it shares many cultural aspects with, such as in Europe.

This is why as America came to reckon with the seriousness of the Chinese threat to its global hegemony (as discussed in the previous article in this series), America under Trump totally changed its posture from the quarter of a century since its victory in the Cold War.

One of the most significant changes has been America’s assessment of its key alliances.

With Europe, America quickly developed four objectives, ones that have begun with the administration of Donald Trump, continued with that of Jo Biden, and that will undoubtedly remain irrespective of who will be in the White House in the coming four years.

First, America wants European strategic thinking to be anchored on the notion of the West, as much as that of Europe. Second, America wants Europe to internalise the mindset of a strategic confrontation that the West as a whole must embark on. Third, America wants Europe to rise up to the demands of a long, real strategic confrontation. And fourth, America wants Europe to engage in this strategic confrontation in alignment with America’s assessment of that confrontation.

Scoping identity as western and not merely European is relatively easy. Europe has for centuries been the cultural foundation and core of the idea of the West. Also, Europe faces major internal differences in what the idea of Europe is. And so, using a vague malleable notion, as the West, is arguably convenient for many European politicians, especially at the European Union, who must balance and navigate the differences in viewpoints between member states.

The second American objective is more difficult for Europe. Almost all parts of Europe feel that the security and certainty of power, influence, and abundance of the past two decades have gone away, and that Europe faces serious threats, from without and within. But Europe is less assertive than America is in defining the nature of the threats. It is one thing to see Russia, especially after the invasion of Ukraine, as an opponent on Europe’s eastern borders; but it is quite another to commit to a strategic confrontation with a rising superpower, China.

Here the differences in societies’ emotional lives manifest clearly. America, much more than Europe, has put forward clearly defined desired objectives, stronger commitment to pursuing these objectives, assertiveness of will, and preparedness for sacrifice in the pursuit of its desired ends.

Emotional lives also entail dealing with anxieties. For societies, this means understanding the nature of the pent-up energies within different communities and channelling them for the collective desired ends. But whereas key groups in America, at the very core of its foreign policy decision-making circles, are able to draw on old notions of America from the beginning and mid of the twentieth century – when America, in the eyes of a majority of its citizens, was truly great – Europe does not have that mental image that can mobilise large sections of its people. Also, it is much easier for America than for Europe to envisage and invoke collective desired ends. As with human anxiety, societies sensing threats but unable to summon their collective will to confront it, experience tiredness and often incapacity to effect serious changes in their circumstances.

This makes America’s third demand of Europe – to rise up to the requirements of a strategic confrontation – even harder. Given its young demographics, vast and powerful economy, domestic energy sources, supremacy in the technologies that will shape human future, and political dynamism, America is able to uproot itself from the comforts and familiarities of its thinking and politics in the decades since the end of the Cold War and face the challenges to its supremacy. This is why it was relatively easy for Donald Trump to effect major changes in America’s trade and foreign policies in a short period of time.

For Europe, however, demographics, economic competitiveness, sources of energy, the technologies that will shape human future, and the true spirit of its political values, are all open questions with different answers arising from different European quarters.

The fourth demand also entails a dilemma for Europe. Subscribing to America’s grand plan for the nascent strategic confrontation against the threats it sees facing the West, particularly the rise of China, would, in the views of many in Europe, tantamount to accepting that the European project has so far failed to offer an independent strategic route for Europe, particularly at a moment of immense changes in the global geo-political scene.

Some in Europe prefer to evade that dilemma. And so, there is European political rhetoric that dilutes the nature of the confrontation America is mobilising for, as mere systemic competition.

In addition, prominent voices in Europe understand that the European project necessitates having an independent strategic positioning, primarily so that Europe pursues the objectives that it deems are its own, but also to evolve its collective security towards true strategic independence. At a deeper level, this view resonates with Europe’s innate recognition that it is at an emotional moment different from that America experiences. This is why for many in Europe, subscribing to America’s grand plan for the nascent strategic confrontation, without having a European sense of collective security and true strategic independence, risks sailing into an extremely turbulent world without having transmuted Europe’s anxieties into powers and momentum rather than dissipations and limitations.

This alignment between America’s and Europe’s objectives and strategic positioning will be one of the most important questions in the Atlantic relationship in the foreseeable future, with consequences on global politics. America might try to mobilise Europe and steer its geopolitics through the assertiveness of a superpower reckoning with serious threats to its global position. Or America might try to situate itself within the European fabric, understand its complexities, and internalise that Europe’s emotional life is vastly different from its own.