Book Review: “Pax Transatlantica: America and Europe in the Post-Cold War Era”

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The rise of populist movements in 2016, manifest in the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit, sent shockwaves through the academic community. The sudden apparent displacement of the transatlantic liberal order that once embraced globalization and diversity spurred angst and condemnation. Scholars made ominous forecasts warning that the transatlantic relationship was on the brink of catastrophe.

But Pax Transatlantica: America and Europe in the Post-Cold War Era by Jussi M. Hanhimäki is a proverbial olive branch in a storm of literature that concludes that transatlantic relations are in decay. Hanhimäki, a self-described “super neutral,” argues that over the past three decades relations between Europe and the United States are, in fact, stronger than ever despite commentary to the contrary.

He derives the term Pax Transatlantica from the same precept as Pax Romana, which refers to the period between 27 B.C.E. to 180 C.E. when the world was interconnected, culturally diverse, and relatively peaceful. For Hanhimäki, Pax Transatlantica refers to the “multiple ways in which the nations, institutions, people, and economies” in the U.S. and Europe have become even more closely connected following the end of the Cold War. As evidence of this, he cites the growth of NATO and economic interconnectivity between the two continents. Hanhimäki also provides an account of the political evolutions experienced by both regions in the post-Cold War era, which bear striking similarities. 

Hanhimäki dispels the mis-characterization of the Cold War as a bygone era of cooperative transatlantic relations by providing a litany of historical and empirical examples that prove otherwise. The current state of the transatlantic relationship is not in crisis as “conflict-prone” observers would have you believe, Hanhimäki explains; disagreements are part and parcel of the transatlantic relationship. The author imagines recent events as an iteration of crisis and reconciliation, with history repeating itself.  Citing Kissinger, he characterizes these conflicts in terms of nations “adjusting the balance between integration and autonomy.”

The inherent paradox of the transatlantic relationship is that it is continuously expanding yet always on the brink of crisis, Hanhimäki explains. This paradox illustrates the gravitational pull of the West, which continues to accept members to NATO and the E.U., while also reflecting the tension and disagreement that arise in a democratic context. Hanhimäki argues that we should expect to see the same dynamics of domestic politics reflected in international discourse. 

Hanhimäki’s most interesting observations relate to populism. He highlights several overlooked benefits of the rise of populism, including increased voter participation and political engagement. Moreover, he claims that the corresponding rise of populist movements in the U.S. and Europe reflects the existence of a “closely connected transatlantic political space.” While Hanhimäki brings together a persuasive synthesis of political movements in the early 1990s in the U.S. and Europe, the overall brevity of the piece does not provide a nuanced explanation for the momentum populist movements gained in the 21st century.  

Despite numerous conflicts over trade deals and tariffs, infighting and disagreement amongst NATO members, a global pandemic, and an ununified response to China, transatlantic relations have endured, a testament to their strength. Pax Transatlantica offers an optimistic take on current relations between Europe and the United States that academics and lay readers can appreciate.

Cara Fitzgerald is a Fellow at the Center for Global Ethics & Politics, The Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and a PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY.


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