By Adrienne Thompson
Acclaimed professor and author, Robert Jervis, spoke to the SFS community as the keynote speaker at the conference A New Era for Transatlantic Relations? Perceptions From Europe and the U.S. His keynote address focused on answering this fundamental question: If countries have permanent interests but not permanent friends or enemies, how has the western alliance endured? To answer this question, Jervis highlighted how the function of alliances would change over time. To mark this distinction, he compared the formation of alliances during the 1800s before the outbreak of World War I to the establishment of NATO in the 1950s.
Alliances during the 1800s occurred shortly before a war and were meant to aggregate power or provide influence over the partnering power, and then would dissolve afterward. While alliances can offer more security, Jervis highlighted how states’ fears of abandonment and entrapment make them skeptical of forming alliances and have isolationist tendencies.
Looking at the case of NATO, an ongoing multilateral alliance, Jervis drew upon President Trump’s criticism of the obsolete nature of NATO and U.S. involvement and raised critical questions: If NATO is not obsolete, why is it? What function does it serve? According to Jervis, “The history of NATO is a history of a perceived crisis.” Formed after World War II, NATO was a security blanket for the U.S. and a deterrent for Russia, but this changed after the Korean War. Jervis argued that the U.S. is now facing a paradox problem because the threats of extended deterrence are weaker now since risks are small. The power of U.S. strength and the weakness of Russia cuts down on the need for alliances like NATO.
Where do we go from here? Jervis did not have a precise answer, however, in times of uncertainty, he discussed the importance of engaging in conversation. Through conferences such as this, Jervis showed how people are making an effort to understand why transatlantic relations are changing and how to provide reassurance in times of uncertainty. In today’s era of transition, Jervis also noted the importance of rebuilding trust between international relations and organizations, such as NATO. Elements of trust without the U.S. are hard to analyze in long-lasting close alliances. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. is shattering the illusion of high trust European states had towards the U.S., the illusion of facing an endeavor together. While the Trump administration has reshaped the U.S.’s relationship with other states, Jervis emphasized that change will be constant through future administrations. While important alliances such as NATO will not disappear, relationships and trust will have to be rebuilt going forward.