George Soros has an interview appearing in the New York Review of Books next week. Soros berates Europe and especially Germany for failed half-measures that have not resolved Europe’s financial crisis, arguing that “the prospect of a long period of stagnation has not been removed.” He is then asked by Gregor Peter Schmitz, “So, basically, you are giving up on Europe?” It is a fair question, and Soros responds by saying that while he is “giving up on changing the financial arrangements, the creditor–debtor relationship that has now turned into a permanent system,” he still has hopes for Europe as a political project.The European political project Soros embraces is one of centralization and coordination. “I do believe in finding European solutions for the problems of Europe; national solutions make matters worse.” Against the worries about increasing nationalism and xenophobia, Soros calls for European solidarity: “I still believe in the European Union and the principles of the open society that originally inspired it, and I should like to recapture that spirit. I want to arrest the process of disintegration, not accelerate it.”The problem with the call for European solidarity is that there is so little agreement on what the foundation for solidarity might be. Soros wants Europe to emerge united against xenophobia, populism, and Russian aggression. But what, if anything, do the countries of Europe share? The unasked question in Soros’ interview and in so much of what is written about Europe is, “What is Europe?”For many, Europe means the victory of social democracy. For some, Europe is primarily a zone of economic privilege. Others argue that Europe is nothing more than an economic and bureaucratic union. Still other groups insist that Europe embodies the rule of law and civil liberties that are legacies of the European enlightenment. Amidst austerity and populism, national and supra-national European economic and political institutions endure. Europe seems safe. And the promise of European civilization is a beacon of hope for millions.At the same time, however, privileges persist alongside an abiding fear that the idea as well as the reality of a recognizably-European civilization is slipping away. The articulation of old or new European ideals is met with skepticism. And we confront the danger that in refusing to fight for a now-discredited Europe, we cede the terrain to alternating fantasies of market freedoms or technocratic administration.In her essay “Tradition and the Modern Age,” Hannah Arendt wrote:
The rebels of the 19th and 20th centuries fought against tradition. They were occupied with critique and destruction of past and authoritative structures. Today, in the wake of the fact of the break of tradition and the loss of authority, we face the ominous silence that answers us whenever we ask: “What are we fighting for?”
In the United States of America there has long been an assumption that we had an answer to Arendt’s question. We fight for freedom and democracy. We fight for equality and difference. Above all we fight for “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Under the aegis of American exceptionalism, the United States imagines itself as fighting for a vision of democratic self-government that is unique and meaningful.Undoubtedly, we confront today a weakening of our collective vision of freedom and equality that has driven America from its inception. On both the left and the right there is fear the country has lost its way. Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party manifest anger at the betrayal of American constitutional democracy, but with little awareness of a common heritage. Americans are dismayed at the power of money, the decay of self-governance, and a bureaucracy that seems impervious to popular control. And yet few dare to articulate a collective vision that might hold the country together. Politicians pander to local interests; from Colorado to California, there are calls for secession. And yet, the idea of American exceptionalism has proven plastic and regenerative in the past. There is hope it can re-emerge also in the future.In Europe, however, the idea of a European exceptionalism remains dormant. In its place, the only foundation for European solidarity is negative, a bureaucratic and supra-national claim of elite leadership that will guarantee economic growth and temper ideological xenophobia. As welcome as stability and cosmopolitanism may be, they are in the end pale dreams. If Europe is to stand up to Russia and offer an alternative to nationalist extremism, it will need to dare to dream more boldly. European solidarity needs to risk standing for something besides security and growth.