Geopolitical reality tends to change far more slowly than perceptions of it. To take a geophysical analogy: Underlying trends are like plate tectonics, slow to develop but irresistible over time; perceptions are like the weather, sometimes dramatic, often unpredictable and hardly irrelevant, but of lesser impact all the same. Perceptions of Europe have shifted markedly
in just the past few years. Where once stood an attractive post-nationalist model of peace, prosperity, social justice and ecological virtue now stumbles a larger but seemingly aimless and far more ungainly project. Europe today seems apathetic about its achievements, confused about its future and largely ignored by those not directly affected by it. Thanks to the financial crisis and its meandering aftermath, Europe’s problems and limits seem lately to have accumulated into a genuine crisis. To understand how read Walter Russell Mead brilliant April 27 post on the economic origins of the “Greek” dimension of the crisis.
But is it really a major crisis we hear thundering toward us, or just the cacophony of nervous nellies? Is the promise of the once-vaunted European model now revealed as just a passing breeze, or is it our current dour attitudes that will dissipate once the economy stabilizes? The American Interest put the question to eight observers, four European and four American, for our July/August issue.
Is Europe a global actor? The short answer is that the European Union is punching below its weight, and the Europeans have no one to blame for this state of affairs but themselves. European politicians got so good at pretending that the impossible was around the corner—a functioning federal union—that they ended up fooling themselves. The long answer, however, though vastly more complex, is also more enlightening. It is an answer rooted, first and foremost, in history and geography.
The past few months seem to have offered up both bad news and good about the prospects for the European model. The bad news is that the common currency has been cruelly tested, some political crockery has been broken in the course of taking that test, and the outcome is, at best, uncertain. The good news is that the Lisbon Treaty has finally cleared the hurdles. But this success poses another question: Has the Lisbon Treaty opened the road into the promised land of one voice, one foreign-policy telephone number and one common interest in the world at large? Not really. After wandering in an ever-widening wilderness for the past twenty years, we have discovered that there is no land of milk and honey, no truly common foreign policy, after all. The European Union is still the cumbersome and temperamental machine of old, one that will work for some purposes but, the advertising notwithstanding, not for others.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was inevitable that the European Union would be extended. One could not say no to an opportunity, both practical and moral, of such historical magnitude. But deepening the Union in such a way as to prevent decision-making gridlock was also essential, and this deepening never happened because it required a definition of what we really meant by those enigmatic words in the preamble to the Rome Treaty, that an “ever closer union” was the common goal. No binding definition was to be had. We all realized at the time that the ordeal of finding it, ironically enough, would almost certainly have divided Europeans even more than we are divided today.
So widening went ahead at a rapid pace while most of the Europeans, old and new, happily set aside the agonies of deepening. Unfortunately, there is always a price for putting the cart before the horse. The Constitutional Treaty unveiled in October 2004, designed by no less than one hundred sages, failed to convince French and Dutch voters. The subsequent Lisbon Treaty is a cosmetically enhanced version of that failure to which all pay lip service, but which no one is actually willing to kiss for real. In short, what Europeans got with Lisbon is an answer to their prayers, but not the answer they had prayed for. Today, the European Union presents itself no longer as an historical, game-changing grand project. To most Europeans it resembles a cross between a puzzle, a burden and a bore. If that’s how many Europeans tend to see it, who can blame the rest of the world for losing interest?
The reason for this turn of events, as already suggested, runs deep in the veins of European history. Europe as an expression of what has long been called the West is an accumulation of formative features inherited from the ancient Greeks via Christianity, from the Romans, who added a sense of order and empire and taught the practical uses of geometry to conquer time and space, and from the Renaissance, which created the concepts of individualism, competition and progress both secular and spiritual. The Renaissance was in turn the gateway to the Enlightenment, and to modernity. Man discovered himself and the world as subjects worthy of reflection as well as of feeling. But these various inheritances—Greco-Roman, Christian, humanist and rationalist—generated a civilization’s worth of internal tension. That, along with the shifting of power across Europe from East to West, became the engine of the centuries-long churning that has made Europe what it is: dynamic and divided.
Europe’s strength thus lies in the diversity that history and geography bequeathed to its material and political culture. But this same diversity is also the source of its weakness. This dynamism has played out many times over centuries past, at least from the time that the modern European state system was called into being through the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the product of thirty years of blood and iron. The Westphalian system was a diplomatic settlement that neutralized the once-powerful Holy Roman Empire and created instead a double balance of power: one, well defined, across the European Continent, the other, ill defined, across much of the rest of the world. That balance, mostly between France and Great Britain, both tested and preserved Europe’s diversity until World War I brought the house down. 1914 was the beginning of what Charles de Gaulle, while in his London exile, called “la guerre de trente ans de notre siècle”—the thirty-years’ war of our century.
After 1945, European diversity took yet another shape. Once the guns had fallen silent, the victors of World War II found that, apart from opposition to Hitler and Germany’s unconditional surrender, they had nothing to unite them. The American Leviathan and the Soviet Behemoth eyed each other in a competition that soon raged from China to the Middle East and from Berlin to Africa and beyond. By the strange logic of geopolitics, the city of Berlin, in 1945 not much more than a heap of rubble, became first the catalyst of the Cold War, then the symbol of a divided Europe, and finally the seed of Europe’s rebirth—courtesy of the United States of America.
The defining moment occurred in Washington, DC on the eve of April 4, 1949, the day the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson had invited the foreign ministers to what turned out to be the most serious and consequential of working dinners. Without much ado, the American President made them an offer they could not refuse: Protection against Stalin’s presence and Hitler’s past, but at a price. The grand design was that they would co-opt Germany, down but not out, into the future economic prosperity zone under U.S. protection and, by implication, into NATO. They agreed, not without some hesitation, displaying a mix of vision and realism in what was perhaps postwar Europe’s most critical moment.
It was a moment of decision that owed more to U.S. leadership than to European wisdom. Nonetheless, the West Europeans took advantage of the new arrangement to advance their own vision. That vision materialized in the Rome Treaties, the grand bargain between German industry and French farmers, and a climate of cooperation, even integration, developed in a growing number of domains. But those treaties did not blot out the legacies of history or trump the experience of European diversity. “Ever closer union”, that courageous objective, meant different things to different people from the very start. The French hoped to preserve as much as possible of their past glory; the Germans wanted to overcome as much as possible their past misery.
More important still, as Western Europe owed its security to a massive U.S. military presence, backed up by U.S. nuclear superiority, the formative existential parameters of European security were not in European hands. As a consequence, the Europeans could afford not to develop a common foreign and security policy because Washington had one, and subsequent U.S. administrations confirmed their seriousness by permanently deploying 300,000 of its own soldiers along the Iron Curtain. This is what rendered even such intense crises as Suez in October 1956 incapable of sundering the basic Transatlantic arrangement. Things remained that way for as long as the Cold War persisted. The United States guaranteed Europe’s freedom while taking over the most important part of it: security. America’s ambiguous advice to the Europeans sounded somewhat like: “Get your act together, but don’t gang up on us.”
Under this benevolent guidance the Europeans flourished and got their economic act together, and many Euroskeptics thought that economic integration would be enough for the time being, and enough to fulfill Europe’s potential for unity. As it turns out, those skeptics were probably right. In political and security terms, Europe has failed to get its act together. It failed during the Cold War arguably because of U.S. paternalism; it has failed after the Cold War arguably because European leaders were able to pretend that there was no need for such exertions: History had ended, to borrow that strange message of U.S. inside-the-beltway make-believe. The European model thus developed as an economically front-loaded concept that presumed the obsolescence of old-fashioned power politics. It happily ignored the American security envelope no less than the economic engine that made the whole experiment possible. That is why, both before and after 1989, all attempts at producing a common foreign and security policy, or even a common security and defence concept, have remained, at best, half-hearted.
The European Union has been, by its own lights, a success story. Europe has indeed come a long way from the ghostly ruins of 1945. In 1973, even the ever-Euroskeptical British conceded as much by joining the fun. But that success at expansion presaged a setback no less than recent expansions have done. The British strengthened the party that saw Europe as an ever-expanding free trade zone, with some deluxe accessories, but no more—certainly not as an independent power center, let alone a super-state. Even the Germans under Helmut Kohl, the most unionist of the unionists, when pressed to explain what the much advertised political union would actually look like, remained conspicuously unimaginative.
Before anybody in Europe could summon enough imagination, the Soviet Empire crumbled, and the world of the Cold War was no more, Comecon vanished, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved with a whimper, not a bang. The European project was immediately thrown into high gear. It headed in two directions: It widened to the East and the South, and it gave birth to the European Monetary Union. Mitterand of France and Kohl of Germany were united in fear that, once the Cold War faded, old zombies might arise from shallow graves to dance across the political stage. The French government also wanted to break the dominance of the Deutschmark and the Bundesbank—“le monstre de Francfort.” Mitterand and Kohl agreed that a common currency was needed to make European integration “irreversible”, an ominous choice of words—especially when we remember them in light of today’s Euro-crisis. What remained, though, was a contradiction: Enough trust to adopt the common currency but not enough to agree on what the French called “gouvernement economique.” Thus, a currency without a state was called into being, based on strict rules of the road and many pious wishes. It did not bother the political engineers of monetary union that to merge contradictory monetary and moral traditions, ways of life and popular psychologies, would mean that once the common currency came under stress from inside, outside, or both, economic overstretch combined with political under-governance would place the whole European Union in jeopardy.
That is where we are now: stressed and overstretched, under-governed and in jeopardy. The Europeans can avert breakdown for the time being, and they can furiously wave pieces of paper, like the Lisbon Treaty, over their heads. What they cannot do is agree to a substantive political and security union that projects European influence into the world. That is why, at a time when the United States has troubles of its own to manage, the European Union still punches so far below its weight. Meanwhile, under Obama’s watch it can no longer be taken for granted that the United States remains willing or able to save Europeans from the consequences of their weakness, ironically a weakness that still arises from the strength of their diversity. There never really was a European model except against the backdrop of the American connection. With the latter in doubt, the former has lost the power to impress.
The European Union is not chained to the heavens. Europe faces greatly consequential decisions all on its own. It can no longer sustain the appearance of forward motion as it has done for years. It must actually move ahead, or it will fall back—back to what, no one can be quite sure. Globalization has stirred the world with unprecedented challenges; the hoof beats of the horsemen of the apocalypse ring in our ears: WMD, terrorism, pandemics, failed states. This is no time to get mired in petty business. Europeans have to stand up to the challenges before them. No one will again do it on their behalf.