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 becoming interesting again? A few years ago, in the eyes of some Americans at least, it was basking in a comfortable yet boring “paradise”, having abandoned national sovereignties in favor of supranational institutions and left security to the protection of martial American power against a dangerous world. Today it looks to be on the verge of collapse, torn by acrimonious divisions both among its member states and within those states’ respective societies. It lives under the shadow of an economic crisis born in the United States and, like the latter, is dominated by the twin fears of bankruptcy and unemployment, as well as those born of Asian commercial competition and the dilemmas of economically necessary but politically corrosive immigration.
Both visions of Europe—one idyllic and one implosive—contain a piece of truth and a piece of myth. To see which is which and why requires distinguishing between European projects and ambitions, on the one hand, and the real situation of European countries on the other. Then the implications for America may become clear as well.
Two rival European grand designs, that of Jean Monnet and that of Charles de Gaulle, have battled for decades. As Monnet’s United States of Europe strove with de Gaulle’s United Europe of States, most onlookers presumed that one or the other of these designs would win out. It is now clear that both have lost their credibility, at least for the time being.
Monnet wanted to unite Europeans by creating federal institutions, a central one being the European Commission, which was supposed to represent the common interest and inspire and guide the member states. The method by which these institutions were to be created consisted essentially of jumping from crisis to crisis, each one solved in turn thanks to a further imperfect institutional advance, setting the stage for the next crisis. Thus, for example, the architects of a federal Europe understood very well that a common currency made no sense without common political institutions, and without coordinated budgetary and fiscal policies, to support and manage it. So they created one anyway, hoping to make the latter institutions and policies inevitable.
But at least since the departure of Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Delors from the political stage, all the main European governments have striven to increase their own national powers at the expense of common interests and institutions. Hence when the financial and economic crisis spread from the United States to Europe no common authority existed or could arise to fight it. Instead, hesitation and bickering driven by conflicting perceived interests took pride of place.
The “Europe of the states” only appears to have won out, however. Contrary to de Gaulle’s dream, the states’ public opinions, and the governments that slavishly follow them, are animated much less by national political ambitions than by immediate domestic emergencies. The Gaullist dream of a multipolar world where Europe (more or less guided by France) would be one of the leading powers, playing more or less a role of balancer, has evaporated like the dew in the early morning sun. It has been put to rest not only by the end of the Cold War, but also by the spectacular surge of China and the emergence of other powers like Brazil and India, which seem destined to steal the show from Europe and Japan.
What lesson should be drawn from this? First, perhaps, that hubris is an equal opportunity snare. The dominant perspective of the Reagan and George W. Bush eras embodied a condescending and contemptuous view of Europe. Europe was old, tired, spent. Before the victorious march of a “benevolent empire” abroad and of deregulation, unlimited consumption and unlimited credit at home it could not contend. The Iraq War, the ongoing difficulties of Afghanistan and the financial crisis have not been kind to this vision. Perhaps America’s optimism and raw strength blinded it to the limits and dangers of military adventures in foreign lands, and of uncontrolled financial adventures at home. Perhaps, too, the Europeans had better learned the pre-World War II lessons, those of the Great Depression, of economic dogmatism and of nationalism, all traps which the United States under Franklin Roosevelt had avoided much better than they. Perhaps they better learned at the dusk of the colonial era certain postwar lessons, too, like those concerning efforts to reform and control culturally very different societies.
Certainly, too much avoidance of risk is unhealthy; societies cannot live by compromise and moderation alone. This, incidentally, is why social democracy, or rather the “social market economy”, while superior on the whole relative to both communism and unfettered capitalism, ceases to inspire once it has more or less fulfilled its program. Success at something less than utopian tends to put it on the defensive in the face of, first, the imperatives of flexibility and unfettered competition, and then the rising tide of populism. Social democracy would bracket political uncertainty by managing economic risk—an unpopular choice for those unaware of the dangers of political idealism to the one side, unconstrained private greed to the other.
One would have thought that the 20th century had taught us all the dangers of hubris and the need for self-control. Perhaps with the present crisis, these lessons are beginning to sink in. It becomes clear that both American and European societies would place themselves in mortal danger if each indulged in sneering at the other’s failures or difficulties, instead of growing out of its own bad habits and prejudices. The United States risks being paralyzed by domestic polarization, unwieldy and imbalanced Federal institutions, and multiple and powerful private interests clashing with the public good. But it is beginning to relearn, both in its foreign policy projects and in its economic arrangements. Europe is beginning to understand that if it remains stuck in the halfway house of its supranational institutions, it is in danger of unravelling into a series of unequal and quarrelling states. Its recent financial measures show that it is trying to resume, out of sheer necessity, the integration effort that had begun with enthusiasm and vision after World War II. This is a perfect illustration of Samuel Johnson’s dictum, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
But lucidity alone will not be enough to give Europeans the necessary collective energy to get out of their predicament. If only it could muster the will, Europe would have as much of a chance of success as the United States. It is no less effective in fighting terrorism. Economically and demographically America grows faster, but European firms on average export more and are more competitive. America is more dynamic, but European societies are for the most part less violent, less unequal and less wasteful. Both their similarities and their contrasts should lead the two parts of the Atlantic world to a great degree of convergence, especially if they look realistically at the challenges and challengers they face. Neither side of the Atlantic can defend Western principles and manage global problems without the other. If the bell tolls for Europe, it tolls for America, too.