Anchor Books, 2016, 264 pp., $21
Oxford University Press, 2016, 320 pp., $29.95
Princeton University Press, 2016, 440 pp., $35
Yale University Press, 2016, 352 pp., $35
Events in Europe over the past dozen years have been enough to give anyone world-historical whiplash. In 2004, the European Union brought ten new states into the fold, and its cheerleaders predicted that it would continue to expand, ushering in a geopolitical renaissance. Charles Kupchan, Mark Leonard, and others prophesied that the future would belong to Europe. During the “New European Century,” Leonard wrote, the Continent would dominate international affairs not by “run[ning] the world as an empire, but because the European way of doing things will have become the world’s.” Meanwhile, the veteran British diplomat Robert Cooper celebrated the Continent’s “postmodern system of security.” States did not even think of invading each other, but opened themselves to trade and the movement of people instead. The sooner borders became irrelevant, the better. For a region that had torn itself apart in war after war, this was as close to paradise as it got.
The Continent’s good fortune has since unraveled—as have the sunny predictions about its future.1 In 2008, the financial crisis plunged Europe into a morass of debt and unemployment, and Russia’s invasion of Georgia raised the possibility that war might return to the heart of the Continent. Since then, the bad news has accumulated so rapidly that it’s been difficult to keep up: the euro teeters; a hard Brexit looms; joblessness in Greece, Italy, and Spain threatens to alienate if not altogether ruin a generation of young people; populism is surging in Western Europe’s most stable democracies; the unceasing flow of refugees has provoked a backlash against the European Union’s cherished freedom of movement; the governments of Poland and Hungary are tearing down liberal democratic institutions; and Islamist terrorist attacks continue to kill civilians. The Europeans (to say nothing of the United States) have also failed to end Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine, and they struggle to counter the Kremlin’s information warfare campaigns. The sick man of Europe now seems to be Europe itself.
In the span of three FIFA World Cups, Europe has gone from being a case study in political enlightenment to an object lesson in political fecklessness. The natural impulse is to ask why things went so wrong. But a reversal this dramatic also forces us to consider how we form our geopolitical judgments in the first place. It raises painful questions about Europe’s identity, its capacity for progress, and our interpretation of its history.
If the Continent’s ostensible achievements can disintegrate so quickly, perhaps they were more fragile than most supposed. Were the successes of the past 25 years—or the past 70—the exception to some rule, or were they the rule itself? If the latter, Europe’s current travails will eventually pass, the EU project of building an ever-closer union will resume, and confidence in Kant’s project of perpetual peace will revive. If the former, Europe’s future may resemble its past more than anyone cares to admit. In different ways, the four books reviewed here suggest that finding a way out of the present crisis requires taking the Continent’s history seriously.
Despite years of grim headlines, Giles Merritt, who used to report from Brussels for the Financial Times, insists that Europeans still fail to grasp just how dire their situation is. They regard themselves as wealthy, technologically sophisticated, and influential. They believe that they stand on the cutting edge of civilization, and always will. In reality, however, Europe’s per capita income is only two-thirds that of the United States and will fall further behind as time goes on. In the race to develop new technologies, American and Asian companies are running circles around their European competitors. Spending cuts have hollowed out the military capacity of even the strongest countries, which can barely mount overseas operations without American support. The Continent is on the fast track to economic torpor, social degradation, and geopolitical irrelevance.
But all is not lost. Europeans can save themselves from this fate, and Merritt wants to show them how. By contrast with the populist firebrands who present the European Union as the source of the Continent’s problems, Merritt sees the European Union as the solution. Europe’s “salvation lies in economic and political integration,” he argues, but instead of a “master plan” he calls for piecemeal initiatives: invest in infrastructure; expand social programs; spend more on scientific research; work harder to coordinate members’ foreign policies; empower the European Union to tax citizens directly; make EU institutions more transparent.
No matter what leaders in Brussels, Paris, or Berlin do, however, Europe’s influence in the world will continue to wane. Asia’s ascent means that Europe cannot recapture its old position at the center of the international system. Greatness has slipped beyond its grasp. At best, Merritt concludes, if Europe gets its act together, it can remain an important player and preserve its high standard of living.
This muted optimism assumes that voters will support a more robust European Union and bolder action by national governments, but the experience of the past decade casts doubt on this premise. As the Eurozone crisis reached its peak, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker summed up the problem: “We all know what to do. What we don’t know is how to be re-elected when we’ve done it.” The European Union is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, and its leaders have few ideas about how to escape it. Perhaps the crisis will resolve itself if the European economy improves. Perhaps politicians will rally enough popular support to push through the major reforms that seem simultaneously urgent and impossible.
For this reason, there’s more at stake in Emmanuel Macron’s effort to change French labor laws than just the future of the French economy. This fight raises a broader question about whether European leaders, of whatever political stripe, can bring about meaningful change in any area of public life. If Macron and likeminded figures fail, the European Union and its member states may find themselves trapped between the immobilists who cling to the decaying status quo, and the reformers who want to shake things up but lack the wherewithal to act.
Until Juncker’s curse is lifted, even the most sophisticated policy recommendations will be of little avail. To his credit, Merritt acknowledges this problem, but he offers few ideas on how to solve it other than to educate Europeans about the challenges their societies face. He urges politicians to rebuild public legitimacy by “reaching out to Europeans and seizing their imaginations.”
This is easier said than done. Infrastructure spending and bureaucratic reorganization are unlikely to set anyone’s heart alight. The European Union long ago adopted a flag and an anthem in an attempt to replicate the emotional appeal of the nation-state, but when was the last time a group of drunken soccer fans (or anyone else) wrapped themselves in the blue-and-gold and belted out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”? Whatever the arguments for closer integration, they may be doomed to appeal only to the head, not to the heart.
The European Union’s plight is only part of the problem. Some of Europe’s current maladies have roots that go deeper than the acquis communautaire. In his new book Europe since 1989, German historian Philipp Ther traces the genesis of the current crisis to the emergence of neoliberal capitalism, which Western Europe embraced in the 1970s and 1980s and which spread to Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Despite its title, the book does not attempt to cover the history of the whole Continent since 1989, but focuses on the economic development of the post-communist states in that period. Ther emphasizes that he uses neoliberalism as a “neutral, analytical” concept, but his definition is less neutral than he avers. In his view, it comprises a “blind belief in the market as an adjudicator in almost all human affairs, irrational reliance on the rationality of market participants, disdain for the state as expressed in the myth of ‘big government,’ and the uniform application of the economic recipes of the Washington Consensus.” The scope of the neoliberal worldview is just as universal and its content as theological as the claims of the medieval Catholic Church.
Eastern Europe’s first post-communist leaders adopted this approach to political economy partly because they believed in it, and partly because no rival ideologies were left standing after the turmoil of 1989-91. When neoliberalism’s votaries in Warsaw, Prague, and elsewhere adopted Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, “There is no alternative,” they weren’t far from the truth. For all the talk of democracy supplanting communism, however, little public debate accompanied the dramatic reconfiguration of the region’s economies. The new governments acted first and explained later, hoping to win popular support for the changes retrospectively, once citizens began to enjoy the fruits of the free market. Things did not work out exactly as planned.
In theory, a new era of growth should have followed the shock therapy and economic trauma of the 1990s. Indeed it did, but only in some places, and with different degrees of success. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary enjoyed the best results, partly because of a middle-class entrepreneurialism that the communist reforms of the 1980s had nurtured. Farther east, however, the process unfolded less smoothly. Because the Baltic States and Romania liberalized later than their neighbors, they took even more radical measures, such as flat taxation, in order to attract foreign investment. In Russia, privatization began while the new political and legal orders were still being built. In the absence of effective state institutions, an uncontrolled free-for-all resulted, unleashing a wave of “raider capitalism” that stripped the state bare and concentrated wealth in the hands of the new oligarchs. Average Russians suffered a more dramatic decline in their living standards during the 1990s than did Americans during the Great Depression.
As a consequence, economic inequality surged. Some citizens did well, but many ended up worse off than they had been under communism. Regional divides also emerged, as urban areas prospered and the countryside stagnated. In Poland, the effects have been so stark that commentators now speak of two countries: Polska A, the prosperous, relatively developed western half, and Polska B, its poor and backward eastern counterpart. Similar fault lines have appeared in Western Europe. For the better part of four decades, London, Paris, and other big cities have kept getting wealthier, but towns in the old industrial heartlands have foundered.
These cleavages suggest that the European nation-state itself might be cracking up. States can only hold together as political communities to the extent that their citizens have mutual interests, a common identity, and roughly similar experiences. If the residents of Warsaw share more—economically and culturally—with their counterparts in foreign capitals than with their rural cousins, then national bonds cannot mean what they did fifty or a hundred years ago. The ties of a common language, which used to provide the nation’s main foundation, can only do so much to counteract these pressures, especially when English increasingly serves as the Continent’s lingua franca.
A devout cosmopolitan might regard these developments as a sign of progress. According to this interpretation, the peoples of Europe have learned to transcend the borders that divided them for so long and are building a transnational polity based on communal interests and values. After two hundred years and immeasurable bloodshed, nationalism may have finally run its course, allowing new principles of political organization to take root. But this sunny interpretation ignores the dark side of these trends. The rise in economic inequality has spawned deep grievances among those on its losing side. Anyone whose livelihood has dried up or whose quality of life has declined since 1989—or since 2008, for that matter—may regard the prevailing orthodoxy of free markets and open borders as a way to enrich the few at the expense of the many. From their perspective, the familiar promises of future economic prosperity were broken years ago.
This sense of betrayal has fueled not just populist politics but an elemental fight over identity and values. When the residents of Polska B voted for Andrzej Duda, they asserted a worldview and a concept of political community that cannot easily be reconciled with those of their more liberal-minded compatriots. The same held true for residents of the Pas-de-Calais who voted for Marine Le Pen, those of Saxony who voted for Alternativ für Deutschland, or those of the West Midlands who voted for Brexit. The resentment also runs in the other direction. Secessionist movements have grown in Catalonia and Flanders, where incomes surpass the national average, in part because citizens disdain subsidizing their compatriots in poorer regions of the country.
Europe as a whole is suffering from similar strains, pitting countries that have struggled against those that have prospered. In light of Italy and Greece’s recent agonies, Ther suggests that the old division of the Continent into east and west is becoming less meaningful than the growing rift between north and south. Similarly, George Friedman, who founded the geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, argues that Europe has already fragmented into four distinct regions comprising the German-speaking countries; the rest of northern Europe; the Mediterranean states; and the eastern borderlands. Now these regions are fragmenting in turn, as countries find it easier to pursue their own interests rather than compromise for the sake of cooperation.
The project of European integration, like the project of nation-building, only works insofar as its participants feel a sense of solidarity with one another. When times were good, solidarity may have been easy to foster. More recently, it has eroded as countries’ economic records have diverged along with their foreign policies. “Brotherhood means shared fate. If all that binds you is peace and prosperity, then that must never depart,” Friedman writes. “If some become poor and others rich, if some go to war and others don’t, then where is the shared fate?”
The European Union’s architecture compounds this problem. From the organization’s inception, its supranational ambitions stood at odds with the prerogatives of sovereignty. In certain respects it is simply the creature of its member states. In others, it has a life of its own, dictating policy to those members in the name of removing barriers to the movement of goods and people. The Great Recession and the euro’s ongoing travails have laid these tensions bare. When the currency’s designers created a monetary union without a fiscal one, they all but guaranteed that a major economic downturn would snowball into a crisis that threatened the cohesion of the European Union itself.
These unresolved conflicts have given ammunition to critics. In every member state, populists vow to reclaim national sovereignty from the predations of the European Commission’s faceless technocrats. Their speeches practically write themselves, leavening appeals to xenophobia with encomiums to the sacred principles of democratic accountability. By comparison, the European Union’s defenders fight an uphill battle. Facts and reason may stand on their side, but abstractions about economic interdependence rarely tug on voters’ heartstrings.
This rhetorical asymmetry gives the populists a distinct advantage. Their proposed solutions may crumble under careful scrutiny and fly in the face of the maxims on which the European Union was built. Nonetheless, it’s easier to claim that immigrants are stealing jobs than to explain central bank policy on liquidity and interest rates. It’s easier to argue that national legislatures should reclaim full sovereignty from Brussels than to explain the baroque relationship between domestic legislation and the decisions of the European Commission, Council, and Parliament.
In Friedman’s view, the origins of these problems lie deep in European history. The fights between Europhiles and Euroskeptics, centrists and populists, which have thrown party politics into disarray in so many countries, represent nothing less than the latest chapter in the long-running struggle between Enlightenment universalism and Romantic nationalism. The European Union’s proponents may believe that they—and the partisans of the Enlightenment—won this fight long ago. Yet the conflict between Kant and Fichte, Smith and Rousseau continues to rage. Neither side has won a final victory.
On this basis, it’s tempting to conclude that Europe is fated to wrestle with the same demons in perpetuity. Reflecting on the Continent’s history at the outbreak of World War II, W.H. Auden took precisely this view. “The enlightenment driven away,/The habit-forming pain,/Mismanagement and grief:/We must suffer them all again,” he wrote in “September 1, 1939.” Friedman agrees. He recounts a conversation he had years ago with his father, who had survived the Holocaust and escaped from communist Hungary to make a new life in the United States: “When I was in college I asked him why he refused to recognize that Europe had changed. His answer was simple: Europe will never change. It will just act as if nothing happened.” Nationalism and violence are coming back today because, in Europe, they always come back. They are part of what it means to be European.
The trouble with the cyclical interpretation of history is deciding when and why the cycle began in the first place. Friedman focuses on the modern era, and insists that over the past 250 years the same patterns have kept repeating themselves. To be sure, Enlightenment values are under attack everywhere today, and not just by partisans of nationalism. But one can also point to other, far older patterns whose traces are still visible, whether the Romans’ failure to conquer Germany, the schism that divided Catholicism from Orthodoxy, or, more recently, the Reformation. These faultlines have done as much to define the contours of European politics over the centuries as the struggle between the Enlightenment and its enemies.
If the linear view of history is too glib and the cyclical view is too fatalistic, there is an alternative that understands the past neither as a highway nor a merry-go-round but as a kaleidoscope. Its patterns of light and color arise, dissolve, and give way to new configurations, which may resemble their predecessors but never repeat them. The classical era gave way to the medieval, which in turn gave way to the early modern and modern, each of which had its own structures, none of them preordained.
Although the fall of the western Roman Empire ended the classical period in Europe, it makes little sense to explain medieval Europe simply as a post-classical age, as if it were entirely defined by the absence of Roman institutions. Similarly, we can recognize early modern Europe’s innovations in science and government, for example, but must also acknowledge that older ideas—whether of alchemy or kingship—influenced them and persisted alongside them. Only a scholarly Procrustes could turn these developments into straightforward narratives of progress or decline, or could insist that the same problems have repeated themselves endlessly from one era to the next.
This long-term view of Europe’s history emphasizes that the institutions and concepts we sometimes regard as inherent and unchanging have not always been around. The state, as we understand it today, is only 300-400 years old, and the idea of the nation is even younger. When they emerged, they replaced older forms of political organization and notions of community. Now we take them so much for granted that we find it difficult to imagine how the world might operate (or could ever have operated) without them. But like all human creations, they are mortal. They were born, and one day they will die. This is not to say that moral progress is impossible, that all political institutions are equally just, or that daily life in one period was just as good as daily life in another. How many Europeans today would prefer to have lived in the seventh century, or the 17th? At the same time, however, there is no guarantee that life in the 22nd century will be better than today, or that its institutions will be more perfect versions of our own.
The evolution of political, economic, and social life is the central theme of Chris Wickham’s magisterial and engrossing Medieval Europe, which spans the epoch from 500 to 1500 CE. Wickham, who teaches at Oxford, ranges across every region of the Continent, demonstrating how some trends played out from Iberia to Hungary, Scandinavia to Italy, and beyond. Yet he insists that one must acknowledge the diversity of the period and understand it on its own terms, rather than giving in to the temptation to read it simply as the long, unbroken lull between the glories of Rome and those of the Renaissance. During this millennium, grand political projects rose and fell, and ideas of legitimacy and morality came and went. Some of these concepts sound alien to 21st-century ears, but to their medieval proponents they were natural, even obvious.
The Carolingians, for example, intertwined politics and religion so tightly that they could not distinguish where one ended and the other began. Although they presented themselves as the heirs of the Roman Empire, they brought forth a new understanding of government that adapted older models to fit their own ideas and circumstances. In collaboration with the Church, which had endorsed their overthrow of the Merovingians, they attempted simultaneously to govern the territories under their control and to secure the salvation of all their subjects. Because sinfulness posed not just a spiritual but also a political threat, the Emperor had to watch over his people’s every action much like God watched over humanity. Wickham emphasizes that Charlemagne and his successors interpreted events—and justified their policies—in zealously religious terms. Military setbacks testified to divine displeasure, for which the whole Frankish people had to repent.
When the empire cracked up, so did this approach to politics. The successor kingdoms tumbled into a period of instability, which swept away the Carolingians’ religious understanding of legitimacy. Some of the old institutions survived, notably the use of public assemblies to maintain popular consent for royal rule, but eventually this practice ended too. In the 11th and 12th centuries, a more local, personal approach to politics took its place. In turn, developments in jurisprudence and administration unleashed a fresh wave of political reconstruction in the 12th and 13th centuries. Kings (or, in Germany’s case, dukes and counts) exerted greater control over local lords, and power became more centralized. As those who wielded authority and those who wrote about it tried to make sense of these changing realities, one system of government gave way to another. One concept of legitimacy faded, but another took its place.
Contemplating the making and remaking of medieval Europe can give us some useful perspective on the Continent’s current troubles. European history has never moved in a straight line of progress from chaos to order, or from tyranny to liberty. If the Carolingians believed that their system of rule represented the ideal fusion of politics and morality, the experience of imperial disintegration must have been terrifying. But their successors did not share their assumptions, nor did they judge the political systems that they established by Carolingian standards. They developed new institutions—and new ideas of legitimacy—to suit the conditions in which they operated. The process was hardly painless, but what the last Carolingians perceived as collapse seems, in retrospect, more like transformation.
How might historians a thousand years hence make sense of our time? Newspaper columns fretting about the threats to globalization, the stagnation of the European Union, and the decay of the post-1945 international order appear by the day. Given how much is at stake, this anxiety is understandable, even necessary. But even if some institutions confront existential dangers, the changes afoot also present opportunities. If we treat contemporary events simply as a story of decline (or preservation), we will blind ourselves to this possibility.
Some Western political leaders—with a few glaring exceptions—have reacted by trying to defend the status quo. Given what they’re up against, it’s too early to say whether they will succeed. This uncertainty has done little to help the West’s deficit of self-confidence. Regardless, many of the structural factors that gave rise to the status quo are eroding. Within Western states, longstanding assumptions about politics, economics, and society are coming undone. Internationally, American pre-eminence is fading after 70 years. After 250 years, so too is the West’s unquestioned industrial and military superiority. We may be witnessing not a passing crisis but the end of the modern era itself. Whether a few years or a few decades from now, longstanding institutions will have to adapt to fit a new set of circumstances. Leaders will have to abandon the logic of defending the status quo and embrace the logic of transformation instead.
Transformation does not have to mean capitulation. Some important trends—whether the economic impact of new technologies or the rise of Asian power—may continue to gather momentum, but astute politicians can channel their effects in one direction or another. Modern history offers innumerable examples of adaptation that discarded old ways of doing things in order to solve new challenges. Beginning with the 1832 Reform Act, Britain overhauled its electoral system and dramatically expanded the franchise in response to a rising tide of democratic activism. The social consequences of the Industrial Revolution persuaded governments across Europe to change their labor laws and establish welfare states, jettisoning longstanding ideas about the free market and the relationship between the individual and the state in the process. For decades after the Napoleonic Wars, European monarchs regarded nationalist sentiment with suspicion, but some—notably in Italy and Germany—eventually embraced it. Despite nationalism’s strong affinities with liberalism, evident in the work of such thinkers as Giuseppe Mazzini and John Stuart Mill, conservative rulers in the 1860s and 1870s began to harness it to their own purposes. At the Congress of Vienna, the great powers broke with 18th-century notions of diplomacy and assumed joint responsibility for maintaining the political and territorial status quo. Over the course of the 19th century, as Vienna’s dynastic concept of legitimacy came under strain, a new concept rooted in national self-determination superseded it, fashioning a new basis for international order.
In the years ahead, the imperative of transformation will require European leaders to reexamine orthodoxies now taken for granted. Notions of state sovereignty, citizenship, work, and international governance will all require revision. Governments’ tools for maintaining popular legitimacy will change. In some areas, this process may yield entirely original and unforeseeable results. In others, it may revive older institutions, such as the city-state, or hybrid political-commercial organizations such as the Hanseatic League. Because the Chinese, for example, hew to an inflexible notion of sovereignty, and because their traditional hierarchical concept of international order cannot easily be reconciled with Western ideas, the international system itself may fragment, with different regions of the world operating according to different principles, much as they did before the 19th century. A long-range view of the past expands our notions of what is possible. No one can foresee exactly how these changes will play out, but it would be foolish to assume that, fifty years hence, any Western country will be able to operate as it does today. We may prefer the familiar, but as a broader historical perspective teaches us, sooner or later we will have to adapt.
1That unraveling was the cover theme of the July/August 2010 issue of The American Interest.