Saturday, May 01, 2010

Quo Vadis, Europa?

In the dawn of time, when people lived in caves, this blogger studied political geography. Halford Mackinder (British), Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Haushofer (both German), and Karl Haushofer (British and U.S.) all furthered the thrust of geopolitics in this blogger's understanding of the global dynamic. In the following essay, Walter Laqueur considers the plight and fate of the European Union in 2010. If this is (fair & balanced) consideration of the entire world as the appropriate sphere for a nation's influence, so be it.

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Better Fifty Years Of Europe?
By Walter Laqueur

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Europe used to be, within the living memory of many of us, the cockpit of world power, prosperity and prestige. Today it is raw material for an ouija board. Predictions about Europe’s future range from its impending suicide to its emergence as a unified, leading economic and political superpower. Of late most predictions, especially those coming out of Europe, have been on the dour and pessimistic side. So it is refreshing to come across a book like Steven Hill’s Europe’s Promise, which reaffirms the earlier optimistic take: The European model is not only superior to the American in almost every possible way, but also, as its subtitle proclaims, the world’s “best hope in an insecure age.” According to Hill, Europe’s vastly superior stores of smart power will even allow it to solve the problem of the Iranian bomb.

Optimism can be refreshing, however, even when it is neither correct nor justified. Hill describes the main features of a European way of doing things: legal-institutional, multilateral but elite-managed, consensual and slow to change. He refers to these as “social capitalist” impulses rather than the more common term, “social democratic,” but he does so without really defining what a European model is. And it’s never clear which features prevail in which countries, or whether the “promise” applies to the whole—the European Union—which in some ways exists and in others does not (a state of institutional indecisiveness that Hill considers a virtue).

It is not, therefore, unfair to ask what pieces of Europe’s “promise” should America and others look to for guidance? To Spain’s nearly 20 percent unemployment rate? To Italy’s surreal political melodramas under Silvio Berlusconi? To near bankrupt Greece, Portugal or Ireland? To the para-democratic Balkans or still struggling Eastern Europe? Surely not to Britain, which does not belong to the Eurozone. That seems to leave us with perhaps France and Germany, but their present leaders wouldn’t recommend their own present models for their want of far-reaching reforms. There remains Scandinavia, of course, but Sweden, the biggest northern country, has fallen back substantially on the prosperity index. Norway has been doing well; its per capita average income is now $53,000, and it has the lowest murder rate in the world. But there are problems with generalizing the Norwegian model. What works in a country of only 4.8 million inhabitants is not necessarily applicable to a country of 300 million. Besides, Norway has the special advantage of North Sea oil, and it isn’t even a member of the European Union. Maybe a more accurate subtitle for Mr. Hill’s book would be “Why the Danish and Norwegian ways are the best hope in a secure age.”

I am perhaps being unfair. It may be too easy to ridicule Euro-optimists these days, especially ones whose writing resembles the prospectuses of travel agencies recommending luxury itineraries at cut-rate prices than to serious political description and analysis. The Europeanists have gotten themselves into a strange fix. They have expanded their Union to the point of decision-making paralysis but would consider expanding still further. They cannot deepen the Union, lest residual memories of democratic accountability roil Europe’s individual national souls. But the Union may have to be deepened, for, as the Belgian politician Leo Tindemans noted in a famous report on the future of Europe more than thirty years ago—a house half finished will not last. As Greece (among others) has shown, economic union without considerably more political union will not work. The European Union has established new central offices but dare not staff them adequately. They have created a common currency and a bank to manage it but not the political counterpart to steady it in rough weather. The liberal immigration protocols they have enacted are stimulating a widespread anti-immigrant backlash, yet the demographic collapse of the native populations demand immigration to keep economies from collapsing as well. In nearly every sense, then, the European model, and the European promise with it, is locked in a “crisis of wishing.” The further the Europeanists try to go forward, the harder it is for them to move anywhere at all.

And yet, while the European model, whatever exactly we decide it is, may be in grave trouble today, the spirit that created and sustained it over half a century deserves serious consideration. From this experience, if not from any model, plenty can be learned.

The postwar generation of European elites aimed to create more democratic societies. They wanted to reduce the extremes of wealth and poverty and provide essential social services in a way that prewar governments had not. They wanted to do all this not just because they believed it was morally right, but because they saw social equity as a way to temper the anger and frustrations that lead to violence and ultimately to war. They had had quite enough of war.

For several decades, many West European countries nearly achieved these aims, and they had every reason to be proud of that fact. The reaction to this accomplishment in some circles in the United States, which fell under the Cold War-induced fear of “socialism”, bordered on the hysterical. Otto von Bismarck, the godfather of the welfare state, was not, after all, an extreme socialist. The usual line in the United States in those days was that Americans did not want to levy the extravagantly high taxes necessary to pay for such achievements, or imperil liberty by financing the activities of a more activist state.

I for one never understood why the United States “could not afford”, as it was often phrased, the benefits of the so-called European welfare state, since America, richer than Europe, could have financed them at a considerably lower tax rate. To some extent that is what eventually happened anyway in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it happened unevenly. The United States ended up spending almost 17.3 percent of its GNP on its health services, yet could not deliver care as comprehensive and equal in quality as that of France, which, like most other European countries, spends only about half that percentage. Extravagance and inefficiency are, one has to admit, relative and even fungible terms. And did a somewhat less activist state better preserve American liberty than would otherwise have been the case? Did more activist European states stifle democracy? These are very hard cases to make.

True, during the past few decades the European welfare state has been under growing pressure. Services have had to be cut, and anxieties mounted as expenditures continue to rise and budgets to shrink. The political economy of the welfare state is based on the assumption of substantial economic growth—a Ponzi scheme of sorts, yes, but not an unreasonable one. What if growth dwindles, however, or ceases altogether? These issues are now widely discussed in Europe.

Even if the welfare state in its present form proves unsustainable, however, it is only one dimension of the European model. Economic problems or not, no one seriously worries that EU-member state foreign policies, or even state economic policies, will be radically re-nationalized, or that there will be another war in the heart of Europe. There has been a great deal of talk lately, mainly in the context of the Greek economic crisis and rescue, about Germany being less willing to play banker and economic engine for Europe’s less well-performing members that have overspent themselves into penury. But this is just Germany becoming normal, Germany acting logically in a context (a united Germany and a much larger European Union) that is quite different from the one it signed on to in the mid-1950s.

Europe’s problems, however, belong to America as well as to Europe. Its crisis of wishing, if it cannot be resolved, will harm American interests. America is passing through a crisis of its own, not just an economic or financial crisis, but a crisis of both confidence and governance. Recovery may take years, as it did in the 1860s and the 1930s. It is one thing to ask, as Lawrence Summers did, how long the world’s biggest borrower can remain the world’s strongest power. It is another to ask how America can provide global common goods when it can’t solve its own elemental national domestic problems. In such times the international scene wants for a strong European Union that shares democratic values with the United States.

According to the Euro-optimists and some of the declarations coming out of Brussels lately, Europe understands the situation and is prepared to step up. But more realistic voices argue that Europe will not be a partner world power with America; it will rather play a mediating, pacifying role in world politics. Put another way, Europe may well be inclined not to offset America’s decline but only to help Americans to manage it, as Europeans managed their own decline some decades earlier.

This may explain why, according to the polls—the Pew Global Attitudes project as well as others—many more countries believe that Europe will play a more positive role in world affairs than the United States. One suspects that European popularity rests precisely on the assumption that Europe is powerless to interfere in other nations’ affairs, exert pressure, or complain about violations of human rights and other such pesky matters. A wealthy region that punches below its weight can be attractive for any number of self-interested reasons.

Europe, for example, is the most important global donor to needy countries, contributing about €60 billion out of a total of €80 billion. America and the European Union also cover more than half of the UN operating budget. One would expect such massive soft power to translate into influence, but this has not been the case. European influence at the United Nations has been “hemorrhaging” in the words of the Guardian hardly a stalwart supporter of the West or a bitter enemy of the UN. Whether the issue has been Zimbabwe, Sudan or Burma, or some other place where blatant violations of human rights were taking place, the West invariably has been outvoted. This trend has been clearest in the Human Rights Council, where European representatives have been marginalized into despair and a pervasive sense of futility. That is no surprise, of course. The Council, after all, was constructed to protect, not pressure, human rights violators. It is unusual, however, when Europe is sidelined at events like the recent Copenhagen climate change conference; when the American President has to be reminded by his staff to mention Europe and NATO in major foreign policy pronouncements; and when China and even Russia have not been very respectful either.

All of this is self-evident; but how do we explain it? Several reasons come to mind. For one thing, Europe’s decline reflects the changing global balance of power. Europe’s prior source of strength, its economy, is no longer so vibrant. Europe will recover to a certain extent, but for demographic reasons if for no others it will not recover its former leading position. Europe’s weakness also stems from its energy dependence on Russia and the Middle East, and from social unrest linked to large numbers of unassimilated immigrants.

Immigration may be necessary to keep European economies going and its welfare states financed, but it causes political tensions. The decisive issue is not even whether European cities will have a Muslim majority thirty years from now, but whether the immigrants will be integrated, whether they will contribute to the culture, competitiveness and general strength of their adopted countries as earlier waves of immigrants did. Integration will take place in the long run; predictions of Eurabia are, I think, exaggerated. But it will take at least a few generations and the strain of mutual adaptation will affect European foreign policies in the meantime.

That’s foreign policies, plural. As has already been noted, the elusive promise of genuine unity lurks right at the center of Europe’s crisis of wishing. If Europe were serious about maintaining its status as a global power, its elite would hammer out common foreign, defense and energy policies, and build the institutions to sustain them. But the elites have barely been able to manage a common agricultural policy, for all that has been worth to Europe as a whole. To build genuine coordination, let alone genuine agreement, in political and security spheres has proved impossible, so the elites have been reduced to pretending. According to the Lisbon Treaty, national interests and national sovereignty will be subordinated to the resolutions of the institutions of the European Union. If this were to actually happen, it would be a revolutionary step toward actual European unity. But this resolution is not worth the paper on which it is written. It is unthinkable that France (or, indeed, any European country) will subordinate its own national interest to those of the European Union. The European governments do not want it, and European voters want it even less.

Europe hasn’t even been very good at pretending that it is serious about a common European foreign and defense policy. If it were, it would have chosen some politicians of international renown to give the new set-up the appearance of importance. Instead, the wizards behind the curtain chose two unknowns who lack both experience and reputation: the British Baroness Lady Cathy Ashton, who began her political career with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1977–83 (embarrassing questions arose during this period about the financial aid given to this group by the Soviet government); and Herman van Rompuy, a former Belgian Prime Minister who has left even most Belgians impressionless. Their welcome has not been enthusiastic: One widely cited source called them “garden gnomes.” It would be churlish for me to comment further on their qualifications.

Meanwhile, what progress has been made in solving real problems such as Europe’s weaknesses in energy and defense? “Energy is what makes Europe tick” and “The time is ripe” are the official slogans for the former issue. Europe declared a “sustainable energy week” in March and set up a nuclear energy academy; but the dependence on Russia and the Middle East is effectively growing as North Sea oil reserves are shrinking.

The slogan for European defense is, “A secure Europe in a better world.” Some small forces have indeed been stationed in eastern Chad (a task more fit for the United Nations or the Organization of African States). But the small rapid-reaction force that has been in the making for twenty years or more still needs sixty days to deploy—no sensible or literate person’s definition of rapid. In any case, none of these groups has ever been deployed, and there is the suspicion that they exist only on paper.

But it is not Europe’s economic, institutional and military weakness that is really the key to its troubles, and to the problem Europe’s weakness poses for the United States. At the core, the problem is conceptual. The Euro-elite thought it saw the shape of the future. It believed it was aligning itself with key global trends and would be in a position to advance those trends. The introduction of a common currency was such an epochal event, the elites believed, because, as the Lisbon conference of 2000 put it, a “quantum shift” would enable Europe “to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world.” In other words, military strength was outmoded. Power would now be measured in globalist economic terms. It was against this background that a new literature and a new ideology appeared: The 21st century was to be the century of Europe. Its values Europe would become the values of the world: exemplary democracy, an unqualified respect for human rights, sustainable economic growth, stability-orientated monetary policy, social justice. With its enormous transformative power, Europe would run the 21st century.

Nice try; bad guess. And the bad guess has exposed the crisis of wishing. The Euro-elites were hardly ever serious about building a political union that would require far-reaching concessions concerning national sovereignty; they saw no need for such sacrifices in a world in which power politics no longer played a significant role. Now they find themselves in a world in which power politics still matters, and they are weaker and less prepared to engage in such politics than ever.

The idea that economics would trump politics supposed, implicitly for the most part, that morale could flow from affluence and social security alone. It does not seem to have worked out that way. Europe has been affluent and its population socially secure for the most part, but it has been suffering a subacute case of Abulia—a psychological term first used in the 19th century to connote listlessness and apathy. No one has as yet provided a satisfactory explanation for this condition, either regarding individuals or societies. It has been connected, of course, with a decline in Europe’s self-confidence, but that just begs the question of why Europe’s self-confidence has been declining.

It seems to have nothing to do with economics and everything to do with beliefs—specifically, belief in the values for which the society stands. Many Europeans cannot figure out for sure what those values are, for the Euro-elites seem to have been struck dumb in this sphere as in no other. The sense of involvement in a great mission, of preaching the virtues of a better world, has vanished. The closest thing to a shared noble cause is now an anodyne, lowest-common-denominator environmentalism. It is hard to generate much enthusiasm for the commandment to separate green glass from brown. The European model has thus approached that of Latin America, whose countries have a common ancestral culture, generally live in peace with each other, and fail to cause the rest of the world much trouble.

What does the model promise? What will Europe be like ten or twenty years from now? With a little luck it will gradually recover from its present economic difficulties. With a little luck, too, the domestic transformation resulting from the changes in its ethnic composition will be gradual and relatively peaceful. Will Europe be a political and cultural center? The prospects are poor, it will have to soften its voice as a champion of human rights as befitting its reduced standing in the world.

Some will smile at Europe’s comeuppance. Oh, how the braggarts have been brought low, the insufferably smug do-gooders put in their place. But Schadenfreude would be unwarranted, especially coming from Americans. It is not as if there were no need for a world power that expresses European values and validates the European aspirations and achievements of the past half century. The hopeful assertions of Kishore Mahbubani and others about the loss of Western moral authority and the ascendancy of Eastern leadership seem a little premature, or we should in any event hope so. New Asia might be more efficient than old Europe for the time being, but as for moral values, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s feelings, expressed some 150 years ago, still seem closer to reality: “Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.” Ω

[German-born Walter Laqueur attended the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1938-1939. Laqueur lived and worked in Israel, France, and Britain during and after WWII. In 1967 Laqueur moved to the United States where he appointed Professor of the History of Ideas at Brandeis University. In September 1977, Laqueur was appointed university professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. Concurrently, he was a faculty member of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Laqueur is the author most recently of The Last Days of Europe (2007) and Best of Times, Worst of Times: Memoirs of a Political Education (2009).]

Copyright © 2010 The American Interest

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