4 – A Missed Moment of Truth for Europe (Dec 08)

    There exist social, economic, demographic, psychological and sundry other “forces of history”, but there are also individuals who, at a certain moment, can make all the difference. It so happened that at the end of the year 2000, the American Supreme Court appointed to the presidency a person who had not won it through the preceding election and who, fundamentally incurious and clueless as to the meaning of government, lacked the personal qualities necessary to function as more than a figurehead.
    Tragically, the American political system does not accommodate figureheads, and cannot compensate for presidential shortcomings. It has not evolved effective institutions that would prevent an incompetent from inflicting major damage on the country or the world. And so it happened that this unfit president put into practice fantasies of conquest cherished by a group of fanatics who had captured his imagination. Vice-president and president counted for very much in this instance. But only after impersonal forces of history combined to give them their room to maneuver: a take-over of American domestic politics by the most successful political movement, the “American Right”, of recent times; the vanishing of an American public sphere maintained by reliable news media; and the collapse of a meaningful party-political opposition.
     How significant impersonal forces versus individual resolve and capacity will prove to be in the United States will remain a central question in the coming years. An Obama with superior intelligence, proven idealism and an assumed three dimensional view of the world has the potential for greatness. But waiting for the answer ought not detain, stupor-like, individuals on the other side of the Atlantic who can make a difference too.
     Over here, in the other half of what is still routinely but wrongly referred to as “The West”, individuals have also counted for much in the years of George W. Bush. In London, prime minister Tony Blair was his chief foreign enabler. The French president and the German chancellor in early 2003 did place a small obstacle in front of the new radical American nationalism in the UN Security Council. But neither gave clear explanations why he was doing this, thereby failing to provide an intellectual basis for a continental European position on what every perceptive political spectator could recognize as a threat to world order.
    And so a splendid opportunity was missed for the European Union to establish itself on the world stage as a political entity. It could have accomplished that simply by stating that it did not believe in violating treaties and would continue to adhere to the UN Charter. Successful as an amalgamated economic entity, the European Union has had to make do with a top layer of its political class refusing to own up to the political consequences of that success. Growing doubts about the United States as an ally among populations in Europe, widespread as opinion polls discovered, did not noticeably get through to European political elites. Against the background of this political disconnect European commentators did not serve citizens as they ought to have done. Very few brought themselves to draw the logical conclusion that the erstwhile Atlantic Alliance had been nullified since a shared purpose with the United States would no longer be possible for the Europeans. It stared us all in the face: A system of political and military vassalage was on offer from Washington as substitute for the alliance, with a structure of command replacing consultation.
    The European Union presents a puzzling case of missed historical opportunity. Rightly admired for accomplishing something that has not happened before: integration of the economic institutions of many states to a point where, so many assume, Europe will inevitably emerge as a politically significant entity, the Union is administered by a generation of politicians not up to the task of helping such further integration along. The political acumen of the politicians at the top of European administrations does not stretch much farther than local electoral politics. As George W. Bush introduced his own new rules of permissible foreign policy, leading European politicians did not react with acute political judgment. When the rescuer in World War II and the protector of 45 years of Cold War suddenly showed signs that normally would cause widespread doubts about the sanity of its view on the world, you might have expected that a thorough rethinking of all this would be in order. But the European political elite has been running away from it. Choosing the seeming comforts of denial, its politicians and commentators reacted, instead, with reference solely to what they knew, to the routine past of the Cold War; a past in which they had never been called upon to contemplate the independent protection of European states and Europe’s strategic position in the world.
     A powerful emotion blocks intellectual readiness and political pragmatism that would lead to European independence and causes what we may call Atlanticist Addiction. Fear is an important ingredient in it. The suggestion that their countries may have to go through life without the United States as protector makes European politicians feel naked. The demise of the Soviet Union has left a colossal gap where a Grand Enemy used to be, but it is being filled with the notion that Russia will once again become a problem and after that a threat. And then there is China. More immediately, there are terrorists. Thus while with the steady drift of the United States into militarism “The West” becomes less convincing as a meaningful political category, it looms larger and larger in editorial comment and politician’s rhetoric. The story that has apparently captured the imagination of those who deny the reality of European serfdom in matters of global strategy portrays “The West” as besieged by forces that wish to undermine or destroy its “values”. A powerful paranoid fantasy of the American “way of life” being threatened by enemies now and enemies to come has crept into the discussions of European countries as well. American-grown nonsense about an internal European peril of its Muslim inhabitants – a transformation into “Eurabia” – has influenced European prattle about “Enlightenment values” and gives a hysterical edge to populist fear mongering about an imagined assault on such Western principles as freedom of speech.
     I will return to that theme soon, as we can notice the ease with which fantasies of new enemies proliferate. Fantasies that Europeans ought to help politically sane Americans to suppress.