Europe Agonistes

EUROPE, 9 Dec 2019

Michael Brenner – TRANSCEND Media Service

Historical Background

Jun 2018-Updated Nov 2019 – We need remind ourselves of those singular features that have facilitated the successful experiment that is European community construction – and set the parameters which today limit it.. A sense of history tops the list. We all have been inculcated with the litany that the strategic objective of the enterprise was to relegate Franco-German enmity to the archives of national memory. The keen, gnawing awareness that all Europeans have been enveloped by their too eventful history led to a broader, more radical conclusion. European history as a whole was as much the common enemy that galvanized political will as was the threat posed by Soviet communism. A high order of statesmanship by a remarkable cadre of European leaders sought a conscious break from that past.

If America in the late eighteenth century was born against others’ history, Western Europe in the mid-twentieth century succeeded in liberating itself from its own history.

The shattering events of the first half of the century opened a way for the European peoples to change profoundly their ways of interacting.

Liberation entailed an emotional, philosophical and intellectual distancing from ingredients of political life that had been the hallmarks of public affairs. Internationally, it was the lethal rivalries of power politics. Domestically, it was ideologically driven factional conflict. The ‘civilian societies’ of today’s Europe (especially at its western end) have transmuted themselves. Their polities are suspended somewhere between a national past and a truly supranational future.

This new Europe was made possible more by a process of political subtraction than political addition.

That is to say, the domination of public affairs by prosaic concerns and tame ambitions is effect and reinforced cause of the Europeans shedding those parts of their make-up that could impede the process of integration. Nationalist passion, ideological inspiration, the impulse to draw lines of all kinds between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – all have dried up. The societies that have evolved, due in good part to this phenomenon, are also noteworthy for a diminished sense of collective duty, an aversion to danger and sacrifice, and an introspection that borders on the self-centered. They are experiencing the banality of success. The affinity between the tepid politics of European societies accompanied by the low-key, incremental style of Brussels (and Frankfurt) governance has been the central reality of Western European affairs for more than half a century. Progressively, it has embraced most of the continent. It entails a style of public life that diminishes the importance of group identity.

That is true in a number of ways.

One, the need that persons have for group affiliations of any sort is exceptionally low by historical and comparative civilizational standards. Indeed, there never have been societies so lacking in collective affect. The reasons are familiar to anyone versed in the literature on post-modern society and/or able to discern the world around us. Like the bumblebee whose flying supposedly defies the laws of aerodynamics, Western – especially Western European – societies seemingly defy the principles of political-sociology. We are treated to constant predictions that such a state of affairs is unsustainable, in terms of individuals’ psychic health, communal stability, or both. Signs of a yearning for communitarian ties, for the succoring afforded by ascriptive groupings, are repeatedly noted as harbingers of dramatic changes to come. But the former rupture does not happen; the latter forecast proves false.

Two, today’s ripples of anxiety about what Europe is, and is about, stem in good part from the economic insecurities associated with ‘globalization.’

They are aggravated by the campaigning of doctrinaire neo-liberals who – for their own intellectual and economic reasons – pronounce the comfortable world Europe inhabits as untenable. In truth, it is not untenable in its essentials. To the extent that this disconcerting idea gains currency, though, it sows doubts and aggravates worries about the ability of governments to protect their well-being. The affectively self-sufficient individuals of contemporary Europe can manage with minimal communal ties because their needs and wants have been largely secured by a paternalistic state. The coarser, less caring individualism of the Anglo-American type – the model for the militants of neo-liberalism – would undercut that foundation of security. If that happens, the dearth of strong communal bonds could have serious individual and political consequences. They would register on community institutions. They would be manifest, too, in a weakened ability to act externally.

Internally, without a strong sense of communalism, European leaders are making the historic error of validating national self-interest of its most influential members by dressing it in European robes. Hence, subjecting Greece to its Calvary on the Berlaymont hill in Brussels. If the European spirit had been pervasive, they would have opted for the enlightened approach along the lines presented by Yanis Varoufakis which held out a prospect for restoring the Greek economy’s viability and its people’s dignity. Instead, they chose flawed dogma and the role of inquisitors – thereby reducing the Greeks to a condition of debt peonage forevermore. The short-sightedness and selfishness, overlaid with moralizing cant, left an impression on other vulnerable members. Scaring some into passive obedience, it encouraged others to play their own version of the “me-first” game. So now the powers-that-be must contend with neo-Fascism in Poland and Hungary along with corruption with impunity in Bulgaria and Roumania.

The European Union, as depicted above, appears to have achieved a viable state of public affairs – so long as we discount those newfound concerns originating in the international environment. There is no gainsaying, though; a growing dismay that ‘little Europe’ cannot insulate itself from global forces. To fix on them, whether expressed tangibly by unassimilated immigrant communities or over the horizon, is to force attention on the identity issue.

From one perspective, it is no different from the existential feelings of vulnerability experienced everywhere in the advanced liberal world. Reasons and roots, or lack of the latter, are similar whether in America or Japan. The important difference in Europe is the greater blurring of national identity and the formlessness of Europe’s political identity. They are cause and effect of the fragmentation of state powers, divided among Brussels and national governments. These elements combine to heighten the spreading sentiment that Europe as constituted is neither enough of a self-defining, collective reference point nor an entity that can secure individuals in a globalizing yet intimidating world. They clearly are related. As noted earlier, a weak sense of ‘Europeaness’ denies Union institutions the degree of legitimacy that would allow them to crystallize European interests and to affirm them externally.

There is a paradox here. For the situational logic that generates powerful inertial tendencies within the community loses much of its force when Europe is challenged from abroad. To date, those challenges have been either of a secondary order or attenuated by American control over the field of action. The sense of danger would be markedly higher were a conjectured threat to arise that were direct, immediate, touched core interests and did not permit member governments either to hide behind the United States or were the United States itself recognized as a big part of the problem – e.g. its rejection of the nuclear accord with Iran and its all-out coercive campaign to force its obedience to Washington’s will. In the event of an unwanted war, the viability of Europe – as constituted – to meet a basic political responsibility would be put to a fateful test. The danger is less one of unraveling than of incapacity or paralysis.

That is what occurred in 2015 at the time of the great immigration crisis. The salient fact was that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan had control over a few million displaced persons: mainly from Syria plus Iraqis, Afghans, etc. They were a weapon in his calculating hands. By encouraging, indeed facilitating, their easy passage into the EU via Greece, he could exercise a powerful influence over the community. Given the list of high stake items on their diplomatic agenda, this potential danger should have been foreseen, steps taken to neutralize or counter it, or – at the very least – contingency plans put in place. None of this was done.

Hence, European leaders were at a complete loss when waves of refugees began to flood across the straits. Erdogan, perceiving the Europeans’ weakness, felt no qualms about tightening the screws and demanding ransom in exchange for a staunching of the flow. The EU, with Germany’s Angela Merkel out front, paid up. But there was no agreement on repatriation. More than a million persons began the long march that became known as the “trail of tears.” It was only somewhat alleviated by Merkel’s historic decision to allow a million to enter Germany. A variety of plans for distributing the remainder faltered as government after government gave in to domestic pressures to seal national borders and severely restrict immigrants. The rest is history.

In retrospect, the refugee crisis originated with willful actions taken by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq and then Syria. Shattered societies accompanied by conflicts both internecine and transnational, were the inexorable outcome. The ramifications have spread throughout the region, leading to the mass displacement of millions. All that was foreseeable by early 2004. Iraq was disintegrating while the heavy-handed American intervention in Afghanistan generated a Taliban revival and civil war. The European fatal error was to line up behind Washington once the operation in Iraq began and to participate in the audacious, ill-starred project for nation-building in Afghanistan – an enterprise that quickly lapsed into fiasco. Their calculated obedience sealed Europe’s fate.

For a decade, European leaders complacently went along – safe and secure within the tidy precincts of the community. Just as George Bush told Americans to go shopping, his European counterparts conveyed the message that the only danger to the continent was from random acts of terrorism. They would redouble their counter-terrorism efforts at home; some would emulate the U.S. in fighting jihadis “over there.” None enunciated a policy that linked the domestic danger to the actions they encouraged, tacitly or actively, in the Middle East. They all shunned those experts able to alert them to the hazards on the course they were blindly following. Knowledge of the region received the sort of welcome that oysters reserve for grains of sand that enter their shell: a threatening irritant whose chances of producing a pearl are miniscule – and, therefore, to be sealed off.

That historic sin of omission has yet to be admitted or lessons drawn. Many prominent European statesmen, like Carl Bildt and Tony Blair, are still praising it as contributing, on balance, to protecting Western interests in the region. Indeed, they are now following Donald Trump on yet another suicidal course in embracing the reckless Mohammed bin-Salman – and by echoing his bellicose rhetoric on Iran. They are oblivious to the disquieting truth that by painting the IRI as the source of all threat in the region (and, by likely acquiescing in American extraterritorial sanctions so long as they deter but do not overtly penalize European business), they make it correspondingly more difficult to affirm the case for keeping the nuclear accord while relations in all other political spheres are allowed to deteriorate.

Europeans have suffered an exacting toll for their meekness that is far costlier than the price they would have paid to think and act with a keener sense of responsibility and independence over the past 15 years – and a meekness that now dictates how they think and act when push-comes-to-shove.

The outlook is clouded still further by the widespread European belief that the United States is bent on reducing its engagement in the greater Middle East as part of an historic retraction of their global presence and assertive global politicking.

This dubious proposition is contradicted by the latest American U.S. National Defense Strategy that foresees an open-ended power rivalry with Russia and China, the Pentagon’s restatement of American nuclear doctrine that markedly lowers the threshold for first use of nuclear weapons (e.g. in retaliation for cyber attacks), by its ever-expanding military budget and by its commitment to a growing network of worldwide bases. And now it is launching a no-holds-barred new Cold War against Russia in which it is strong-arming the Europeans to join. Yet the unwarranted fear of American retrenchment is accepted as true by a large part of Europe’s foreign policy elite and political class generally. The danger of this mistaken belief lies in its potential for diverting European governments from the arduous task of contending with a dominating, cocksure United States and, instead, to fantasize about a vague, new role for France, for Germany, for Europe on the world stage. The latter is all too easy to indulge while leading to nothing of practical consequence.

For it is by no means established that, in Macron’s words, “Europe can stand up to China, to the United States.” Europeans have suffered an exacting toll for their meekness that is far costlier than the price they would have paid to think and act with a keener sense of responsibility and independence over the past 15 years – and a meekness that most likely

For seventy years, Europe could afford to be strategically parochial, or so it thought. So long as America tended to matters elsewhere around the globe, even if its manner of doing so did not always elicit praise. That dominant/subordinate relationship continues to inflect their interaction and impinges as well on the Europeans’ sense of self along with their aptitude for autonomous behavior. Such a long hiatus in exercising normal powers of sovereignty, set in the broader context of overweening American cultural and intellectual influence, inescapably has created a culture of inequality.


Michael Brenner is professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh; a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS-Johns Hopkins (Washington, D.C.), contributor to research and consulting projects on Euro-American security and economic issues. Publishes and teaches in the fields of American foreign policy, Euro-American relations, and the European Union. mbren@pitt.eduMore

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Dec 2019.

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