The month just past has been a critical one on the European continent. No sooner had the European Union dodged the possible election of a right-wing nationalist, Marine Le Pen, as president of France, when Donald Trump arrived to overturn a century’s worth of military, political, and financial investment in Europe by the United States. Even if, as many believe, Trump is a passing phenomenon who does not represent a genuine recalibration of American interests, the symbolic as well as the concrete performance he put on in Brussels and Taormina as the present occupant of the world’s most powerful office has deeply shaken the hitherto most stable political alignment in the postwar world, the Western Alliance.
To understand the full context of what has occurred, one needs to go back to the beginning. For a century and a quarter, the American republic had little to do with the affairs of Europe where they did not directly impinge on its interests. The major exception was its support for the Central and South American revolutions against Spain in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century, which was premised on its ambition to control its transcontinental neighborhood. The United States was arguably more important to Europe than the other way around, as evidenced by the fear of Continental republicans that freedom’s cause might by lost should the American experiment collapse in the Civil War. When America expanded beyond the Western Hemisphere in the late nineteenth century, it did so into the Pacific, and when Theodore Roosevelt brought American diplomacy to bear on world affairs for the first time in brokering the peace accord that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the Japanese took due note of a competitor to its ambitions in Asia.
Nonetheless, as the American industrial Goliath grew, its trade and development interests were increasingly ramified, and it entered the international banking arena—first as a borrower, and, with World War I, as the prime lender that kept the Western allies afloat. America’s tilt toward Britain and France was justified in part on the basis of democratic solidarity, but behind that was the assessment that German power was more inimical to long-term American interests. The country’s isolationist sentiment was genuine in the 1920s and 1930s; nonetheless, it maintained an important international player. World War II, of course, left America in the unparalleled position of a global hegemon. Isolation was not an option, and the country moved swiftly to prop up its principal trading partners and to keep the world safe for capitalism. Thus—in the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—was the postwar Western Alliance born. Through the quagmires of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the Alliance remained the linchpin of American engagement with the world. To be sure, it often served too as a fig leaf for American adventurism. But universalizing empires based on or at least justified by ideology require partners who reflect their supposed virtues, in America’s case political democracy and free markets.
At least such was the case until May 2017. Until Donald Trump came to town, fresh from his lovefest with the Saudi monarchy, and his happy talk about Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdal Fattah al-Sisi, and even Kim Jong-un: but for the no doubt inadvertent omission of Robert Mugabe, the world’s roster of top autocrats. (Trump had also indicated his support for Le Pen in the French election.)
Trump then proceeded casually to skewer the foundations of the Western Alliance. He denounced the EU (through Germany) for “bad” trade policies that, allegedly, had adversely affected the American economy, and demanded that NATO allies pay the fair share of their defense—much of which has been dribbled away in support of the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have provoked the current European refugee and terror crisis. At the same time, he refused to reaffirm his commitment to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which declares an attack on one NATO nation an attack on all, and which had been invoked in support of the United States itself after 9/11.
Trump’s behavior was precipitate, but not sudden. While campaigning for president, he had called NATO “obsolete,” a characterization he recanted in office with the bland observation that it was not obsolete after all. The flippancy of the remark carried the suggestion that it might become obsolete again if his demands on it, and on the European Union with which it was entwined, were not met. The conclusion was inescapable: like everything else in TrumpWorld, treaty alliances were only deals, fungible commodities to be renegotiated at will or dropped if more favorable terms (dictated, of course, by only one party) could not be had. Taken in conjunction with Trump’s on-again, off-again rapprochement with Russia, the result was a threatened realignment of the security conditions that made the European Union as such possible.
If anything more were needed to underscore Trump’s repudiation not only of Europe’s central institutions but of the European idea itself—a Europe dedicated to universal ideals and interests—he provided it in spades when, upon his return home, he announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, an agreement joined by all but two of the world’s nations. In what has been an otherwise very dim decade for the European Union, the Paris accords represented the first step toward comprehensive climate control since the now all-but forgotten Kyoto protocols of twenty years ago, and European leadership had been crucial to achieving it. Apart from the body blow dealt to the agreement by the secession of the world’s largest economy, no more direct rejection of that leadership could be imagined. In an effort to fend this off, Europe’s leaders had held their fire on other issues to concentrate all their efforts on keeping Trump from backing out of it. It was to no avail. Even before Trump’s announcement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had mused that, with Britain’s pending withdrawal from the EU and Trump’s apparent indifference to European interests and concerns, it might be time for “Europe” to chart its own course—meaning, the Continent as it had been both before the postwar Western Alliance and Britain’s belated entrance into the EU in 1975.
Which raises the question of what, exactly, that “Europe” might mean and represent.
The original European model—before, in truth, there was an actual Europe—was expressed in the vision of an open society set out in Pericles’ Funeral Oration in 430 B.C.E., which described Athens as a democratic, pluralistic society whose strength and unity derived from its diversity. Pericles put his city forward as an ideal for the other states of Greece, and, implicitly, as a universal model for all.
Pericles’ speech, as recorded by Thucydides, remains the definitive statement of the open society. Yet it was a vision hedged with irony. The Athenian economy depended on slave labor. Women were barred from public life. The circumstances of the oration itself—a service for the fallen in the first year of a war that would end in the temporary downfall and permanent weakening of Athens’ democracy—would make it, in retrospect, not the announcement of a proud new era but the beginning of the end for the Athenian experiment. The Periclean ideal would remain, but Athens itself had not sustained it.
The second vision of Europe was that of Rome, one of union by conquest cemented by the rule of law. The common culture bestowed by law and finally expressed as universal citizenship (again, for free males alone) was to create a community within which, again, diversity could flourish, if not political freedom as such. Rome had a far longer and wider run than Athens, even if it took much of its animating spirit from Pericles’ small city-state. But time vanquished it too.
During the Middle Ages, the idea of a Christian commonwealth—the Respublica Christiana—once again offered a principle of European unity. In this age, too, the republican ideal that had slept since Rome reawakened, and with it the notion of a universally law-bound society. But the struggle of the Church with secular rulers and the division of Christianity itself with the Protestant Reformation exhausted this vision as well.
The fourth vision of Europe matured with the Enlightenment. It based itself on a universal liberty that repudiated slavery and gender inequality and recognized basic human rights that extended to all. It also replaced the former ideals of common citizenship and the salvation of the soul with a new good. Both the Enlightened Despot Frederick the Great and the French revolutionary zealot Louis Antoine de Saint-Just identified this good as happiness. Thomas Jefferson enumerated it among the most fundamental of human rights in the American Declaration of independence. Happiness presupposed justice, but was not the immediate product of it. Rather, it was the expression of individual quest and achievement, and so of freedom itself. It could not be defined or limited by any institution, except to ensure that its pursuit did not impede that of others.
The ideal of happiness put great burden on a word that each individual had the responsibility of defining personally. It placed, as well, a considerable one on social institutions which would be judged on the degree to which they were conducive to it. Did society have a responsibility to provide education for all? Health care? A living wage? These questions remain to some extent the subject of argument. They raise too another question, namely whether in requiring the state to provide the material conditions of happiness, the community did not cede to it the power to define, apportion, and limit it.
At the same time, however, a strong counter-current developed in Europe during the nineteenth century. This was ethnically-based nationalism, with its emphasis on the distinctiveness of each culture and the racial categories under which they were subsumed. “Nation” and “race” were interchangeably used categories in the discourse of the period, but their implications were different: nations were cultural units, but races were biological ones. The former implied difference, but the latter hierarchy. Superior races were genetically destined to command inferior ones, and the master race to rule all others. The conflation of nation and race reached its apogee in Nazism, and the calamity that unfolded from it.
In the sense we have defined “Europe”—as a long-term progression from the ideals of a Greek city-state to the universal values of the Enlightenment—Nazism was thus its existential crisis. Perhaps no one was more sensitive to this than the half-forgotten writer Stefan Zweig, a Viennese Jew who, shortly before his suicide in 1942, addressed the Pen Club in New York. The anguish of his words still resonates, three quarters of a century later:
Among the European writers gathered here today whose aim is to endorse our old avowal of faith in favour of intellectual union, we have, at least those of us who are writers in German, a painful and tragic prerogative. We were the first to be confronted by the barbarism now terrorizing the world. Our books were the first to be cast onto the pyres. With us began the expulsion of many thousands of people from their homes and their homeland. At the beginning it was a severe test for us. But today we have no regrets over this enforced exile. For how would we be able to look the free countries and ourselves in the eye, if we had spared the Germany of today or even venerated her? Our conscience feels that much more liberated, having made a clean break from those who have plunged the world into the greatest catastrophe in all history. . . . [Yet the Nazi decrees were] issued in the German language, the same one in which we think and write. These brutalities are committed in the name of the same German culture that we have labored to serve through our works. We can hardly deny that it is our homeland which has foisted these horrors on the world. And although in the eyes of Germans today we are no longer their countrymen, I feel the need here to express an apology to each of my French, English, Belgian, Norwegian, Polish and Dutch friends for all that has befallen their peoples in the name of the German spirit.1
Zweig still clings to the European ideal, an ideal represented first and foremost for him by the culture of Goethe and Beethoven. The Germany into which these figures had been born, however, had not been a unitary state, but a congeries of principalities whose division did not inhibit cultural development and had not been an impediment to economic growth through much of the nineteenth century. Germany’s fatal turn had come with national unification and its entry into Great Power politics and Europe’s imperial sweepstakes. The result, within seventy years, had been two world wars, and the descent into a “barbarism,” as Zweig called it, that when he spoke had only just begun.
The question now, seventy years after V-E Day, is whether the terrible wounds of those wars have healed sufficiently for us to speak of Europe as a true or even potential community, and the European ideal of universal rights within an open, transnational society as a viable project within Europe itself.
The answer, on present evidence, must be no.
For more than forty years after World War II, Europe was divided between East and West, with the Cold War separating the Continent along military, economic, and cultural lines in a way that emphasized deep-seated historic divisions. There has been barely a quarter of a century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the sudden and quite unprepared reunification of Germany, and the emergence of nominally democratic societies based on market economies in the former satellite states of Eastern Europe. Up to that point, the development of the European Union in Western Europe had been a gradual process in which the major decisions of political and economic integration had not yet been made. With little substantive thought or discussion, a common currency and a central bank were then rapidly introduced, but no common treasury, and no corresponding political institutions that would hold the system democratically accountable as a whole. There was no open discussion of how to deal with the new Russia or with the vacuum of power left by the collapse of Soviet-era regimes in Eastern Europe; no candid appraisal of the problems of integrating a Europe at very different levels of political, social, and economic development; no debate about the future of NATO and questions of collective security.
The result of this was that Cold War patterns and assumptions were projected onto a very altered scene, and an informal German-American condominium, the real basis of West European politics since the late 1940s, continued to drive EU policy. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in particular saw the opportunity for his newly reunified country, now with even larger borders than Adolf Hitler had inherited in 1933, to assert hegemonic control of the Continent and to realize the old German ambition of the Drang nach Osten—the economic if not political colonization of the old Habsburg and Ottoman territories of Eastern Europe, and the exploitation of its markets, its resources, and its labor. Kohl got a green light for this from Washington, whose chief preoccupation was the isolation of Russia, and which partnered with Berlin to stage a two-track plan of assimilation for the East, with expanded EU and NATO membership proceeding hand in hand up to Russia’s borders. The only two powers that might have worked to modify this policy, Britain and France, offered no challenge to it.
The result of this was what I have described previously as the emergence of a Fourth Reich in Europe, whose instrument was the euro and whose mechanism was Germany’s control of it. The consequences of this only unfolded with two critical events: the worldwide financial collapse of 2008 and the regime of austerity unilaterally imposed on the Continent by Germany in its wake; and the American-sponsored coup in Ukraine in 2014, which, finally provoking Moscow into a military response, completed the transformation of Russia from “liberated” nation to renewed adversary.
We may leave the Russian question to one side, although it has become a critical matter for Germany with the present suggestion that American military protection for the EU may no longer be automatically available. The true nature of a German-dominated Europe had already emerged in the abrupt conversion of a union of supposedly sovereign equals into what George Soros—one of the most committed supporters of a united Europe—recently described as a relationship between creditors and debtors. It’s the kind of relationship you experience when your friendly local banker suddenly comes to repossess your house, or at least to seize every movable asset as the price of permitting you to stay temporarily within four bare walls and perform slave labor. A simpler model, though, would be the straightforwardly imperial one: a great power looting lesser ones without compunction or restraint. For Europe’s southern tier particularly, the past decade has been one of deep and persistent economic depression, forced wealth transfer and population migration, declining birth and rising suicide rates, and, most corrosively, a sense of national humiliation. Peoples that had fought to reclaim their freedom from fascist regimes or occupations, some decades in duration, found themselves suddenly at the mercy of the heir of the most brutal fascist state of all—a state, as Stefan Zweig had put it, barbaric beyond any known to history.
As Soros and others have pointed out, with more charity than may be justified, the European project needs to be rethought from the ground up if it is to survive. The question, for me, is whether it deserves to do so even on the basis of reform—a reform of which there is no present sign. Beyond that lies the ultimate issue of whether merely formal political procedures can effectively realize and over the long run promote universal values within open societies. Europe has had 2500 years to achieve such a project, without lasting success. It seems to me that it is beginning to give the idea of a truly free society a bad name. Maybe someone else ought to take a crack at it. Meanwhile, the apologies no longer go, as Zweig made them, to France, Britain, Belgium, Norway, Poland, and the Netherlands, but to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and, above all, Greece. The Europe that began in Athens is being most savagely strangled there. If a greater cultural crime is possible, I don’t know what it would be.