When Will Europe Act Like It Deserves It?
William Pfaff --
Paris, January 16, 2010 -- Much has been written and said about
making the European Union a “world player.” The Lisbon Treaty was
expected to accomplish this by bestowing a president, foreign policy
representative and diplomatic service. It was another expression of
Europe’s inability to come to terms with the reality of Europe
present and past, and thereby liberate its future potentialities.
The leading members of the EU – Germany, France, Britain, Spain, the
Netherlands – are already major world “players” as economic and
technological powers, manufacturers, and financial and trading states.
Historically, with the other European states, and crucially with
Greece and Italy, they created western civilization itself, and the
modern western intelligence, which may arguably be identified with
the modern mind as it exists elsewhere.
Not one of these nations can today be considered a “failed” or
archaic nation -- one living on its historical legacy. The great
Islamic civilizations of the caliphates in Damascus and Baghdad, and
that in Andalusia which in learning, libraries, architecture and
political sophistication was contemporaneous with, and dazzlingly in
advance of, the Christian states of the early West European middle
ages, all are long since gone.
The Ottoman empire, their successor, which perpetuated Islamic rule
and civilization but was unable to advance it after Western Europe
had graduated into Renaissance and Enlightenment, was destroyed by
Europe’s first world war.
China and India were in their time great civilizations, but like
Islamic society proved unable to make the crucial transition from the
political institutions and forms of antiquity and the pre-modern
world, and during the age of European exploration were picked apart
by European states like Holland and Portugal, and then Britain, all
of much less power and sophistication than their victims. They
remained under European domination until our own times.
India and China now demonstrate the will to return to their former
eminence, but have many years to go. Japan is the single exception to
Asia’s disastrous failure.
So what is this problem about Europe’s standing in the world today
that so obsesses the Europeans, and generates constant self-
examination, endless academic seminars and political conferences, all
permeated with inarticulate anxiety?
Such has no foundation in the real circumstances of Europe today.
Obviously some of the EU’s recently-entered members have legacy
problems of corruption and crime, weak political structure and
uncompetitive industry and agriculture, but thanks to membership in
the EU, more is being done to solve these problems that would ever
have happened without EU membership.
All the EU members today suffer the consequences of crisis in a
globalized financial system mainly created by Britain and the United
States, not by Western Europe. It has been a concatenation of
financial interdependence exploited for corporate and individual gain
in all but total indifference to the social consequences of its
activities. It has been a phenomenon of an intellectually
fashionable or faddish, and sometimes fraudulent, deregulation of the
international economy, and disregard of moral norms asserted by Adam
As a result, the European economies are in trouble, but in the long
term theirs are no worse than America’s troubles, and they are
generally better off than the U.S. today in terms of employment and
corporate debt. In state deficit they are objectively far better
than the United States in terms of wasted state spending on
irrelevant weapons and unnecessary wars.
But here, curiously enough, we seem to arrive at the source of the
EU’s present belief in its own inadequacy. Its members do not
compose a military superpower engaged in world interventions intended
to shape international society in a manner that will profit Europe
and gratify the self-regard of the European public. This is taken as
The actual explanation is one of elegant and edifying simplicity,
linked to memories of modern terror and suffering. To use the
American colloquialism: Western Europe has already been there, and
already done that. And paid the price: in nihilism, death and waste
in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Eastern and Balkan Europe – and Russia –
subsequently suffered still more during the Cold War.
The European Union today is allowing itself to be intimidated by the
American accusation that it shamefully and selfishly exists under
America’s protection, doing only a minimum to support the United
States in Washington’s great tasks of international security.
Europe humors the increasingly dangerous American fantasy of global
mission. It is time that for America’s good as well as its own, the
EU ceases doing this, and tries to shake the U.S. free of its illusions.
During the Cold War the United States defended Western Europe from
the threat of Russian attack. Since the Cold War ended, there has
been no threat from which to defend Europe. The so-called war against
terror was, and has remained, a war by Islamist groups against the
American military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia.
It has never been directed against European societies, other than
those that have intervened in this “war” on the American side.
Washington, even under Barack Obama, seems determined to add to its
enemies in Asia – possibly to include China, and Russia as well. The
new foreign affairs apparatus of the European Union should assure
Washington that this is not a course on which the Europeans will
become its fellow travellers.
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