It was only a few years ago that Europe was being praised as the savior of world order, and heralded as the hope for the future of world order. Books with such titles as The European Superpower and Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century were widely read. They celebrated the realities of a European post-colonial recovery, even a new type of ascendancy, results that were welcomed by many who hoped for a more peaceful and equitable world.
I shared much of this enthusiasm, believing that the European Union was a bold and generally progressive experiment in regionalism that was better suited to our era of intensifying globalization than a state-centric world of sovereign territorial communities habituated to the dynamics of warfare. This statist world order had been evolving through the centuries, but always with the premise that the sovereign state was not subject to external authorities and law if its fundamental security interests were at stake.
The origins of this state system are conveniently associated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that brought to an end the bloody Thirty Years War, a struggle between Catholics and Protestants to determine primacy within Christendom. A world of regions provided a structural vision that seemed an attractive sequel to a world of sovereign states. It seemed more attainable than a quixotic leap in the direction of world government, which neither political nor business leaders took seriously.
Populist forces were also suspicious of any advocacy of world government, generally fearing it was intended as or would turn out to be a scheme for Western dominance. From these perspectives the EU seemed to be the most interesting world order game in town! It was an exciting experiment in world order that had grown through the years far beyond its early modest post-1945 beginnings as an instrument for limited economic cooperation on matters of coal and steel among a small number of European countries.
By stages the EU had become the most impressive supranational presence in modern times, seemingly a far more significant alternative to state-centricism than the UN or even the international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, WTO). European regionalism was applauded in mainstream circles because of its achievements associated with economic integration that produced benefits in trade and investment, as well as overall economic growth. The European Union was not only a clever adjustment to European participation in a globalizing world economy that featured the expanding role of such major actors as the United States, Japan, and China, it also seemed to facilitate a positive European future.
Perhaps, most notably, Europe had become a culture of peace, not a small accomplishment on a continent long ravaged by devastating wars, particularly in the 20th century. In a stimulating book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, James Sheehan writes “[t]he eclipse of the willingness and ability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity.”
Most especially, this new European outlook, while certainly not pacifist, was generally seemed disinclined to endorse global militarism. Such a shift in Europe was not without ambiguities. Europe’s habits of obedience to Washington acquired during the long Cold War often led European governments to give priority to their alliance relations with the United States rather than give expression to this altered political consciousness.
Some skeptics suggested that Europe had not really adopted a culture of peace, but rather found it expedient to concentrate their collective energies on meeting the perceived threat posed by the Soviet Union. The NATO led war in 1999 to end the Serb occupation of Kosovo is a situation in which there did exist credible dangers of ethnic cleansing and the encouragement of an Albanian majority population that welcomed the intervention.
Although European governments were split on backing the Iraq War in 2003, the public opinion in every European country was strongly opposed to the war. NATO had been a defensive regional alliance generated by concerns about Soviet expansionist ambitions and anchored in the military capabilities of the United States that seemed dedicated to the defense of Europe even if meant enduring the onslaught of a third world war.
Above all, the EU evolution confirmed the view that intra-European relations were now insulated from war, that open borders did not pose security threats, and that a common European foreign policy was likely to be achieved in the near future. To some extent, the EU reinforced this positive image by taking the lead in efforts to shape a responsible global policy on climate change. Their efforts were so successful that the United States at the 2009 Copenhagen UN Conference on Climate Change tried to build a new coalition of pro-growth economies with the intention of marginalizing the European insistence on cutting back drastically on greenhouse gas emissions.
Europe veered in a wrong direction after the 9/11 attacks when it allowed NATO to express solidarity with the United States decision to respond by way of launching a global war on terror that persists today. This implicated Europe in the dubious approach by the neoconservatives in Washington to pursue a worldwide grand strategy aimed at global domination. It completely transformed NATO into an instrument of post-colonial Western interventionary diplomacy, having nothing to do with the defense of Europe, and engaged in warfare in such non-European battlefields as Afghanistan and Libya.
The claims to achieve a culture of peace were deeply compromised by this participation in these non-defensive wars, and as a result the idea of an emergent progressive European alternative to state-centricism has almost vanished from the imaginary of a preferred future for humanity. But more than peace, Europe also showcased the realities of a humane form of capitalism in which the mass of society could enjoy a secure and satisfying life, a welfare state in which high quality education and health care was provided, human rights upheld and implemented by a regional judicial process that had the mandate to override national policy, and an economic space that combined robust growth with the free flow of capital, goods, and labor.
This 21st century social contract between the state and its citizenry that emerged in Europe seemed to provide a model for others to follow, or at least to be challenged by. Other nearby countries seemed eager to join the EU to benefit economically and politically from such an association of states in which the whole seemed definitely to exceed the value of the parts, and extremist politics of either left or right seemed precluded.
Disappointment with developments pertaining to Europe can be expressed schematically. The preoccupation with economic Europe produced an accommodation with populist insistence on a decent life to produce advances in ‘social Europe’ and this produced a climate of opinion that allowed the radical step of monetary integration. This process proceeded but without corresponding political integration needed to establish a strong European identity.
Political Europe, while enjoying some governmental presence in the form of the European Court of Justice, European Court of Human Rights, and the European Parliament, never generated a sense of Europeanness that extended beyond market ambitions, and perhaps the aggrandizing moves that prompted the enlargement of the EU to encompass the countries formerly part of the Soviet Bloc. As the great French Europeanist, Jacques Delors, well understood, without congruence between economic and political integration, the onset of a crisis affecting money and markets will revive fierce nationalist sentiments and accompanying blame games.
Instead of a bold experiment in regional identity politics, we seem faced once again with Europe as a collection of separate sovereignties.
All is not yet lost, but there is a message beyond that of the obsessive bailout/default dialogue. It is that Europe to ensure its future must renovate its political architecture. This means overcoming the peculiar capitalist brand of economic materialism that seems perversely convinced that if money and banks are the problem, then money and banks must be the solution. No, the solution a political, ethical, and psychological leap of faith that a European sense of community is necessary to save the EU and the constraints of obsolete nationalism, and therefore it is possible.