The European Question

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One of the unintended consequences of the American obsession with Iraq is that it has raised the question of Europe in striking and unexpected ways. It has been said that the U.S. relationship with Europe will not be the same after the Iraq experience. In a similar and connected sense, it would seem that Europe's relationship with itself will never again be the same.

The concept of Europe is itself enigmatic. There has always been a Europe, in the simplest geographic sense. Within that Europe has been embedded an extraordinary paradox: European states, taken together, not only conquered most of the world, but actually invented it. Before the European imperial adventure, the world was divided into sequestered universes — the Aztecs did not know of the Islamic world; the Chinese did not know the Norwegians. Europe blasted through all of these self-contained universes, creating, in the process, the world as we know it — a single entity aware of itself and of all of its parts.

At the same time, Europe itself was caught in an unending civil war. Until 1945, European history was an unremitting tale of bloodshed and horror on an ever-increasing scale. In this sense, there was no such thing as Europe, only its constituent parts — dynasties and nations, engaged in endless bloodletting and maneuver.

The concept of Europe that emerged following World War II was the mirror opposite of the older Europe. The new definition of Europe, at least conceptually, repudiated both the imperial enterprise of the old Europe — in effect, trying to abandon both European states' domination of the world they helped bring into being and abandoning the obligations that came with creation. Europe repudiated its identity as conqueror. At the same time, it elevated the notion of Europeanism in an attempt to overcome the bloodletting that had marked its history. The imperial Europe ceased to be, along with Europe's interminable civil war. "Europe" now came to mean a peaceful entity that had overcome its nationalism.

The idea of Europe was partly defense against its own past; it also was partly a contrivance designed to give Europe weight in the world. The end of World War II created two global giants that both occupied Europe and competed for the legacy of European imperialism in the rest of the world. Caught between the United States and the Soviet Union, the fragmented countries of Europe had no weight. Europe needed to transcend nationalism if it were to engage in great power politics. This is the paradox that lies at the heart of Europe, and the underlying crisis within Europe today.

In a sense, the United States invented the concept of Europe for its own reasons. One of the advantages of the American alliance system over that of the Soviet Union was economic: The economic benefits of being aligned with the United States were inherently greater. The modern EU emerged from experiments begun in the 1950s within the framework of a Western Europe integrated within the U.S. alliance system, particularly NATO. NATO was created as more than just an alliance system: It was intended to subsume the particular national interests of the members — particularly the European members — into a single integrated, transnational framework.

The NATO model in defense policy became, in the broadest sense, the model for the EU. The Union was a transnational entity that shifted decision-making on a range of economic issues from the individual nation-states into a multinational bureaucracy that administered the system partly on automatic, and partly as an autonomous decision-making tool. There was an inherent asymmetry between NATO and the EU: The former contained the United States, the latter did not. In effect, Europe came to compete with the United States economically but was intimately tied to it militarily and politically.

Until the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU had not sufficiently matured for the inherent contradiction to be felt. But the tension between NATO as a multilateral, transnational framework and European nationalism had already been felt. France under Charles de Gaulle had repudiated the idea that its fate was inherently and automatically subordinated to NATO's decision-making process. Paris did not so much reject the idea that it had a common interest with the rest of NATO or the United States as it rejected the loss of sovereignty that was inherent in NATO's processes. If France were to go to war, it would go to war based on a French decision and not as an automatic response to events.

France — indeed the rest of Europe — understood that no individual nation could hope to counterbalance the United States, particularly after 1991. Therefore, a series of ideas came together. First, there was the idea of Europe as a pacific power, no longer seeking to dominate the world. Second, there was the idea of Europe transcending its nationalist past. Third, there was the idea of Europe — as a state power in its own right — taking its place among the great powers, asserting and protecting its own interests.

There is obvious tension among these three concepts, but the conceptual tension was not nearly as great as the institutional tension. In order to genuinely transcend European nationalism, some sort of federalism is needed. An integrated economic system without an integrated political and military system simply doesn't work — or, more precisely, it works only if Europe is not expected to become a great power in its own right.

For France and Germany in particular, an interesting notion had emerged. On the one side, the great power competitions and imperial pretenses of Europe had to be put behind them. However, Europe itself should emerge as a great power in its own right with not only a single currency, but a single citizenship, a single legal system, a single military. Europe could not become a nation, but it could become a state.

This European state was to be the expression of European interests on a global scale. In other words, if France and Germany could no longer express and achieve their own nationalist goals on the world stage, Europe could. With its huge economy, huge population and huge potential military power, Europe could become the global equal of the United States and thereby protect the interests of its constituent states.

This is where the crisis came in. The core assumption of what we might consider the radical conception of Europe as a federated republic was that, at heart, the European nations had a shared and singular interest that a combined state could protect. In other words, the assumption held that European nationalism, with its divergent and contradictory interests, had been sufficiently transcended that a single, comprehensive state could represent them.

For France and Germany in particular — the two mutually hostile powers in Europe from the early 19th to the mid-20th century — there had indeed been a reconciliation, so that a single state might express their interests. Their assumption was that this commonality of interest ultimately encompassed all of Europe. What they failed to understand was that the very commonality of interest achieved by Paris and Berlin frightened and repelled much of the rest of Europe.

The emblematic moment came recently in NATO, when France, Germany and Belgium stood alone and isolated in opposing planning for Turkey's defense in the event of an Iraq war. In a broader political sense, the Franco-German entente did not reduce nationalist feelings; it exacerbated them. The Spaniards, Italians, Dutch and the rest saw exactly what the French and Germans saw — which was that Europe could become the expression of this Franco-German understanding. They understood and were repelled because in the broadest sense — political and military — they did not trust the French or Germans sufficiently to want to live in a Europe organized by Paris and Berlin.

This became even clearer with the reaction of Europe's former communist countries: None of them were deeply concerned about Iraq, but all of them were concerned about the power of Paris and Berlin combined. For Poland, historically trapped between Germany and Russia, the distrust of Berlin was visceral. If France and Germany combined, Poland would be a very weak player facing its own historical fears.

The idea of a Europe that transcends nationalism collides with an idea of a Europe as a great power. A great power must make decisions and act. How those decisions are made and who makes them is a matter of fundamental importance. The Europe that France and Germany envisioned cast them as the decision-makers. That they might find a common basis for shared sovereignty might well be a historic achievement, but it is not necessarily comforting to lesser nations expected to align themselves with those decisions.

This is why the United States remains of fundamental importance to many European countries. They want the benefits of economic integration; they do not want this to extend to political or military integration. A system of relationships in which they are economically bound with France and Germany, but maintain close politico-military ties with the United States, is ideal. Iraq is of no interest to any of them, but domination by a Franco-German bloc is of great interest and concern.

The Iraq issue has crystallized the European problem. The idea of a transnational Europe is, in principle, desirable. The practice of a transnational Europe federalized into a system dominated by France and Germany is not. This is not merely an immediate, practical problem — it is a deeply felt historical problem. Neither France nor Germany is trusted to put European interests ahead of their own — nor is it clear, in a practical sense, that there is such a thing as a European interest. What they discovered was that much of Europe didn't trust them to pursue a European course. They stood with the United States not because the United States was right, but because they did not want the French and Germans to become too powerful.

This, then, is the irony. French and German leaders tried to use the concept of Europe to limit American power. Much of the rest of Europe sought to limit French and German power by standing with the United States. None of this really had anything to do with Iraq. All of it had to do with the fact that it is easier to say that national interests had been transcended by European interests than it is to actually transcend them.

Europe now has lost its innocence. The "Ode to Joy" cannot hide the fact that European nations do not see each other as brothers and sisters, but as foreign countries with whom they share some interests and some rivalries. In other words, from the viewpoint of Poland or Hungary or Spain, Paris and Berlin are as much foreign capitals as Washington.

The Iraq issue is about many things — but one of the most unexpected things is that it is about the end of European innocence.


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