By Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst
The worst years of the Iraq War were boom times for European triumphalists. I remember going to conferences in Europe in the middle of the last decade when one Brussels Eurocrat after another spoke with barely concealed arrogance about Europe's moral superiority to the United States. Whereas the United States, with its so-called muscle-bound military, was bogged down in an unwinnable violent conflict in Mesopotamia, proving the limits and pitfalls of an over-reliance on hard power, Europe was basking in the worldwide influence of its soft power, built on suave diplomatic and regulatory compromise and the humaneness of the social welfare state.
Indeed, it is the economic decline
of this very model — that of the European social welfare state — over the past few years that now threatens Europe's soft power and, therefore, its own moral conception of itself. Soft power, as defined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. is, among other things, the power to persuade in a media-driven world. And for Europe, such power ultimately came from its economic and political model.
In Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (2005), the late New York University historian Tony Judt documents how the state — the modern welfare state — which reached its apogee in the 1960s and early 1970s, was seen back then as the decisive bureaucratic panacea to Europe's horrific recent past. The response to the mass killings of two world wars — in terms of government policy — was a benevolent administrative order that "would always do a better job than the unrestricted market" in protecting people's interests, in dispensing social justice and allowing for "cultural vitality." The state, as Judt describes the halcyon middle decades of the Cold War in Western Europe, "lubricated the wheels of commerce, politics, and society in numerous ways."
Government jobs were plentiful, and so were generous pensions and health care. The philosopher and historian might have had a more profound answer to the Holocaust and other outrages of the first half of the 20th century in Europe, but the European politician and the economist had a specific, not-to-be-disparaged answer as well: the modern social welfare state.
The full-bodied administrative state was until recently instantly appealing, not only to Europeans themselves but to American tourists, who came from a land of embarrassingly poor train and bus service, slummy big-city airports and decaying highways and bridges — not to mention poor public service in general — and found in places like France, Germany and the Netherlands a paradise of sleek trains, postmodern air terminals and wondrous nighttime lighting across bridges and along highways. The European state with its high taxes could certainly deliver, it seemed. It was why conservative politicians in Europe were often proudly to the left of liberal politicians in the United States.
The state itself was the foundation upon which so much else rested in Europe. In his academic classic, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569-1999 (2003), Yale historian Timothy Snyder talks about "European standards" that the Poles and other subject peoples of the communist bloc aspired to upon their liberation in 1989-1991. European standards meant "territorial integrity…and the protection of the cultural rights of minorities." European standards meant that the "crucial categories" were the "state and its citizens;" not the ethnic nation and its members. For the state enforced the same rules for all people without regard to their ethnicity or religion. Thus was fascism and Nazism legally vanquished. And while these laws and values did not directly rest on reasonably high economic growth, the success of the social welfare state provided added legitimacy to this morals-based system.
The European Union itself
, which grew out of the Franco-German Coal and Steel Community of the early Cold War days and the European Common Market (European Economic Community) of the middle ones, was the supreme culmination of social welfare economics and international legal and diplomatic norms within the Continent. Because France and Germany had been repeatedly at war over the previous century, the European Union would henceforth bind them together through common economic and fiscal interests. And from the reconciliation between those two giants, unity would radiate throughout Europe.
But it all rested, in varying degrees, on a prosperous social welfare state.
That is why the European debt crisis
is so troubling. It is troubling not just in an economic and political sense, but in a moral sense as well. Europe could bounce back much quicker than expected — economists have been proved wrong before. More likely, however, the eurozone on the whole will be sunk in zero growth rates or thereabouts for a few years to come, with consequent cuts in social benefits and continued high unemployment. And if that happens, the legitimacy of both the European Union and the social welfare model will continue to erode, whittling away the very basis of European soft power and, perhaps, the norms of behavior that such soft power has represented.
Poland especially offers the most poignant example of why such norms are vital to peace. In The Reconstruction of Nations, Snyder meticulously narrates how Polish thinkers and officials had made a conscious choice toward the latter years of the Cold War to accept Poland's eastern borders with the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, assuming, as they did, that the Soviet Union would collapse and those republics would become independent states. This was, as he explains, an extraordinary decision after a fashion, because it meant dropping historical claims to ethnic-Polish lands to the east of the current Polish state. Concomitantly, Poland asked Germany to make no such claims on historic German lands in western Poland. However brutal and unfair were the border arrangements that were the outgrowth of Nazi and Soviet aggression in World War II, Polish officials decided not to question them. And the overpowering force helping them toward such brave, conciliatory thinking and diplomacy was the example of "European standards" that were, in turn, the outgrowth of the economic and cultural experience of postwar Europe as chronicled by Judt in his own book.
In other words, peace in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin Wall depended on applying the diplomatic rules of Western Europe. And the diplomatic rules of Western Europe had long been fortified by the very success of the European welfare project as a whole, in all its economic and integrationist manifestations.
But now Eurocrats can no longer gloat about the European Union's soft power and its consequent moral superiority compared to the United States. The American economy is chugging along nicely at 2.7 percent annual growth — around 2.7 percent higher than Europe's. Whereas America's economic problems are mainly political — the difficulty Republicans and Democrats often have in reaching efficient compromises — Europe's problems are more fundamental and structural
: the very viability of the eurozone and the enormous promises to the citizenry implied by the welfare state model.
Yet, this is no reason for Americans to gloat. No one should want to see the continued erosion of European institutions and models, for that will negatively affect the very attraction of European civilization in the 21st century world: a civilization built on tolerance in the late-20th.