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Europe Has More to Fear than Fear Itself

The French foreign policy analyst Dominique Moïsi in 2009 came up with a new set of analytical categories to make sense of the post-9/11 world.

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, April 16, 2015

In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, he identified the three basic sentiments of hope, humiliation, and fear as the predominant drivers that shape the geopolitics of the three main regional power centers.
In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, he identified the three basic sentiments of hope, humiliation, and fear as the predominant drivers that shape the geopolitics of the three main regional power centers.

by Jan Techau*

In his book The Geopolitics of Emotion, he identified the three basic sentiments of hope, humiliation, and fear as the predominant drivers that shape the geopolitics of the three main regional power centers.

Asia, according to Moïsi, was full of hope for a better future and therefore brimming with aspiration and energy. The Arab world was driven mainly by a sense of humiliation and a culture of victimhood and underdevelopment.
To the West, Moïsi assigned fear as its main characteristic. Europe and North America looked at Asia’s rise and at Arabia’s radicalization with unease, as both of these regions signified the West’s decline—Asia as the powerhouse of the future, the Arab world as the source of barely understood radical religious and terrorist threats. Yet the West, especially Europe, has even greater problems to face than a fear of external dangers.

I did not particularly like Moïsi’s book when it came out. I thought—and still think—that his concept was too big and simplistic to grasp the complexities of the globalized world. It seemed too unrefined an analytical scheme to yield any useful policy recommendations for those who have to make decisions.

But I have to admit that it is hard not to think of the West as the region of fear these days. Except that the dread that appears to govern politics, especially in Europe, is not “above all a reaction to the events and feelings taking place elsewhere,” as Moïsi claimed.

Rather, the fear that governs Europe today is a reaction to what happens at home. It is not, as some might assume the fear of immigrants and foreign cultures undermining the values of established nations and majority populations. That anxiety exists, but it is merely a symptom of the bigger problem at hand: good old economic fear. Europe’s real worry is that tomorrow will be less good than today that old age will be a time of poverty, and that one’s children will face a future of hardship.

It would be easy to blame the euro crisis for this fear. The crisis has certainly contributed a great deal to the pessimism that prevails in Europe. It has impoverished a large number of people, it has brought states to the brink of collapse, and it has blatantly exposed the weaknesses of the European economic model.

In fact, Europe’s troubles started much earlier, and they are not unique to the EU. The United States suffers from the same malaise. Partly, it has to do with systematic public overspending, creating immense debt. Partly, it has to do with unaddressed structural problems in the labor market, in the social and tax systems, and in the field of education.

But what’s really eating into the heart of Western societies is the fact that since the late 1980s, populations have grown richer as a whole, but the large middle classes have not participated in this growth. This demographic’s real purchasing power has silently stalled or even declined over the last twenty-five years, while prices have gone up. In Western societies, nothing has created more fear and pessimism than the middle-class squeeze.

This is why French economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, no matter how flawed some of its numbers or methods might be, has struck such a chord with so many people.

The fear of middle-class decline is the main reason for the successes of France’s National Front, Britain’s anti-EU UK Independence Party, and Germany’s anti-immigration Pegida movement and Alternative for Germany protest party. This economic preoccupation is what drives the movements of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and of assorted right- and left-wing populists and radicals in countries such as Hungary, Sweden, Austria, Finland, Denmark, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The same fear also lies behind the radicalization of parts of the U.S. political landscape, especially on the Right, and the deeply dysfunctional polarization of U.S. political culture over the last thirty years.

The problem is that these economic fears of decline are perfectly compatible with the external worries that Moïsi described in his book, such as globalization, the rise of China, and war in Europe’s neighborhood. And they are even more compatible with issues that stem from mismanaged migration flows, insufficient or failed integration policies, parallel migrant societies, and homegrown extremism.

Once the middle classes are affected by these overlapping and mutually reinforcing fears, seismic political shifts aren’t far off. And just as middle-class fear, created by economic anemia and reinforced by other social trends, has an impact on domestic politics, so it also becomes a defining force in foreign policy. Isolationism and protectionism are sure to follow, and often nationalism is, too. European integration becomes harder as self-centered provincialism replaces outward-looking openness.

When Europe talks about overcoming its economic woes, economic conservatives are right to say that more fiscal discipline and greater honesty and responsibility are needed. But economic left-wingers are equally right to say that policymakers must not forget about social cohesion, and that the stronger members of society have more of a burden to carry than the weaker ones.

If Europe does not get the balance right soon between fiscal rigor and social solidarity, the fears of its middle classes will come true. And with them, the nasty ghosts of Europe’s historical and notorious political instability will rise again. Combine this with foreign policy issues that require a strong, united, and resilient EU, and you have a perfect storm.

Europe’s economic and political substance is still strong. Not too much is lost yet. But if Europeans do not address their own fears soon, they will soon learn that they have more to fear than fear itself.

* Jan Techau is Director, Carnegie Europe

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