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Europe needs its realist past

The founders of the European Union were hard headed pragmatists—and their wisdom could help today’s leaders handle Putin, migration and Brexit

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, October 24, 2016

Europe must regain control of its frontiers; its citizens must believe that their union can prevent an unending flow of migrants across the sea and over land. This means more naval power in the Mediterranean and expanded surveillance of Europe’s frontiers. It also means building up European hard-power capacities (including intelligence and military options) to better manage events in North Africa and the Middle East that affect vital European interests.
Europe must regain control of its frontiers; its citizens must believe that their union can prevent an unending flow of migrants across the sea and over land. This means more naval power in the Mediterranean and expanded surveillance of Europe’s frontiers. It also means building up European hard-power capacities (including intelligence and military options) to better manage events in North Africa and the Middle East that affect vital European interests.

by Walter Russell Mead*

As Europe’s troubles deepen and pose more of a threat to the vital interests of the U.S., Americans are recycling their tried and tested critiques of the European Union: It is too statist and bureaucratic. Its instincts are too protectionist. Its decision-making bodies are too slow and secretive. EU foreign policy is too naive, too feckless about defense and security. The problem with Europe, in a word, is that it is too European.

But the EU isn’t in trouble today because its leaders are “too European.” The EU is in trouble because its leadership isn’t European enough. It is time for the continent to return to the tradition of realist politics that gave rise to its modern union in the first place.

It is easy today to forget just how hard headed the original architects of Europe’s post war drive for integration actually were. Charles de Gaulle of France, Konrad Adenauer of West Germany and Alcide De Gasperi of Italy were conservative nationalists whose vision for Europe reflected the bitter experiences of two world wars and a failed peace.

In its origins, European unity was an unsentimental exercise in geopolitics. Germany and Italy saw it as a way to reintegrate into the world after the disaster of fascism. France saw a coalition with a defeated and partitioned Germany as a way to cement its power in Europe and to strengthen its global reach. All these governments saw European unity as a way to keep the Old World as independent as possible from both Moscow and Washington. “Europe will be your revenge,” Adenauer told de Gaulle after the humiliation of the Suez crisis in 1956, when the U.S. forced France and Britain to back down from a joint campaign with Israel against Egypt.

These leaders did not think that submerging their national histories and identities in a cosmopolitan, post-national Europe was either possible or desirable. They supported Europe because it seemed to be the best way forward for the peoples they led. For its part, the U.S. backed the project because a united Western Europe offered the best hope to stop communism in the short term and to prevent the recurrence of major European wars farther down the road.

It was a far seeing generation of European leaders, and their insights proved to be right. A stronger, more united Europe kept the Soviets at bay (and limited American power) while serving the national interests of the nations who founded it.

But none of these leaders thought that they were building—or wanted to build—a cosmopolitan super state, the aspiration of many Europeans today. And each of them was deeply concerned about building up his own military forces (including, in de Gaulle’s case, nuclear weapons). The Soviet threat kept European minds concentrated on the hard facts of power.

Even after the passing of post war Europe’s founding generation, hard power and hard thinking still played a role in the continent’s politics. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s embrace of Ostpolitik—that is, an “eastern policy”—in the 1970s was a classic example of subtle and visionary statesmanship. It entailed, among things, the opening of the Warsaw Pact and the U.S.S.R. to trade and exchanges with West Germany, thus helping to weaken Soviet power, undermine the East German Communist Party and shift Eastern European economies and societies toward the West. During the 1980s, two German chancellors— Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl—resisted immense public pressure in order to back President Ronald Reagan on the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles to counter the Soviet build up.

Europe’s distinctive history—of powerful, competitive states developing a common civilization—gave the continent a complex and subtle tradition of statecraft. That tradition provided de Gaulle, Adenauer and their peers with the political ideas and diplomatic skills to achieve their goals.

European statesmen of this era scoffed at American optimists like Eleanor Roosevelt, with her post war confidence in the swift approach of a terrestrial utopia regulated by international law. They chided such naifs for their superficial approach to world politics—for neglecting the realities of hard power, on the one hand, and for dismissing the fateful and decisive influence of national culture, on the other.

Since the end of the Cold War, these traditions of statesmanship have faded, and the continent that gave Machiavelli to the world has embraced instead the spirit of Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson proposed his Fourteen Points after World War I, the French Premier Georges Clémenceau mocked them, noting that “God himself had only 10.” Today, however, Wilson’s vision of a liberal world order regulated by global institutions has become the basis of European policy.

It isn’t working, and the EU is in the midst of its most serious crisis in a half-century. Beset by enemies abroad and rivalries within, buffeted by economic and cultural forces that its feeble institutions cannot master, riven by clashes of interest and values that pit north against south, east against west, the EU is being tested as never before.

To overcome these problems, Europe needs to return to its roots and recover the realistic statecraft for which it was once celebrated and esteemed.

The recovery must begin with geopolitics. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Europe’s leaders no longer saw themselves as building fragile structures of order in a dangerous world of rival powers. To their minds, the age of universal peace had come. For reasons of democratic idealism and European solidarity, they promoted the expansion of the EU into former areas of the Warsaw Pact and the U.S.S.R. But in the excitement of building a larger EU, few of them considered how these policies would affect the continent’s relationship to Russia.

De Gaulle or Adenauer would have known better. Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has insisted on its right to influence key European decisions that affect its own economic and security interests. Any European leader of the last three centuries would have understood, without being told, that to attempt to exclude Russia from the most important economic and political questions in Europe was to invite war.

For the clueless technocrats who made European policy in the 1990s, however, Russia was inconsequential—economically moribund, still stunned by the Soviet collapse and ruled by the increasingly pitiable (and often drunk) Boris Yeltsin. Russia, they assumed, could do little more than protest against EU and NATO expansion in the 1990s. But stunned isn’t dead, and the inevitable Russian recovery began.

Russia is not (yet) the kind of power that the Soviet Union was, but today’s EU lacks the political, economic and military wherewithal (to say nothing of the determination and will) to impose its European vision on Russia. This isn’t just about Vladimir Putin. No Russian leader could quietly accept the existing European architecture, which is a standing challenge to a range of Russia’s historic interests.

During the Cold War, European leaders prided themselves on possessing a more sophisticated and nuanced reading of Soviet intentions than the Americans, but over the past decade, they have been as slow as President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to grasp Russia’s intentions. On both sides of the Atlantic, leaders have been unable to understand that Mr. Putin sees the world through geopolitical, rather than liberal internationalist, spectacles. Mr. Putin has consistently out-maneuvered and outfoxed both the EU and the U.S. Even with its much weaker hand, Russia has forced NATO and the EU to conform to its movements and play the game on its terms.

A more credible European response to Russia would proceed on two fronts. In the first place, Europe must offer stiff resistance (from sanctions to security assistance) to Russian attempts to expand its influence and also reduce its own dependence on Russian energy. At the same time, however, Europe should open talks with Russia, inviting deeper participation in European institutions if (and only if) Russia moves closer to European values.

Another critical piece of the European legacy that the EU has discarded is the idea of the nation-state, one of the continent’s greatest and most powerful political inventions. The nation-state emerged as a way to bind millions of people together into a moral and political community, based on bonds of culture; it was meant to create solidarities and loyalties that could transcend regional and class divides.

The post-nationalist leaders of post-Cold War Europe thought that they would strengthen the continent by marginalizing nationalism and embracing the goal of a pan-European superstate. They were wrong, and the result of their error is visible today in the resurgence of nationalist tensions in reaction to the EU’s overreaching.

The original architects of European integration did not think that the nation-state was outmoded. For de Gaulle, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the nation-state (whatever its faults and limits) remained the indispensable foundation for European and world order. No other political entity possessed the necessary democratic legitimacy or effectiveness in action.

As de Gaulle would have predicted, a pan-European government conducted at a great remove from the peoples of Europe lacks the political support to be strong. Worse, it has lost sight of the importance of culture to policy-making, a failure that is visible, above all, in the single most disastrous European initiative since World War II: the euro.

Centuries of European history counseled against this experiment, but the proponents of the euro were technocrats who could only see the abstract logic of a single currency. They scoffed at the idea that money might play different roles across the continent’s varied cultures—roles that, as we have seen, could not be easily eradicated.

Germans tend to think of money as an objective measure of worth; they recoil at the notion that government would interfere with the value of money to achieve political or economic goals. For the Italians and the French, by contrast, monetary adjustment is the obvious way to handle economic problems and to redress social inequities. 

The euro ignored these (and many other) profound national differences. As a result, it has inflicted monumental economic pain on much of the continent. Administered by an unelected, transnational committee, it also has undermined public confidence in all of the EU’s institutions.

On migration, Europe has fumbled as badly as it has in managing its money. This is a colossal failure, brought about by a synthesis of cultural blindness and geopolitical fantasy.

Just as Europe’s leaders have discounted the geopolitical dimension of their relationship with Russia, so too they have ignored the gathering storms to their south and east. The combination of demographic explosion, authoritarianism and state failure in much of the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa ensures that wave after wave of desperate people will knock on Europe’s door for the foreseeable future. Syria is the tragedy of the moment, but developments in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and elsewhere could just as easily send new masses of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean.

With anti-immigrant feeling growing across the continent, even as the wave of migrants threatens to grow, the EU is unable either to manage the flow or address its causes. Europeans are deeply and bitterly divided today about how to handle this unprecedented flow of refugees and migrants, but the problem isn’t going away.

Europe must regain control of its frontiers; its citizens must believe that their union can prevent an unending flow of migrants across the sea and over land. This means more naval power in the Mediterranean and expanded surveillance of Europe’s frontiers. It also means building up European hard-power capacities (including intelligence and military options) to better manage events in North Africa and the Middle East that affect vital European interests.

Taken together, these many challenges are formidable indeed, but the postwar architects of the continent’s union faced worse. The European tradition of statecraft and diplomacy developed in a world of ideological strife and bloody warfare. An intelligent return to that tradition offers Europeans a way forward. But it won’t be easy. Much of the European project as developed since the revolutions of 1989 needs to be rethought, and some of it needs to be dismantled.

In the first place, Europe must recover its traditional appreciation of hard power. No major European country spends anything like enough on defense. The bureaucratic-legalistic mind-set that now reigns in Brussels will have to be modified. In matters of diplomacy and security policy, today’s permanent European councils and parliaments will have to yield to more flexible arrangements based on the prerogatives of national governments.

To recover its élan and continental identity, Europe needs to stop pretending that history is over—that the stark old realities of international politics have given way to irresistible liberal progress. Europe must instead embrace the national states and cultures at its historic heart and exploit their creative power; it must rebuild its military capacities; and it must proceed with a clear-eyed focus on European interests in a dangerous world.

Such an EU—decentralized and outward-looking—might persuade British voters to reconsider Brexit. At a minimum, it would command Britain’s respect and draw it into deeper cooperation on military and political responses to the continuing crises to Europe’s east and south.

None of this will tear Europe apart or make it less European. Europe will become stronger even as it becomes truer to its own roots. De Gaulle called it a “Europe of fatherlands” (Europe des patries), and it will be more capable, respected and durable than the papier-mache facade of power that the bureaucrats and jurists have labored so industriously, but so vainly, to build in Brussels.

*Mr. Mead is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., a professor of foreign affairs at Bard College and editor at large of the American Interest.

**The article was first published at “The Wall Street Journal”.

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