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True challenge of a European demos

José Ignacio Torreblanca accuses Europe’s politicians of having comprehensively failed in speaking to or for Europe. But there is a deeper reason for this failure, shared by politicians and people alike, which is an inability to see beyond a hopelessly outmoded West-East dichotomy
David Marquand
24 June 2011

José Ignacio Torreblanca’s article on the reasons why Europe is cracking up is alarming, but compelling. He is right about the growth of xenophobia, about the shaming inadequacies of Europe’s response to the Arab Spring, about its crippling inability to speak with one voice in the wider world beyond its frontiers and above all about the euro crisis. And he is also right that this is a sad come-down after the astonishing success of the enlargement process at the beginning of the last decade. But expostulation, however justifiable, is not enough. We need to understand why Europe is in such a sorry state; and to do that we have to dig deeper than Torreblanca has done.

Behind the failures of will and leadership that he diagnoses so well lies a more profound failure of imagination and understanding. Europe’s leaders and peoples are still living in a world which has passed: a world structured by the myth of a free, democratic, progressive and enlightened ‘West’ confronting a slavish, despotic, backward-looking and unenlightened ‘East’.

This myth is very old. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, confronting the much more populous and, by most obvious measures, much stronger Persian Empire to the east. The Greeks took it for granted that they stood for civilisation against barbarism and for freedom against tyranny. The Romans inherited these stereotypes from the Greeks, and the early Christians from the Romans. After the rise of Islam, the Church gave them an ominous new gloss: ‘eastern’ Muslims were infidels, who desecrated the Holy Land and deserved to be put to the sword. After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who pushed far into Europe during the next two centuries, the latter became (like the Persians before them) bywords for cruelty, despotism and depravity.

Upon Europe’s rise to global centrality in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries her intellectuals and statesmen imbibed an ever more potent version of the ancient Greek mixture. The utilitarian theorist, James Mill – father of the much greater John Stuart Mill – wrote a supposedly authoritative multi-volume history of India, without ever visiting the sub-continent or learning any of its languages. In it, he opined that ‘deceit and perfidy’ were the hallmarks of ‘the Hindu’. For his part, Rudyard Kipling called on the Americans to take up the ‘white man’s burden’ in the Philippines which they had just conquered from Spain, and where they would have to ‘wait in heavy harness’ on ‘fluttered folk and wild, half-devil and half-child’.

What have the ancient Greeks, James Mill and Rudyard Kipling to do with twenty-first century Europe? Simply this. The myth of a homogeneous, enlightened and freedom-loving West confronting an alien East, has undergone a whole series of mutations in the last 100 years, but its emotional essence has changed remarkably little. The architects of the European project after the Second World War still took it for granted – and so did their American counterparts confronting the Soviet Union.

For Europeans two axioms and one conclusion seemed self evident. Non-Communist Europe was quintessentially western, and the United States was quintessentially western too. It followed that non-Communist Europe could safely rely for its protection on American power. During the cold war, these axioms approximated, reasonably well, to the facts of international life. But they were so firmly entrenched in European mind-sets that they survived the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, the implosion of the Soviet Union and even the EU’s enlargement thereafter. They still do. In a world in the throes of a momentous re-balancing of economic, political and ideational power, Europe’s elites and peoples obstinately refuse to face the alarming truth that the ‘West’ – ‘East’ dichotomy of old days has lost its purchase on reality.

Europe can’t hack it on the world stage, in the last analysis because it doesn’t want to. It doesn’t want to because it doesn’t see why it should: because it still imagines that, when push comes to shove, America, the mighty power-house of the ‘West’, will come to its aid as it did in two hot world wars and one cold war. That explains what happened in the Balkans, and it also explains what is happening now in Libya.

Yet Obama and his chief officials are patently reluctant to play the role of Europe’s saviour. They have not come fully to terms with the changing balance of global power. The old dream of America as ‘the city on a hill’, the last best hope of the human race, still lingers at the backs of their minds. Indeed, Obama evoked it with thrilling rhetorical power during his election campaign in 2008. But, perhaps because of his Kenyan father, his Hawaiian birth and his Indonesian childhood, Obama belongs existentially to the post-modern world of the twenty-first century in a sense true of no European leader. Be that as it may, the hard facts of global power have forced him, and will certainly force his successors, to think in terms of a multi-polar world – in which the poles that matter to the United States are located in East and South Asia and perhaps Latin America, and in which Europe is at most a charming backwater.

The question facing the present generation of Europeans is brutally simple. Are we content to let our children and grandchildren live in a world where the shots are called by the United States, China, India and just conceivably Brazil? If not, are we willing to make the political and economic changes that will be necessary to grow a European demos, capable of sustaining a European federation with the strength and will to hold its own in a multi-polar world? The obstacles are huge. But the obstacles that faced the original architects of the European project were equally huge. Are we really too feeble to emulate them?

See also, David Marquand's The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe,  2011, Princeton University Press

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