Is Europe in decline, confused, or just changed its methods?

Depending on how you shake it, the answer to all three parts could be “yes.”

The online version of the German paper Der Spiegel published an interview Friday with Walter Laqueur, a historian of Europe. At 92, he predates the Second World War, the division of Europe in half, and the rise of European integration and the eventual political and monetary union. With all this perspective, he has grown increasingly pessimistic about the future of the continent.

His central thesis is that Europe lacks the resources and willpower to project power globally, and have the kind of economic and military influence that the United States or China pursue. Staying on the sidelines, nevertheless, does not make you immune to the actions of others. As Howard Zinn titled his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Laqueur responds to the idea that the current state of affairs is low-risk, musing:

I’m not so sure about that. Only time will tell. The Europeans haven’t quite understood that trying to stay out of the fray offers no protection against the consequences of global policy. Retreat offers no security against the consequences. Perhaps exaggerated caution is sometimes appropriate, but inaction can also prove to be disastrous.

Let it not be assumed that the United States has a superior foreign policy. If one believes that America is in decline, the human and economic cost of global military vigilance would be a key reason to think so. To use non-military influence, a state must have some amount of moral capital. But the credibility, for instance, of France is strained after their actions before and during the Rwandan Genocide- professor Howard Adelman found the military support (PDF, p. 6-10) for the Rwandan government leading up to the genocide to be “open” and “blatant.” Western inaction on Darfur creates a similar skepticism towards Europe being the go-to power bloc for countries and their conflicts.

Another question raised is that whether the wealth of Europe, and its comparatively advanced welfare states, removes incentive to be a global leader. Laqueur poses “Has material prosperity created a timid society…?” Two things quickly come into play here. Firstly, whether the large-scale debt crisis is changing any kind of timid behavior that may exist, and secondly whether wealthy countries are more able to assist and influence other countries.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (credit: Wikipedia)

As you learn in introductory psychology, Abraham Maslow proposed a “Hierarchy of Needs”- proposing that humans meet certain needs before progressing to less urgent needs. The fact that this pyramid inverted is also a theory shows that it is far from established canon- but nation-states may act like individuals in their priorities. A question to ask is whether wealth makes a nation more open or more reclusive on the world stage.

During these crisis years, several EU countries seem weeks away from total collapse- and unemployment is as bad or worse than America during the 1933 trough of the Great Depression. Thus the questions of where Europe is going in the mid-to-long term is very much in the background. When this crisis is staunched, what will European states do with their money and willpower? Is Europe committed to further integration, or have certain weak points scattered the consensus?

I don’t know if Laqueur is correct in his insights. Since he’s almost seventy years older than me, I have far less information to go on. It seems that what he laments in Europe is its loss of imperial ambitions. The portion of the world that was a colony of one power or another into the 20th century would be cautious of such a turn in attitude. But the trajectory of Europe will be of interest throughout the 21st century, even if the EU as a whole recedes behind new players in Asia, Africa, and South America.

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