Five years ago, the European Union’s account of itself resonated with end-of history triumphalism. In organic fashion, democratic socialism would spread eastward and southward, recivilizing the old Warsaw Pact and the Balkans through cradle-to-grave entitlements, state unionism, radical environmentalism, and utopian pacifism. No wonder that Turkey begged — and often humiliated itself in the process — to get inside this more perfect union.
Over here, we were often lectured by “progressives” that almost everything Europe did was better — subsidized mass transit, free college tuition, extended maternity leave, early retirement, and “soft-power” diplomacy. Indeed, Obama’s presidential campaign was in some senses a stealthy referendum on Europeanization. And once he was elected, his moves to raise taxes, expand government, expropriate some private industries, run up exponentially increasing deficits, subsidize environmentalism, and triangulate with enemies and allies abroad were European Union to the core.
Few wanted to listen when it was pointed out — well before the Greek meltdown — that on key questions of demography and immigration, the future of the European Union was bleak. The very idea that, in historical terms, socialism, agnosticism, pacifism, and hedonism were not only interrelated and synergistic, but also suicidal for civilization, was considered crackpot.
Furthermore, even in the days of loud socialism, Old Europe’s notion of class made it hard to assimilate Islamic immigrants. Unlike other newcomers, North Africans and Turks channeled their resentments through religious fundamentalism. Something about their European hosts — the pacifism, the liberal perspective on matters of sex, the agnostic and atheistic proclamations — infuriated Muslims in a way not even the Great Satan did. The result was that the more a liberal Europe tried to appease radical Islam abroad and its own estranged Muslim underclass at home, the more it was despised as weak, decadent, and — worst of all — increasingly irrelevant.
Few wanted to listen when it was pointed out that Europe was, in terms of traditional military power, nearly defenseless, unable to protect itself from Russian bullying, a bellicose radical Islam, or a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. Its reluctant participation in the war against the Taliban, warmly welcomed by Washington, only made all of that more clear. Apparently, the technocrats in Brussels figured that the Neanderthal age of war itself was over. Learned diplomats in The Hague and at the UN would soon adjudicate “differences,” which largely grew out of either misunderstanding or preventable material inequality, rather than Thucydidean honor, fear, and perceived self-interest, which were innate to the human condition, and checked by fossilized concepts like military preparedness and deterrence. That all such pretension was predicated on the safety net of NATO and the U.S. defense budget was considered simplistic, or at least problematic. (Or perhaps Europeans felt that if cowboyish Americans like to strut on the world stage — why, let them strut and waste their money occasionally on Europe’s behalf.)
That Europe’s socialist model had led to relatively modest growth over the last decade in comparison with other advanced economies, that unemployment in Europe was likewise chronically high, and that worker productivity was static were always downplayed or at least balanced by “quality of life” counterpoints. Who cared that, over the last decade, much of Europe saw economic growth at only 50 to 75 percent the U.S. rate per annum, or that it struggled with 10 percent unemployment, or that it discouraged start-up companies, when the quality of life there was so much better for so many more people than anywhere else?
The wonder of the Greek implosion was not that it came so soon, but rather — given the pan-European phenomena of early retirement, declining populations, bloated public sectors, and militant unionism — that it took so long. In some sense, the dream of the European Union — a continental democratic socialism that offered a Western liberal antithesis to the United States — is now finished. Let us count the reasons why.
1. EU expansion has probably ended. The irony is that wannabe members like Turkey will now probably be relieved rather than envious and bitter at being excluded. At worst, a chronically broke Turkey can cook its books and devalue its currency as it wishes, without international lenders assuming de facto control of its government, as in the case of Greece. In the next few years, we will not hear discussions about expanded EU membership; rather, we will hear debates about members’ voluntary or forced withdrawals. At best, the entire unworkable scheme will devolve to its original idea of a few Western European nations’ agreeing to loosely integrate their economies, and to adopt a common foreign policy within the NATO alliance.
2. So the pan-European commonality is unraveling. What is striking about the German-Greek fight is not that frugal lenders would be angered at profligate borrowers, or even that the envious, weaker client would resent the more powerful and haughty patron, but just how quickly the memories of 1939 rippled through the continent, as the thin veneer of European socialist brotherhood was torn away. The German and Greek presses almost immediately were refighting World War II — Greeks demanded more wartime reparations and the return of their supposedly stolen “gold”; Germans were willing to take in exchange uninhabited but picturesque Greek islands. The old European fear of a strong, alienated, and angry Germany resurfaced, along with the old stereotypes about sun-loving, irresponsible (and lazy) Mediterraneans in need of handouts from hardworking and sober (but cold and ruthless) northerners.
3. NATO may well transcend the EU, as the bluster of an all-European rapid-response military dies on its fragile shoot. By all accounts, there should no longer be a reason for the NATO alliance to exist — except for its original reason. That is, Europeans will soon, more than ever, want the Americans in (when, in the age of Obama, a debt-ridden socializing America seems to want out); the oil-rich Russians out (when the old Soviet republics and Eastern Europeans see that Western assurances are, as in the past, empty); and Germany down (amid paranoia that Germany might well go its own way, and do with its money what it used to do with its military). So, again, weird as it might seem, as the EU weakens, expect Europeans to look more to NATO. As their own money runs out, and as their utopian views of defense are shown to be as suspect as their economic pretensions, European Union nations will be happy as never before for the American umbrella. Indeed, if Turkey wished to overfly the Aegean islands hourly, or flex its muscles on Cyprus, I doubt that a soon-to-be-butchered Greek military could do much — or that an estranged northern Europe would much care.
4. Democratic socialism has been shown to be unsustainable, and this has become the subtext of much of the populist anger at Obamaism. After September 2008, the crack-up of a wild Wall Street was to bring on a referendum on the intrinsic contradictions of capitalism. But at the same time, many wondered why, then, some wiser Europeans were still moving to open up their economies rather than add more government, taxes, and bureaucracies. In truth, the United States, should it remain a free-market open economy, will be able to survive September 2008 far better than the Europeans can survive Greece and what is to follow — largely because, despite Obama, America is still far more entrepreneurial and business-friendly. Our states are integrated in a way that Europe is not. Californians and Arizonans may not like each other right now, but their animosities do not affect the U.S. dollar, the Federal Reserve, and Social Security, in the way that the German-Greek showdown involves basic policies of finance, regulation, and pensions — well aside from linguistic, cultural, and historical differences. Like it or not, Europe, and especially Greece, are the canaries in the American mine: Try Googling “Greece” + “California” for the details from some 60 million results.
Once the bureaucratic scab comes off, we are going to see many of the European Union’s raw wounds as never before. The Greek riots are instructive, as the world watches in shock as the prospective recipients of world largesse rage at their benefactors. Draping the Acropolis with the hammer-and-sickle seems an odd way to convince capitalists to bail out socialists at the beginning of the life-saving tourist season. But, then, when does any dependent either voluntarily cut back, or feel gratitude toward its patron? We may well see far more violence as the crisis spreads throughout southern Europe. An entire generation nursed on socialism as a birthright — with no direct memory of the hardship of the Depression, World War II, the postwar rebuilding, or the fault lines from left-right violence in Spain, Italy, and Greece — will very soon be “asked” to give much of it up. As the statist economy goes, so too will go much of the European posturing about state-subsidized radical environmentalism, pooh-poohing of Islamic radicalism, and holding up of the bogeyman of American imperialism. Those were always pipe-dream ideologies of an affluent and subsidized populace. They are certainly luxuries beyond the means of a far poorer, far angrier citizenry that now must live in the unkind world.
The story of the European Union is not just the need for a Greek bailout or the scrambling to come up with it, but rather the long-dormant tensions that surround it. In short, there is more than one volcano in Europe, and the second one too is beginning to erupt.
– Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor, most recently, of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.