Nearly ten years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld provoked outrage by referring to “Old Europe.” How dare he, snapped the French and Germans, call us “old” when the utopian European Union was all the rage, the new euro was soaring in value, and the United States was increasingly isolated under the Bush administration.
The more things change in Europe, the more they stay the same.
The island of Britain is, and is not, a part of Europe — carefully pulling out when things heat up, terrified that it will be pulled back in when things boil over. British prime minister David Cameron knows the old script well, as he adamantly and publicly insists that Great Britain is still a part of the crumbling European Union while privately assuming that it is not.
No need to mention the German “problem”: Whether the year was 1870, 1914, 1939, or 2011, Europeans always have feared a united Germany, whose people, for a variety of cultural reasons, produce more wealth than the nation’s size might otherwise suggest.
In that regard, the more France talks of the glory of Gallic culture, the more it seeks to restrain its too-powerful next-door neighbor or, in humiliating fashion, seeks to appease Germany. No surprise that French president Nicolas Sarkozy now seems to be pursuing both tracks simultaneously.
For centuries, Mediterranean Europe — the original dynamic birthplace of Western civilization — has stagnated in comparison to the north. The sunny south’s doctrinaire Catholicism and Orthodoxy, greater vulnerability to nearby militant Ottomanism, and lack of Atlantic ports that looked out on the New World long ago relegated the Mediterranean nations to comparative stagnation. Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain were always considered nice, warm places to vacation or retire, but not in which to work, live, and raise a family. That stereotype is as alive in 2011 as it was in 1880.
The squabbling European family has always feared two great rivals — Russia and radical Islam. From 1453 through the 18th century, Europe lived in fear of the Ottomans, who twice reached the gates of Vienna. Huge European armies invaded Russia twice, and both Napoleon and Hitler destroyed their own empires in their failed attempts at preemption. Russia occupied half of Europe for almost a half-century and now tries to leverage with gas and oil what it used to with missiles and tanks. Europe is as dependent on the oil of Muslim nations as it is terrified of millions of new Islamic immigrants.
Jews have always been smeared by ambivalent Europeans — discriminated against as too clannish in their creed, without ancestral land-holding lineages and aristocratic status. Jews are now beginning to feel as unwelcome in Europe as they did in the 1930s — or in 1543, when Martin Luther wrote his “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Jewish academics are sometimes shunned at international conferences in Europe. Some suburbs in Paris and Rotterdam are no longer safe for Jews to walk about in. Europe is largely anti-Israel and probably always will be.
After the Revolutionary War, Europeans both flocked to America and damned it as uncouth and crass, even as they looked to it for money and military help. Nothing has much changed here either, despite the utopian pronouncements of the European Union and the reset policies of the Obama administration.
Most European grandees recently felt that the American cowboys got what they deserved in Iraq and during the financial panic of 2008. Then they blamed their own fiscal meltdown on imported Wall Street viruses — only to appeal for bailouts when southern European defaults threatened to destroy the European Union. In response, we habitually declare our independence and isolation. We promise never again to get involved in their squabbles and wars — only to find ourselves drawn knee-deep into them.
Like clockwork every few decades, some self-described European “visionaries” swear that the continent can either live in peace under utopian protocols or, more darkly, be united under one grand — and undemocratic — system, willingly or not. But for all the noble pretensions of the Congress of Vienna and the European Union — and the nightmarish spread of Napoleon’s Continental System and the Third Reich — and for all the promises of European-born fascism, Communism, and socialism, the result is always the same: disunion, acrimony, and infighting.
That schizophrenia is what we should expect from dozens of cultures and histories squeezed into too small a continentfull of lots of bright — and quite proud — people. Every new Europe always ends up as old Europe.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.