President Trump’s first trip abroad has received mixed reviews. His turn through the Middle East went well, yet for all the success of the trip’s opening days, its back half disappointed. After a lackluster meeting with Pope Francis in Rome, the president buffaloed through a series of tense meetings under the aegis of NATO and later the G7. He blustered about everything from German automotive manufacturing to the Paris climate accords, and his European counterparts were happy enough to score cheap domestic political points by returning the favor. Newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron described photo-op handshakes like a veteran of gladiatorial combat. The parliamentary heads of the Nordic states took a photograph holding a soccer ball, a seeming send-up of the glowing orb featured at the launch of Saudi Arabia’s new Global Center for Combating Extremism.
Yet the big news came from German chancellor Angela Merkel. At a political event for her national party’s Bavarian counterpart, Merkel tossed back a liter of beer and suggested that “the times when we could completely rely on others are a bit over. I have experienced this in the last days. . . . That is why I can only say that Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.”
This was an epochal declaration, according to the liberal corners of the American Internet, an end of the transatlantic alliance, an unprecedented break from the past! Never mind that Merkel’s musing pales in comparison with that of Western European rhetoric from 2004 through 2008. Lest we forget, Gerhard Schröder insinuated that President Bush’s proclivity to pray on weighty matters meant the leader of the free world was effectively a Manichean madman.
Indeed, far from speaking chiefly of America’s reliability, Merkel was speaking to a decidedly European, and specifically German, audience. That audience remains cognitively stunted by its persistent mythologizing of the European Union’s purpose, a delusion perpetuated by the unhealthy interpenetration of the continent’s governing elite by its intellectually desiccated academy.
From the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 through New Year’s Day of 1995, the European project expanded slowly, deliberately, and pragmatically. The original six nations — the Benelux countries, West Germany, France, and Italy — were slow to add members. Denmark, Ireland, and the United Kingdom joined on New Year’s Day 1973. Greece came aboard eight years to the day thereafter. Portugal and Spain joined together, again on New Year’s Day, in 1986. Austria, Finland, and Sweden followed suit exactly nine years later.
From the vista of early 1995, the EU made a great deal of sense. The Soviet Union was dead. Germany was reunified and rapidly disarming. The project of decolonization was nearly complete. Spanish democracy, a close-run thing as recently as 1981, had finally taken hold. The EU’s member states had comparatively robust economies and reasonably effective institutions.
True, the Mediterranean countries faced structural challenges to their economies and Italy was (and is) Italy. But tourism promoted by the free movement of peoples, plus northern Italy’s robust manufacturing sector, suggested that these were fixable problems within the single currency. For those countries unwilling to join the euro, so be it: Accommodations could be made. Here was Western Europe post–Cold War, prosperous, shrouded in the American security guarantee, and arguably set on a common mission.
The invasion of Iraq ended these salad days. The European project went off the rails.
As the American occupation degenerated into a Mesopotamian mire, many in the European elite decided that by launching a preemptive war and snubbing the international order in the process, America had forfeited its claim to be the shepherd of liberal democracy. The European project, in the Eurocratic mind, could become the new vanguard of Western values. People wrote books with retrospectively risible titles like “The United States of Europe: The New Superpower and the End of American Supremacy” and “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century.” It was a heady time, and a foolish one.
In the minds of its political leaders, the European Union could become something more than political. It could become something historical, even metaphysical.
Europe’s leaders forgot that the EU began, and in the hearts of its citizens remained, the most pragmatic of entities. It was the coal-and-steel trading bloc still. Francs and deutschmarks, lira and pesetas, could be traded in for euros — that was just money. But the sense of Europe as a single entity with a common mission had not penetrated beneath the ranks of the Brussels set. There was no memory, no community, no mission in the popular European imagination.
Yet to the Eurocracy, Iraq opened the door to an idea of Europe bigger than commerce and beyond postwar pragmatism. The EU, in their minds, could become something more than political. It could become something historical, even metaphysical. This led in short order to the hasty, foolhardy eastward expansion of the EU, into the post-Soviet landscape of backward economies and parchment-barrier institutions.
On May Day, 2004, the EU admitted Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Croatia joined less than three years later.
Amid this institutional race east, a mass migration of labor headed west. The arrival of Eastern European workers en masse in Western European capitals gave conspicuous lie to the twin myths of economic interdependence and continental solidarity. At a structural level the wild lust for an eastward Manifest Destiny undermined the EU. It destabilized the single currency, rent social trust between and within the countries of Western Europe, and inspired Brussels to ignore referendum defeat after referendum defeat. Arguably, Brexit was born that day in 2004.
The belief that Europe could be a historical vessel of liberal democracy found special succor in the corridors of German academe, especially in Jürgen Habermas’s account of liberal democracy. Habermas, Germany’s most prominent intellectual, shrugged off his Marxist education and embraced liberal democracy. Yet unlike the American philosopher John Rawls, who tried (and failed) to craft a new theory of the social contract, Habermas’s account flattens into empty process. Lacking a coherent theory of human wants and needs, of passions and interests, Habermas reduced liberal democracy to “intersubjective rationality.” Instead of the rights of man, or even the prudent republican checking of faction with faction, liberal democracy became merely people reasoning together. As a result, liberalism ceased to be an ideology of the individualist and becomes an ideology of conversationalist.
Conversation is all good and well, make no mistake. We could use more of it in America these days. But conversation glosses over the institutions of the state, the hard facts of material interest, and the difficult but necessary work of counting noses and votes. Moreover, it presumes that politics can be separated from the animal spirits that move everyday citizens to expend their time and energy in the pursuit of political ends. It underrates the extent to which politics, like athletic fandom, is about enthusiastic, participatory tribalism. Intersubjective rationality cannot account for home-court advantage.
Habermas especially influenced the debate over Europe’s future thanks to the deep intertwining of Germany’s political class and its moribund academic elite. At a grubby level, this means many German politicians get outed as plagiarists when their hollow dissertations come under the microscope. At a more profound level, it means that many German politicos get indoctrinated into Habermasian liberalism. Combine a hunger for history with intersubjective rationality, and one can ignore popular rejection of a sweeping program. The conversation must go on.
The Merkel statement should be seen in this light. Many in the German political elite long for a world without American leadership, never mind that anything that splits the European bloc will allow Russia to pick the Western European countries apart through bilateral energy negotiations. Merkel was giving voice to those instincts — those animal spirits invisible to Habermas — but she was not fully embracing them. For all the ballyhooing around her statement, Merkel ultimately sounded a cautious note. She flattered the abiding desire among the German political class to be heroes of liberal democracy and charge headlong into the future as moral and historical agents. Yet compared with 2004, it could have been worse. After all, Merkel hedged her bets with a fist full of qualifiers.
America gains little from overreacting to Merkel’s statement, turning her words into a self-fulfilling prophecy. We would do well, however, to remember that the Europeans cannot always be trusted to act in their own best interests. That, if nothing else, justifies maintaining a transatlantic order that gives us the final say.