Europe's New Narrative

Europe's New Narrative

Mini Teaser: Why the Cold War was so instrumental in Europe's success.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Certainly for the French, Europe became, if not the revenge, then at least the redemption, offering the prospect of strutting again on the global stage, of de Gaulle playing the great game between the two Cold War colossi. It was a role that could only be maintained so long as the Germans were prepared to sustain the illusion, the British could be kept in the wings, and the Americans were content to shrug off French posturing in the interests of preserving the NATO essentials. At times, like the refusal of European airbases to refuel the U.S. military transport planes taking desperately needed munitions to Israel in 1973, the American forbearance was remarkable. When told by his secretary of state, Dean Rusk, that de Gaulle was insisting on the removal of all U.S. troops and the NATO headquarters from France, President Lyndon Johnson ordered Rusk to ask, in the name of the American president: "Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France's cemeteries?" De Gaulle gave no reply. But NATO headquarters was shifted to Brussels, and the alliance endured, with the French remaining members but withdrawing their forces from the joint military command.

Secure behind NATO defenses, of whose costs they paid but a modest share, the West Europeans emulated the extraordinary American achievement of building a mass middle class, financing universal education and welfare, and even allotting more generous vacation time. They brought their massive peasantry--still between a quarter and a third of the West European workforce of 1950--into the cities and factories, and mass-produced the washing machines and cars and TV sets that defined the new prosperity. And along with their American ally, they saw the great prosperity begin to stall in the 1970s. But where the United States pioneered a new post-industrial economy in the 1980s and 1990s, the mainland Europeans of the last decade seem to have mislaid the habit of growth, as indeed they are forgetting how to reproduce themselves.

The European demographic challenge now threatens a great deal more than just the welfare state and the future of pension payments. Ten percent of the French population is now of North African descent, and the proportion is more than double that among the young, whose unemployment rate is around 20 percent. The most common name for newborn boys in Antwerp and Rotterdam is Mohamed, and alarmist demographic projections of the kind peddled by the French National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen suggest that an increasingly Islamic Europe may loom in the next century. It is hard to calculate the impact this kind of propaganda had in contributing to the French "no" vote in this year's referendum on the draft European constitution, and much of the public debate referred to the threat from mythical Polish plumbers rather than Muslim mechanics. But as a direct result, the promised entry of Turkey into the EU is now clearly in question. As Francis Fukuyama recently noted at a conference on security and terrorism in Washington:

"The greatest challenge faced by liberal democracies will not, in my view, be an external one such as defending ourselves from international terrorism or managing a return to great power rivalry, but the internal problem of integrating culturally diverse populations into a single, cohesive national community. In this respect, I am much more optimistic about America's long-term prospects than those of Europe."

That is not Judt's view. He rightly praises the remarkable achievement of modern Europe in overcoming its fratricidal past and building a zone of peace and prosperity whose seductions have now embraced the east European countries of Stalin's wretched empire and which is now trying with mixed success to spread its healing balm over the Balkans. He goes on to hail

"Europe's emergence in the dawn of the 21st century as a paragon of the international virtues: a community of values and a system of inter-state relations held up by Europeans and non-Europeans alike as an exemplar for all to emulate. In part this was the backwash of growing disillusion with the American alternative; but the reputation was well earned. . . . The 20th century--America's Century--had seen Europe plunge into the abyss. The old continent's recovery had been a slow and uncertain process. In some ways, it would never be complete; America would have the biggest army and China would make more, and cheaper goods. But it was becoming clear that neither America nor China had a serviceable model to propose for universal emulation. In spite of the horrors of their recent past, and in large measure because of them, it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes. Few would have predicted it sixty years before, but the 21st century might yet belong to Europe."

Well, perhaps. If only the advice were modest. If only the Europeans had the children, the growth rates, the universities, the innovators, the ability to assimilate their restive minorities and the political will to live up to the hopes that Judt invests in their future. Only a fool would exclude such a possibility for the creative peoples who gave the world the magnificent gifts of the parliament and the symphony orchestra, the university and the novel, trial by jury and the free press, the joint stock company and the stock exchange. But they are the same people who gave the world the Inquisition, absolute monarchy and the concentration camp. The most quarrelsome, acquisitive, militarist, imperialist and genocidal tribes the world has known may yet lead us all into Kant's universal peace, so long as they remember that their new golden age was nurtured in the Cold War period, when, with Russian troops holding down one half of Europe and Americans protecting the other, the Europeans at last enjoyed a little adult supervision.

Martin Walker is editor-in-chief of United Press International.

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Essay Types: Book Review