A historian, in 2024, reviews the previous decade : After Chelsea Clinton’s election to the presidency in the fall 2024 elections, it is time to take stock of the lessons of the last ten years for European security. Looking back at the turbulent decade immediately past, it is easy to neglect the role that Europe has played in the growing international disorder. So much has happened elsewhere—throughout the vast arc of instability from North Africa to East Asia, and all points south—that developments in Europe often seemed a sideshow from the main events in international politics. What Europe has lacked by way of grand historical significance in the last few years, however, is more than made up for by the amazing turn of events on the continent ten years previously. A change of course by two leaders in mid-summer 2014 set in motion the most surprising development of the decade. Europe’s southeast, so long beset by ethnic turmoil, was pacified; Europe’s northwest exploded.
No one had anticipated the outbreak of a bitter civil war between Scotland and England; the widespread expectation was of a peaceful settlement. Pessimism, by contrast, was in vogue with regard to the borderlands that divided Russia from its neighbors to the west. The Ukrainian civil war, replete with charges of foreign intervention, was increasingly looking like another Bosnia in the summer of 2014. And that problem from hell, in turn, evoked memories of Sarajevo one hundred years before.
To the surprise of virtually everyone, however, the Ukrainian conflict was settled when President Obama embarked on a bold new policy in mid-July. Acting against the advice of his State Department, Obama withdrew support for Ukraine’s war in the east and told Kiev to grant self-determination to the Russophone population of the Donbass. After a cease-fire, elections would be held under the auspices of a UN peacekeeping force. Ukraine, whose president initially cried betrayal, ultimately agreed to the Obama plan after the United States, the EU and Russia promised significant economic aid to revitalize Ukraine’s economy. Obama made clear that no aid or diplomatic support would be forthcoming, unless the Ukrainians relented in their treatment of the Russophones; that carrot—and that stick—made for a breakthrough.
The voters of the Donbass, grateful that their views were deemed sufficiently important to be registered in a referendum, subsequently rejected independence and worked out a modus vivendi with Kiev on the recognition of their language rights and the protection of their vulnerable industries. Negotiations among the United States, Russia, Ukraine and the EU succeeded in harmonizing the inconsistent requirements of the EU and the Eurasian Union. The main result was that Ukraine gained access to the goods and markets of the EU, while still retaining historic economic ties with Russia; the eastern provinces were accorded a special economic status different from the rest of the country. “The cost of escalating sanctions for all of us,” Obama said in justification of his peace plan, “far outweigh the cost of a generous economic package for Ukraine. Let’s try reconciliation and reconstruction, not war.”
Far different was the scene in Great Britain. As with any civil conflict, enmity between the Scots and English was deeply rooted, its causes lying far back in the mists of time. Soon after the war broke out, Foreign Affairs ran an essay called “1745 and All That,” probing these historic antagonisms and generating much controversy. Political scientists had previously viewed a war between Scotland and England as inconceivable. By 2016, a new revisionist school emerged, holding that the conflict was inevitable and would go on for years.
The spark that really set things aflame—though this was not appreciated immediately—was the decision by Prime Minister David Cameron to reverse his previous decision regarding a Scottish referendum on independence. He had conceded that right in January 2012, but announced on July 15, 2014, that the British government had changed its mind (this occurring at virtually the same moment as Obama’s reversal on Ukraine.) The Scottish referendum scheduled for September 18 was cancelled. Cameron acceded to the criticism that it was a disgrace to allow a referendum for the Scots without giving the English any say, and he now moved resolutely against his previous view, repudiating the Edinburgh Agreement . A small incident caused a furor and hardened feelings on both sides. A reporter for the Daily Mail took a photograph of an official briefing paper that referred to the Scots as the most welfare-, drink- and drug-addicted nation in Europe. The Scots charged that it was a vicious libel; the prime minister’s office first denied the existence of the paper, but later said it reflected a clerical error. Subsequently, the generality of the English, sotto voce , reveled in little asides intimating that truth was indeed an allowable defense according to the law of libel.