Today’s Europe is returning to a map resembling that of Europe from the Middle Ages or the early modern era, before the Industrial Revolution, overwhelmed by the dizzying incoherence of a radically fractured world, observes Robert Kaplan in his Wall Street Journal analysis dated Jan. 15, 2016.
The decades of peace and prosperity, from the 1950s to 2009, when the European Union’s debt crisis began, made the political and economic contours of the continent look simple. During the Cold War there were only two coherent blocks, succeeded by the post-Cold War dream of a united Europe with a single currency. But now, the European Union is heading toward a debilitating complexity, returning to fear and conflict.
As the EU worked to expand its boundaries, Europe’s divisions rooted in the continent’s history and geography have become more and more visible.
During the decades following World War II, this divide was suppressed because of Europe’s relative isolation from its “near abroad” (the regions of North Africa and Eurasia). Today that wider geography can no longer be ignored, as Europe’s various regions adopt very different attitudes to the threats posed by Russia, the flood of refugees from the Middle East and the latest terrorist outrages at home and abroad. It has become clear that the centralization imposed for decades by the EU and its distant, unrepresentative bureaucracy hasn’t created a unitary Europe.
The geographical defenses that shielded Europe during the postwar era no longer hold. Today, migrants from North Africa invade Europe and the Balkans are again the corridor for mass migration toward Europe’s center, the first stop for millions of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria. As Germany and parts of Scandinavia welcome them, Central European countries like Hungary and Slovenia erect new razor-wire fences. At the southeastern extremity of Europe, Greece has seen its economic crisis exacerbated by its unlucky position as the gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing the Arab world’s turmoil.
Another critical factor in the period of relative stability now coming to an end in Europe was the geopolitical role played by Russia. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was an obvious strategic threat, but it was a threat well-managed by the U.S. After the Soviet collapse, a decade of turmoil and institutional weakness in Russia meant, among other things, that it was no threat to Europe.
Today, needless to say, Russia is very much back as a strategic player in Europe. The strategic horizon is very different now: The future of the European enterprise appears uncertain, and a revived Russia has annexed Crimeea, overrun eastern Ukraine and again threatens the borders.
We may be witnessing the start of a remarkable reversal of Cold War alliances. Europe is again redividing into halves, but this time it is Eastern Europe that wants to draw closer to the U.S. because it increasingly doubts that NATO alone will be an effective defensive barrier against Russia. Meanwhile, the countries of Western Europe, worried about the tide of refugees and homegrown terrorist attacks, seek to draw closer to Russia (the Ukraine crisis notwithstanding) as a hedge against the chaos emanating from Syria.
Mr. Putin knows that geography and raw power—both military and economic—are still the starting point for asserting national interests. Europe’s elites take a very different view. After centuries of bloodshed, they have largely rejected traditional power politics. To maintain peace, they have instead placed their hopes on a regulatory regime run by the post-national technocrats of Brussels. In their minds, the continent’s divisions could be healed by the social-welfare state and a common currency. Distinctive national identities shaped by centuries of historical and cultural experience would have to give way to the European superstate, whatever its toll on the political legitimacy of the EU among the diverse nations of Europe.
In the U.K. and much of Western Europe, there is now a backlash against the overreaching of Brussels, and it is finding powerful expression in domestic politics. Social-welfare policies once considered as a balm for the continent’s divisions have acted as a drag on national economies, and this stagnation has provided, in turn, the backdrop for nationalist (sometimes reactionary) politics and rising hostility to refugees.
In Romania, as in the Baltic states and other parts of the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, the EU still represents more than a balance sheet. It stands for a politics based on modern states rather than on ethnic nations, governed by the rule of law, protecting individuals no matter their ethnic or religious group.
For Germany, its political dominance of Europe should flow naturally from its economic dominance, and that has happened to some degree, with power moving east from Brussels to Berlin. But German leadership remains awkward and hesitant. Of all the European elites, Germany’s in particular have, since the late 1940s, put their faith in European integration, in large part as a way to exorcise the demons of their own past. In the face of multiple crises, Chancellor Angela Merkel has played a deft political hand, with occasional setbacks.
As the EU continues to fracture, this power vacuum could create a 21st-century equivalent of the late Holy Roman Empire: a rambling, multiethnic configuration that was an empire in name but not in fact, until its final dissolution in 1806.
For the U.S., a Europe that continues to fracture internally and to dissolve externally into the fluid geography of Northern Africa and Eurasia would constitute the greatest foreign-policy disaster since World War II. The success of the EU over many decades was a product of American power, stemming from the victory over Nazi Germany. For all its imperfections, the EU, even more than NATO, has been the institutional embodiment of a postwar Europe that is free, united and prosperous.
Now, President Obama is taking a less than robust posture toward meeting Mr. Putin’s aggression. The White House has its attentions focused on crises in the Middle East and the Pacific Basin. Therefore, the current administration and its successor must put the security of the Europe as a priority. The aim should be not just to resist Putin’s aggression, but to maintain the internal cohesion and capacity of both the EU and NATO.
At the political level, this will mean helping the EU to develop in a direction that provides more democratic accountability. As for security matters, a turn to Europe will mean putting an end to the counterproductive view that the U.S. will do more for Europe’s defense only if NATO member states themselves raise their defense budgets.
The fact is that Europe’s map is becoming medieval again, if not yet in its boundaries, then at least in its political attitudes and allegiances. The decades when Europe was stable, predictable and dull are over.