Narrating the Future; Navigating From the Past
Not Just a Financial Deficit
Running between the many key challenges confronting Europe today – securing economic stability and providing for its defense being at the top of the list – there lies a central unanswered question: What is worth the sacrifices it will take to meet these challenges? In an age of anxiety and austerity, what is the source of the motivation for leaders and their followers alike to make hard decisions and choices about the future of Europe? The current unchartered territory needs both a compass and some readiness to take some risks in finding answers. But there is a clear deficit with regard to both.
Just as is the case in the U.S., Europeans are looking at a future which will not resemble its past. During the past six decades, the slope of growth, wealth, and opportunities has been for the most part consistently climbing upwards. Following the devastation of the war, Europeans were faced with rebuilding a continent ravaged by death and destruction. Western Europe had the massive assistance of the United States while Eastern Europe fell under the yoke of the Soviet Union, forced to wait over forty-five years to have a chance to fully restore its capacities. Over most of the last two decades, the aspirations of millions of Europeans were shaped by an ever expanding and growing union of nations which were profiting from shared opportunities, markets, and institutions designed to promote shared prosperity. That evolution stood in ugly contrast to the poison that infected the Balkans in the 1990s, bringing the same death and destruction which brought Europe to its knees a half century earlier. But the banner of a European Union remained the symbol of efforts to overcome those problems of the past and to push forward to a future without the walls which divided nations and peoples. The promise of membership in the EU has been a part of the leverage to help quell the violence in the Balkans and many other countries have been knocking on Europe’s door for admission.
The Contagion of Greece
The commonwealth of Europe, framed by the Lisbon Treaty, fueled by the shared currency of the euro, and motivated by commitments to building a twenty-first century post-nationalist community, was trumpeted as the foundation of the future. Yet two challenges illustrate that there are actually no straight lines in history or which can predict the future. One is the crisis emerging over Greece and the other is the lack of an answer to the question of who will defend Europe, and in the name of what?
The threat of a Greek default is confronting the EU with its most serious difficulties since the inception of the European movement. The issue is not so much whether the size of the Greek economic crisis is going to spell the end of the European momentum; Europe has always moved forward through crises in the past. The issue is whether the EU – and not just Greece – can handle austerity, sacrifice, and painful adjustments in the same way it has handled continuous growth, expansion, and rising expectations. Europe has faced any number of crises, setbacks, and resets in its path toward integrating ever more countries wishing to be a part of the EU, but it has always been able to buy its way out of the problems. One example is the decision to create the euro. Despite serious concerns about the qualifications of both the system and its members to confront the weak links in the chain, the euro zone was launched over a decade ago with great fanfare and confidence and with the assumption that bumps in the road could be inevitably smoothed over.
Today there is widespread fear that those bumps have become serious and deep potholes on the European highway. The emerging bankruptcy of Greece has a contagious disease attached to it, given the complex web of interdependence of banks, investors, and irresponsible behavior behind it. The frantic effort to stave off the inevitable problem of dealing with a country that is in more debt than it can pay back is undermining not only the financial foundation of the European Union; it is undermining its own self confidence. While Greeks and other Europeans are asking how are we going to fix this problem, the larger question is why are we going to fix this problem. While the rhetorical answer is because we need to save and sustain our European Union, that message is drowned out with more nationalist interests and populist accusations. The Greeks are lazy, say some. The Germans are bullies, say others. The references to what is at stake – whether it be in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, or Spain – have taken on a much more contentious tone, with little or fewer references to Europe as a whole.
Sharing the Defense Burden
The same centrifugal forces work their way through the debates over defense policies. Secretary Robert Gates returned to a theme he had addressed two years ago when he gave his departing speech in Brussels on June 10 [read the speech here]. The theme – the danger of NATO becoming irrelevant – was echoing his concerns about the demilitarization of Europe. His current worries were not only directed at Europe but also at a United States increasingly fixated on its own economic problems, especially with an emerging trend toward decreasing defense budgets and curbing global defense capabilities. There are some clear isolationist voices being heard in the cacophony of campaign rhetoric and it is hard to know how fertile the ground is for this pitch.
But the point is that we see these forces becoming part of the arguments on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the perennial debate over burden and power sharing. It is clear that we have not reached a consensus on either of these issues, if there is one out there to be reached.
At the core of this debate is a set of questions similar to that plaguing the Europeans. In the name of what are we making the sacrifices and commitments to our joint defense? In the name of what are we pooling our resources? In the name of what do we have to make hard political choices? NATO has been struggling with this challenge for the past two decades, essentially since the end of the Cold War. But the answers have remained difficult. The current display of disarray on how to respond to the crisis in Libya is only one more example of how consensus building within the greatest alliance history has ever known is in danger of imploding – not primarily because of a lack of funds. It is more a lack of will and a lack of leaders who are able to make a persuasive case for a new mission. To draw an historical comparison, while the cardinals and bishops of the alliance gather for their high-level councils, the rhetoric emerging out of their meetings does not trickle down to the populations who question where their interests in all of this are to be identified. That did not work out well for the Catholic Church a few hundred years ago.
Uncertain Global Future – Also an Uncertain EU Future?
There is a lot at stake. There is no certainty that we will not be looking at another economic meltdown in the coming months, a second ‘Lehman Brothers-type’ event in Greece or a misguided battle over securing the U.S. debt limit in August. There is no certainty that we will not be looking at an Arab Spring which might begin to look a bit more like winter, that Gaddafi might outlast a mighty NATO, or Assad might outlast butchering his own people, or that a post-September General Assembly vote on a Palestinian state might generate a another outbreak of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There is every reason to think that in a rational world these challenges would focus the minds of political leaders and enhance their ability to make a solid case to an uncertain electorate about what needs to be done. And, importantly, how these issues are connected to each other. But connecting dots is not something leaders like to do if it means confronting hard choices. And that generates mistrust among the voters who often have an instinct for the scope of problems but don’t find a convincing explanation for dealing with them beyond continuing crisis management – and then choose those who offer simple solutions.
There is a vacuum at the moment between leadership and followership. It took a global cataclysm to force us to put together a response to the damage it caused in the past century. We certainly have our share of challenges to come up with more much concerted efforts today. Why would it be more difficult today than in the past? The crucial point is reached when leaders put their authority on the line to convince a reluctant public about what is at stake. In the late 1940s, Republicans and Democrats were able to change the course of American foreign policy away from a post-World War II inclination to pull back from the world toward a robust internationalist direction which changed the course of history. In the 1950s, western European leaders took a fearful and exhausted European public in the direction of rebuilding Europe and the creation of one of the most important political experiments in world history.
September 11, 2001, was another occasion for mobilizing around a common set of goals, but that chance became embroiled in antipathy and accusations across the Atlantic over Iraq and other disagreements about both the ends and the means of responding to what happened ten years ago. We have not completely recovered from its aftermath.
So where are the engines and the catalysts for today, for meeting the challenges of changing national roles and capacities and for sustaining the effort to share both burdens and power in mutually recognized legitimacy? They are no different than in the past. They are the leaders we entrust with guiding our futures; they are the events, foreseen and unforeseen, which challenge them and all of us to find solutions to problems and opportunities; they are the narratives around which we can rally to share resources and commitments.
The transatlantic future will not look like its past. We can learn from it for sure, but the U.S. and Europe will need to write their own next chapters. It would be useful if there were some commonalities amongst those holding the pens.
This essay appeared in the June 17, 2011, AICGS Advisor.