Even after two world wars, the nations of Europe were a force to be reckoned with.
Seventy years ago, the European democracies joined the United States in an Atlantic Alliance that held off the imperial advance of the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, after the collapse of communism, these nations stood side by side with us in forging the world order that followed the Cold War. That order was to be democratic, prosperous, and free.
Today Europe is indeed far wealthier and freer than at any time in its long history. It should be proportionately more powerful as well: but that is not how matters stand. Europe’s governments fail abjectly in many of their primal duties. Europe’s elites seem afflicted by a strange political pathology. They wish, desperately, to reinvent harsh reality according to their subjective fantasies.
And their fantasies are all about atoning for the sins of their fathers, in a world that is fraternal rather than democratic, placid rather than free.
NATO, the European Union, the immigration question, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the bloody chaos close at hand in the Middle East – on each, the European governments, jointly and alone, have taken the path of least resistance and of short-term comfort. Ugly truths are met with uncomprehending silence. All arguments lead to inaction. Even the gestures that substitute for action appear ridiculous and confused.
This is the final episode of a series in which I stare into the pit of geopolitical hell, and faithfully report what I find there. The first two concerned American abdication. That remains in the background – but here I tell the story of how democratic Europe, forsaken by the US, has been unable to save itself from a rare, debilitating malady.
Let me use the immigration question as a stand-in for all the indecisions that afflict Europe today. The symptoms are largely the same.
Start with France, which in 2015 endured two major Islamist attacks, both in Paris, city of light. Some of the perpetrators were Arab immigrants, but most were second-generation: the children of immigrants, French citizens, French speakers, able to navigate confidently in the society they wished to destroy. Their defection, no less than the atrocities they committed, posed a terrible question for the French ruling elites.
The answer was silence and denial. In France, democracy and equality entail fraternité – the magic bond that holds together, in common purpose, all the citizens of the republic. Clearly, that bond was already shattered in the case of the second-generation terrorists and the milieu that supported them. They had sworn allegiance to the Caliphate and turned their backs on the tricolor.
Yet this was unthinkable to the French elites, literally so: they couldn’t hold that thought in mind without trauma. Against all the evidence, they insisted that there were no officially recognized cultural, social, or political conflicts between second-generation immigrants and the ancestral French. Fraternité trumped a life-and-death threat to the public. The answer must be found somewhere else.
Disregard of reality was facilitated by physical separation. The French elites live in a France where life is sweet. Most French Muslims live in “zones sensibles” – the vast blighted ghettos that ring Paris and other cities in the country and the continent. There, second-generation citizens are out of sight and in control. They are Muslims more in identity than faith, but they delight in bullying local women into wearing the veil, and they wreak violence on Jews and gays.
From this underclass, out of the zone sensibles, came the young Islamists responsible for the two massacres in Paris.
The French government’s reaction to the first attack was to do nothing. President François Hollande declared a day of mourning. Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that France was “not at war against Islam or Muslims.” The embrace of fraternité was more important than self-preservation, at least to those not personally at risk.
The second attack, in which 130 innocent people died, was monstrous enough to require a rhetorical escalation. Hollande called it an “act of war” by the Islamic State, and vowed “pitiless” retribution. “France is at war,” he kept saying, as if by repetition he could make it so.
But the war against IS doesn’t much resemble – say – the national mobilization with which the French met the German invasion of 1914. One bold wartime measure is to end the cuts in defense spending Hollande himself had introduced. Any increase is beyond the pale. Another measure, which would strip convicted terrorists of French nationality, was considered too un-fraternal by the Justice Minister: she resigned in protest.
In truth, French elites live in a fantasy of universal values, and the French government, having exhausted its rhetorical arsenal, has no clue about how to extricate itself from a conflict that is real on one side only.
Move on to Germany, where in 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel invited into her country a million fugitives from the broken societies of the Middle East. This gained Merkel the adulation of the elites and a “person of the year” award, but the decision had unintended consequences. By the rules of the European Union, aliens entering one member country can enter any other. Merkel, without consultation, imposed her open-door policy on every elected government in the union.
The gesture brought stresses within the EU to the breaking point. The Hungarian government refused to be led by Merkel: it built a fence to keep the intruders out. Poland, Slovakia, and much of East Europe took a similar stand. The invasion of a million mostly young and male Arabs was unpopular with the public everywhere in Europe. It bolstered nativist movements and political parties, some of them quite hard-edged.
Merkel hasn’t budged. She seems intent on expiating the racialist sins of her grandparents’ generation. By custom, purification of the past requires sacrificial victims from the present: these have been found and offered up to the gods of universalism.
At a New Year’s Eve festival in placid Cologne, a mob of Arab men, many of them recent arrivals to Germany, sexually assaulted hundreds of young women. Two of the women were apparently raped. One 17-year-old described the experience graphically: “We were surrounded by at least 30 men… I had fingers on every orifice.”
Strange as an Arab sex riot in an ancient German city sounds, the extraordinary part of the episode began when the violence ended.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the horrified people of Macondo are lectured after a massacre: “Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened, and nothing will ever happen. This is a happy town.” The same principle was applied in Cologne. Nothing had happened there, because nothing could ever happen. Local police did nothing. The German news media said nothing. The politicians, lighter than air, floated above such earthly concerns. Cologne was a happy town.
When, days later, social media broke the news, the overwhelming concern of the authorities was to avoid anti-immigrant “vitriol.”
So it has come to this: for the political and media elites of Angela Merkel’s Germany, insulting the ethnic sensitivities of criminals is a graver offense than the crime itself. These delicate, image-obsessed people can conceive of nothing more shameful than to be accused of racism. Any decisive action involving non-Europeans was sure to end in such accusations. Better to do little: best to do nothing at all.
They are fortunate to lack a sense of irony. The worthy desire for gestures that repudiate the Nazi past has, in practice, produced some unsettling repetitions. The Nazis attacked Jews and communists behind a wall of silence – a fate the humanitarian elites appeared willing to inflict on the young women of Cologne.
I don’t want to imply that this is a peculiarly German attitude, or that one needs a Nazi grandfather to indulge in it. The facts of the case in Rotherham, England, were more appalling than anything that transpired in Cologne: they involved the prostitution of 1,400 underage English girls by Pakistani men, and the abuse went on for 16 years. The police knew but did nothing. The British elites, like their German counterparts, floated like balloons far above the happy town of Rotherham.
On the immigration question, the leading governments of Europe wrap themselves in a fantasy of moral superiority that can’t conceal the reality of political prostration. If nobility of spirit really defines the contemporary European, these governments appear unwilling to promote or defend their own ideals. If the whole thing is a fraud, and the continent in truth lives by nothing nobler than the pleasure principle, the ruling elites are unwilling to accept that. The contradiction has dislocated geopolitical decision-making to a field of dreams, where theatrical gestures play the part of effective action.
Let me end with a few additional manifestations of this malady.
NATO, sword arm of democracy, is now a petrified fossil that may crumble apart at the next contact with aggression. It was not invoked by France in its “war” against IS. What purpose would that serve? It has met Russia’s gobbling up of Crimea and constant pressure on Ukraine with a barrage of words. NATO can’t defeat the Taliban – what hope does it have to push back Putin’s Russia?
European elites aren’t interested in the old Alliance. They feel that the world – or at any rate, Europe – or at any rate, themselves – have transcended war, and risen to a loftier plane of existence in which democracy can disdain military force. For this daydream, too, Angela Merkel bears much responsibility.
The European Union, the continent’s grandiose “project,” resembles the rickety Holy Roman Empire on the day before its dissolution. Fatal divisions have been inflicted by Merkel’s stand on immigration, but there are economic fissures as well. The Greeks will never be able to pay off their debt. Instead of offering debt relief or managing Greece’s exit from the union, the EU has chosen a torturous middle ground – a death by a thousand crises, without resolution in sight. The process has radicalized Greek politics: the country elected an anti-everything Marxist president. Spain and Portugal are heading down the same path. Britain is committed to a referendum on the EU. If it votes to go, Scotland will almost certainly secede. Catalonia claims it will break away from Spain regardless.
The consequences of these multiple fractures to the body politic are, literally, incalculable – but few outcomes are likely to make Europe a safer or more prosperous place.
The wealthy nations of Europe could have opted for energy independence. They chose instead to make an expensive gesture toward “sustainable” energy sources – and, as a result, are now at the mercy of that hydrocarbon despot, Vladimir Putin.
At the level of basic instinct, the Europeans aren’t making enough babies, or working enough hours, or growing enough wealth to sustain a “social economy” that lavishes benefits on worker bees and idle drones alike. Growth is flat. Unemployment, particularly among the young, is high.
I come to the end of my strange tale. Rich, populous, technologically advanced nations are retreating in confusion and failure from a dangerous world. Does it matter? Only yesterday I would have answered: not very much. The Europeans were valuable allies, but the protection of democracy against global predators was the business of the United States. Loss of European support was a burden we could carry.
That is no longer true. In the first two posts of this series I have shown the US itself to be in retreat from global responsibilities. Our elites, after Iraq, have lost their bearings and their confidence in the American mission. Sensing opportunity, despotic regimes – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, the Caliphate – are on the march. As they tramp over our red lines without penalty or consequences, it would be a good thing if other democracies were to step into the breach. The European malady ensures that help won’t come from that quarter.
We take the present order of the world for granted, but it’s breaking down in pieces even as I write these lines. What comes after is unknown: maybe just turbulence and disorder. Since the great material power of the Western democracies has been largely nullified, we should expect to see a decline in the reach and influence of Western ideals such as rule of law, personal freedom, and mutual toleration.
Americans and Europeans once fought and died together to preserve those ideals. The fervent hope here is that we won’t come to that pass again.