There can be no "new deal" between Europe and America as proposed last month by Philip Gordon. The world has changed irrevocablyby David Marquand / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Reading the exchange between Philip Gordon and Timothy Garton Ash in last month’s Prospect I was irresistibly reminded of medieval schoolmen desperately trying to reconcile Ptolemaic astronomy with inconvenient facts. Gordon and Garton Ash appear to disagree. Gordon wants to restore transatlantic harmony with a “new deal.” Europeans would accept US leadership, stop trying to constrain US power and send troops to Iraq. In return, they would have a seat at the top table. Garton Ash agrees that a “new deal” would be a good idea, but thinks it would be fatal to try to launch it in Iraq. But these differences are outweighed by a much more fundamental accord. Both take it for granted that the present state of transatlantic relations is abnormal and, above all, dangerous for the future of the west. Both believe it is shocking and dreadful that the world we lived in for the 40-odd years of the cold war – the world of Nato, transatlantic partnership and the free world – has disappeared. Both hope that it can be reinvented.
These beliefs are hopelessly unhistorical. The very language of Nato, the west, transatlantic partnership and the free world was a product of the cold war, when western Europe had no option but to shelter behind the American nuclear umbrella, and the US was anxious to push the Soviet threat as far to the east as possible. But the cold war is now over. There is no Soviet threat. Most of the former Soviet allies in central Europe are EU member states. A diminished Russia is doing its best to embrace market economics and even the outward forms of democracy. It poses no threat to anyone outside its borders. Meanwhile, once-buried differences between Europe and the US are coming to the surface. To take only a couple of examples, the middle east is Europe’s near abroad. Europeans cannot afford to treat it as an adventure playground for moralistic exporters of democracy. Its stability is a vital interest for us. For heartland Europe, at least, a stable Iraq – even under a dictator – was better than the instability that the Americans inevitably brought with them. In a different sphere, the US model of capitalism is culturally and philosophically alien to the European heartland, and even to many on its fringes. Resistance to it does not spring from backwards-looking corporatist nostalgia, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seem to think. It is a matter of identity and of history. It springs from the historic compromise between capital and labour that ushered in the longest period of peace and prosperity that Europe has seen since the fall of the Roman empire, from the postwar marriage between Catholic social teaching and European social democracy, and from the coincidence between both of these and French republicanism.
In the new configuration of global interest and power which is now taking shape, Europe is bound to loosen its ties with the US and vice versa. There is nothing odd or abnormal about this; in the long sweep of history, Nato and the transatlantic partnership were the real abnormalities. For most of its history, the US turned its back on Europe. It entered the first world war when it was three quarters over, indulged itself in an orgy of destructive moralism at the Paris peace conference and then flounced back into isolationism. It did not enter the second world war until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and Hitler declared war on it. Having entered it, Roosevelt frequently behaved as if the British empire were a greater threat to US interests than Stalinist Russia, and in the negotiations over lend-lease and Bretton Woods, the Americans did all they could to undermine the sterling area and imperial preference on which Britain’s economic survival then depended. European attitudes to the US were equally frosty. Europeans turned to the US to defend them from Soviet aggression because they were too weak to defend themselves, not because they had fallen in love with the American way. This was true even in Britain: when the postwar Labour government came into office, it hoped to follow a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet communism. It abandoned the attempt only because it was so deeply in hock to the US that it had no real freedom of action.
The best historical parallel with the global confusion of today is the confusion that accompanied the breakup of the European system created by the Congress of Vienna. That system lasted for around half a century. The revolutionaries of 1848 tried to destroy it, but they failed. In the end, it was destroyed by Prussia’s rise to predominance over the German lands, by the unification of Italy, by the decline of Austria and by France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war. In the same way, the system that emerged from the tacit settlement that followed the second world war has now run its only slightly shorter course. In the still unformed system which is now beginning to emerge, the notion of a western alliance is as irrelevant to the real world as the holy alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria was to the world of Bismarck and Cavour. Indeed, the notion of “the west” is itself irrelevant.
Of course, enlarged Europe and the US have many values in common. This is not surprising: American civilisation is an offshoot of European civilisation. But Russian civilisation is also an offshoot of European civilisation, and the cultivated Russian intelligentsia has contributed far more to the high culture it shares with the rest of Europe than its American counterpart. To put it at its lowest, it is hard to think of American equivalents to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Tch-aikovsky, Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Shostakovitch. I doubt that even the popular values of middle America are any closer to the popular values of middle Europe (if there is such a place) than the popular values of middle Siberia. If being western means sharing the values and culture that originated in European Christendom – or, for that matter in ancient Israel, classical Greece and ancient Rome – then the west circles the globe from Paris to Vladivostock via St Petersburg and Moscow, and from Vladivostock back to Paris via San Francisco and New York. It also includes Australia, and perhaps Latin America.
Unfortunately, it is a dangerous concept as well as a meaningless one. Identities always define themselves against an “other.” During the cold war, the other to the mythical west was Soviet communism. The only candidate for that role today is Islam. Few of today’s westernisers admit this, in so many words. They take refuge in euphemisms – “Islamic fundamentalism,” “radical Islam” and so forth. But in all these terms, Islam or Islamic is always the key word, signifying backwardness, ignorance and menace. The British and US governments depict Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda not just as terrorists, but as irrational, death-loving terrorists, consumed with hatred of the west. Al Qaeda’s tactics are loathsome, but the group is no more irrational than the long line of colonial terrorists, from George Washington to ?amon de Valera to Jomo Kenyatta to Archbishop Makarios to Gerry Adams, with whom British governments have eventually had to come to terms.
Moreover, if American civilisation is an offshoot of Europe’s, European civilisation is, in many ways, an offshoot of the Islamic civilisation that invented algebra, prepared the foundations for modern science and built some of the most beautiful buildings in human history. The loutish Crusaders had nothing to teach and much to learn from the Arabs they fought.
Europe now faces one of the most daunting challenges of its long history. Whatever happens, the US will remain a superpower. However, it is most unlikely to remain the world’s only superpower. China will be joining it, not in my lifetime and perhaps not in my children’s, but certainly in my grandchildren’s. India will not be far behind. It is more difficult to predict what will happen in the heartland of the Eurasian landmass, but it is at least on the cards that, by the middle of the century, a renascent Russia will have become the nucleus of a fourth superpower. The great question for Europe – far outweighing the issues that preoccupy Gordon and Garton Ash and the political classes of Britain and America – is how to ensure that the EU has the power, cohesion and will to safeguard the interests of its peoples in the inevitable multipolar world of the future. Talk of a mythical west, and lamentations for the disappearance of an Atlantic partnership that no longer serves any long-term purpose, can only distract us.