Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Who Will Still Fight for Europe?

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In December 1989, standing in Vienna’s main railway terminus and looking at the trains full of people arriving from the collapsing communist states to the east, the British American historian Tony Judt decided that a new history of 20th-century Europe needed to be written. He called his opus Postwar—not simply to show how the European present was still shaped by the memories and legacies of World War II but also to demonstrate that Europe had become a place where, for most people, a major war on their continent had become unthinkable.

In December 1989, standing in Vienna’s main railway terminus and looking at the trains full of people arriving from the collapsing communist states to the east, the British American historian Tony Judt decided that a new history of 20th-century Europe needed to be written. He called his opus Postwar—not simply to show how the European present was still shaped by the memories and legacies of World War II but also to demonstrate that Europe had become a place where, for most people, a major war on their continent had become unthinkable.

A book on Europe’s 21st century, unfortunately, will require a different title. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has woken Europeans up to the reality that they are living in a prewar world, not a postwar one. Their long-held assumptions about war and peace in Europe are now a smoldering ruin, like so many Ukrainian cities.

Take the German political class under the 16-year chancellorship of Angela Merkel. Unable to imagine anything but the continued success of Europe’s post-World War II integration, it believed that Europe buying most of its gas from Russia would guarantee a peaceful and cooperative Moscow. In reality, of course, Europe’s economic interdependence with Russia did not curb the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions; on the contrary, German energy dependence, in particular, allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to believe he had a free hand for war. What many Western Europeans thought was a source of security brought vulnerability instead.

Faced with Russia’s aggression, Europeans have also been forced to realize that their long-standing unwillingness to invest in their military capabilities has imperiled them—and that Europe is totally dependent on the United States for its security at the very moment when the U.S. security umbrella can no longer be taken for granted. Washington’s rising economic protectionism, born out of its growing confrontation with Beijing, feels like an attack on European prosperity. The reality is that even if Europeans take the current security threats seriously—and it is not yet entirely clear that the major countries do—the European Union and its member states will need a decade to restructure their defense industries and build a continent-size war economy.

What’s more, Ukraine’s heroic resistance to a brutal invasion reminiscent of the continent’s bloody past has shattered Europeans’ romantic belief in the notion of a post-heroic society—where war was uncivilized, conflicts could be negotiated away, and the only dispute was over who gets which share of the growing economic pie. By the end of the 20th century, “death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract,” as the great English military historian Michael Howard wrote. Now, as Europeans face the reality of a much more hostile and volatile world, it is dawning on them that the old social contract may no longer be valid.

The war has also exposed deep divides in Europe, based largely on collective memory. In February 2022, while the Germans and French were shocked by Russia’s invasion, Eastern Europeans were shocked by Western naivety. While Paris and Berlin were afraid of nuclear escalation, Poles and Balts feared renewed occupation. But with the passing of time, even the EU’s east is no longer unified. While Poland opened its borders for millions of Ukrainian refugees, Hungary ended up being Putin’s closest EU ally. While Poles, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians are among Ukraine’s most ardent supporters, other Eastern Europeans—Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, and Slovaks—are more reluctant. The war has divided the east from the west—as well as the east itself.

The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East have also forced Europeans to rethink their relations with the non-Western world. The hope that Russia’s aggression would make the so-called global south stand in defense of the liberal order turned out to be an illusion. Instead, non-Western countries chose to follow their economic interests instead of joining a new cold war between the free world and the world of rising authoritarianism. In making sense of international relations, the postcolonial narrative has replaced the cold war framing; as a result, many non-Western societies view the EU less as a laboratory of the world to come and more as a collection of the old colonial powers.

A decade ago, Europeans considered the fact that war had become unthinkable a major success of the European project. Historians were asking, “Where have all the soldiers gone?” and celebrated Europeans’ unwillingness to fight wars. Now, as Europe’s new reality of war and rearmament sets in, the question becomes: Where will all the soldiers come from, given Europe’s aging population and decades-long demilitarization? After centuries of horrific wars, the pacification of the European mind was the major political achievement of the post-World War II period. Now, it has become a security vulnerability.

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