CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS
Europe and the United States, firmly allied, would be powerful enough to establish a global order in which liberal democracy thrives. Neither can do it alone. This is why enemies of liberal democracy have worked so assiduously to divide them.
“The West” means many things, of course. It is both an abstraction and a distinct geographic region. The geographic region is the territory, roughly, under the protection of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, comprised, as the acronym suggests, of countries that ring the northern half of the Atlantic Ocean. In this sense, the United States and Canada are half of the West, and Europe is the other.
The phrase “Western values” has fallen upon disfavor among those who argue, correctly, first that these are universal values; second, that the West has not always embraced them. When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it might be a good idea.
The West’s propensity to descend into barbarism should humble us. But it must not prevent us from recognizing that the postwar West has built more flourishing liberal democracies than any other region of the globe. The West is dense with states that fall into what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson call “the narrow corridor,” wherein the state is strong enough to protect the weak from predation by the powerful, but weak enough for people to protect themselves from the state.
Why is Europe is in that corridor? Is it because it is the inheritor of colonialism’s ill-begotten gains? Is Europe rich because the rest of the world is poor? No. In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. It had been was destroyed—razed—by the war. It had squandered every bit of the wealth from the colonies. It faced starvation.
As this memorandum from Under Secretary of State William L. Clayton’s to Dean Acheson makes clear, the United States, not the colonies, rebuilt Europe—and did so because American leaders understood, following two world wars, that it would overwhelmingly be to the world’s benefit, and to the benefit of the United States, in particular, to ensure that Europe cease exporting its centuries of violent conflict. Europe, they concluded, must be prosperous and peaceful, or none of us would be.
They understood as well that the American President must persuade the American people that Europe’s recovery was in the American interest, as it was.
Europe is not in the narrow corridor by an accident of history. It is there because the United States midwifed the reconstruction of Europe through the Marshall Plan and the Treaty of Rome.
U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, U.S. President Harry Truman, and members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats alike—were in agreement that the only way to ensure a permanently pacified Europe was to fully enmesh the feuding powers in an unbreakable economic yoke. The Treaty of Rome and its sequelae were designed to make war “not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” They were designed so that European nationalism could not be reborn.
What’s more, American statesmen determined that no European power should fully re-arm. Thus the United States—an external power that could function as a credible guarantor—would assume responsibility for Europe’s security. Permanently. It would credibly guarantee the security of every member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Only the United States was in a position to do this. It was a strategy of monumental foresight.
It worked. The postwar era has been the longest period of peace and prosperity Europe has ever experienced. Since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU has grown from six countries with 186 million citizens to 28 countries with 515 million citizens—and a GDP seven times larger than in 1957. The combined EU economy is larger than that of the United States. It is the second-biggest in the world, after China. Collectively, Europe is larger, wealthier, and as powerful militarily as the United States. The EU and the United States, together, would have nothing to fear from China. Or from Russia.
Neither NATO nor the European Union were built on a whim. They were institutions created by men who knew Europe’s fratricidal history intimately—men who had survived it, when many of their generation had not. This was the last hope of rescuing the Continent. It succeeded.
In 1949, Paul Hoffman, then head of the Economic Cooperation Administration, or ECA, addressed the nations of the Council of the European Economic Cooperation Association and sketched out a plan for the creation of a united Western European market with no customs barriers or tariffs. The ECA enthusiastically adopted the idea, laying the foundation for the European Economic Community and later the European Union.
Precisely because the idea would clearly strengthen and unite the West under the United States’ aegis, the Soviet Union’s propaganda organs went into overdrive to combat it. Communist criticism of the Marshall plan was similar to the language now used by UKIP, the National Front, and other anti-EU parties and movements to criticize the European Union, and indeed by people who support these parties and movements in America—even though many such movements are intrinsically hostile to the United States.
The French paper L’Humanité, for example, like many other communist publications, wrote, “After disorganizing the national economies of the countries which are under the American yoke, American leaders now intend conclusively to subjugate the economy of these countries to their own interests.”
Here is a cartoon from the Soviet paper Izvestiya. Hoffman, depicted as a fat capitalist, is purported to be attacking “the sovereignty” of the Marshall Plan countries. The idea that the “sovereignty” of European countries was undermined by economic cooperation and low tariffs is nonsensical. Moscow was clearly the source of this idea, Moscow remains the source of this idea, and Moscow’s motives for promoting it—then and now—are entirely cynical:
WHY THE WEST MATTERS
Liberal democracy and prosperity have, for most of history, been a fantasy. They remain a fantasy to large parts of the world, much of which is still suffering, enslaved, or impoverished. The West is where these eternal human fantasies have been made real. It is where liberal values have seen their fullest expression and flourishing. It is the only part of the world where these fantasies have been established, for so long, that people have become bored with it and wonder if something else—theocracy, maybe, or small-scale anarchist collectives—would be better.
The West’s security is now genuinely collective. The United States cannot go it on its own. The rise of the rest of the world, particularly China, entails that neither Europe nor the United States are wealthy or powerful enough, alone, to sustain and expand a rule-based order alone, or liberal democracy as an idea or a practice.
Europe and the United States, firmly allied, are powerful enough to sustain the order we inherited.
If you look at a map and calculate shares of the world’s population and wealth, this is perfectly clear:
Likewise, here is a map of global firepower:
THE WEST HAS TWO PARTS
Modern Europe—liberal, democratic Europe—is the United States’ creation. This story was once known to every American, but as the generation responsible for this achievement dies, so too has the knowledge ceased to be passed down casually, within families. Once everyone’s father or grandfather had fought in the war, and so everyone knew, roughly, what had happened. Knowing it, now, requires education or an act of effort.
Mine was probably the last generation that universally understood, without being specifically taught, that the militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union together reduced Germany to ashes, divided it, occupied it, hanged its leaders, then rebuilt it (in the case of the United States and Western Europe) or imprisoned and enslaved it (in the case of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). We knewthat a long and brutal twilight war followed, that at last the Soviet Union collapsed and Eastern Europe was liberated, permitting the Continent to achieved at last what had for millennia been a dream: a Europe united, whole and free.
Americans died, suffered, and labored assiduously, for generations, to create of Europe what it had never been before: a zone of peaceful, prosperous, liberal, democracies—and the other half of the West. The rescue and reconstruction of Europe was a moral and political accomplishment that has only one rival in historic significance: the founding of the United States itself.
Our grandparents destroyed the most monstrous and tyrannical regimes humanity has known. They proved that our system of governance, or something much like it, could be built and made to work on that very soil. This is the story of the world we know, and the story of our country, too. This is the accomplishment now under threat.
The world we built is the only world any American alive now knows. We take it for granted. The United States seems so mammoth and solid that it requires immense imagination to realize that nothing about our system of governance is intuitive, natural, or typical—or to recall that before we built this world, liberal democracy was a fragile and relatively untested experiment. It was our victory in the Second World War and our reconstruction of Europe and Japan that made us a global, norm-setting power, capable of defining the rules of international order. Our power and success made democracy a global aspiration—and in many places a reality.
The United States built this modern order upon an architecture of specific institutions: NATO, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, the International Court of Justice, the World Economic Forum. Some of these have been more successful than others; all have acquired legitimacy of their own. American power—military, diplomatic, and economic—has undergirded it all. Whatever its faults, and of course there are many, it is by far the best global order humanity has yet achieved.
There is no reason to believe that if it is destroyed, something better would replace it. There is every reason to believe it would simply be destroyed.
If the West is at the center of this order, it is not because European imperialism has emerged in a new guise. European imperialism is a globally loathed and discredited ideology. It has no power to capture the modern imagination or compel allegiance.
The West is at the center of this system despite its imperial past, not because of it; and it is at the center through the moral authority of liberal democracy—because we have, visibly, governed ourselves in the way people around the world would like to be governed. We have been wealthy and we have been safe; until recently, we have not died of easily-prevented epidemic disease; our women have not been enslaved; our buildings have only rarely collapsed in earthquakes; our governments have generally left us alone, and they have refrained from stealing everything that isn’t nailed down.
The global order we built is more humane than European imperialism. It rests upon two beliefs, one idealistic and the other realistic: The first is the idea that certain moral values are universal and that liberal democracies best reflect and cultivate those values. The second is that in international affairs; anarchy reigns: Power is the only currency that matters.
The United States lent its immense power to the creation of a world that obeyed, or pretended to obey, moral rules, one where invading ones neighbor is “illegal,” even if the only court is US military, one in which countries signed such treaties as the Geneva conventions and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—and then looked to the United States to enforce them.
Europe was designed—by the United States—as a global advertisement for liberal democracy. The collapse of liberal democracy in Europe would represent the failure of the ideal, and thus the failure of the ideas upon which the United States rests.
If liberal democracy fails in the West, it fails, period. There are small pockets of liberal democracy elsewhere—in Australia and New Zealand, in Israel, in parts of East Asia. But there is no other superpower exemplar of the system, save—and this hope is remote—an India that might emerge later in the 21st century, but has not yet. Unless there are real, functioning examples of flourishing, prosperous, and powerful liberal democracies—not micro-states, but powers capable of enforcing the rules of international order—the idea itself will die, noted by history as nothing more than a short-lived and unsustainable experiment.
A host of anti-liberal states and non-state entities are now focused assiduously upon destroying liberal democracy in Europe. Foremost among them is Russia. The reason for this is clear: You rob banks because that’s where the money is; you destroy Europe because that’s where the West is. There is no clear way quickly to destroy the United States outright; it is too well protected by its geography and its nuclear deterrent. But there is a reasonably easy way to isolate the United States and render it, essentially, irrelevant: by destroying Europe, which is not nearly so easy to defend. This is why Europe has become the central battlefield in the war for the West.
There has always been a historic rivalry between Europe and the United States. It is, fundamentally, a rivalry that reflects what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. American and European cultures and societies are essentially dialects of the same language. Indeed, we literally speak dialects of the same language. There is nothing like a natural alliance, similitude of culture, or shared values between the United States and Saudi Arabia, or the United States and China.
But as Freud also noted, the narcissism of small differences is profoundly dangerous. It gives rise to the most vehement species of aggression. It is easily exploited. It is being exploited. Americans have too readily forgotten that Europe is their twin—the other half of the Western coin. Historic rivalries among Europeans, in turn, are being exploited to the same end.
Anyone who tells Americans they don’t need Europe is lying. Anyone who tells Europeans they don’t need Americans is lying. Look at the map. If liberal democracy falls in Europe, it will fail in the United States; if it fails in the United States, it will fall in Europe. If either fails, the West will no longer exist.
Claire Berlinski is the co-founder and editor of the Cosmopolitan Globalist.