19 February 2015

The post-1945 geopolitical settlement is now crumbling


“Stare into the abyss for long enough” wrote Nietzsche, “and it will stare back at you.” In 1945, Europe seemed caught in the abyss’s basilisk gaze. Tens of millions were dead; millions more were refugees. Cities were shattered; with them, economies. Many of the inhabitants of countries which had recently been rich and powerful were cold, hungry and frightened.

That was not the worst aspect of Europe’s predicament. In 1914, the continent had never been more powerful. Its banks and bourses dominated the world economy. It controlled Africa and much of Asia. Even China, once a mighty power, was virtually a ward of European courts. Although the Americas were largely independent, their states could be regarded as European daughter-houses. It seemed that Europe was in a position to shape the rest of the world in its own image, to its own advantage.

Then came the great European civil war. In its aftermath, Ezra Pound described Europe as “an old bitch gone in the teeth… a botched civilisation.” A harsh verdict: by 1945, it seemed incontrovertible. On the edge of the abyss, Europe was still just about alive, but what future role had the former world continent, except to provide the playing-field for a third and final conflict, in which the doom of Europe would rapidly be followed by the destruction. After exemplifying the human condition at its finest, Europe was for the dark.

Back then, that would not have been a pessimistic assessment, merely a realistic one. Yet it was confounded, by a paradoxical fusion of man’s basic strengths and his highest attributes. Large mammals are used to fighting for their lives. Circumscribed by death, human life is inherently tragic. For millennia, men have sought to palliate tragedy by relationships with deities, in religions which transcend death. At best, the success is partial. Faiths and convictions ebb and flow. But juxtaposed between glory and gloom, life goes on. Large mammals are tough and sinewy creatures.

They can also be inspired by idealism, and not only in religious matters. 1945 was the worst of times, but some of the best of men sought a path away from the abyss. Their motto was “never again”. They wanted to create institutions to safeguard man against himself. Though Europe would never again rule the world, its values would survive. They also wanted to create institutions to ensure physical survival. Hence the two horns of the paradox: military realism and political-economic idealism. Nato would ensure that Europe could not be over-run. Nascent transnational economic institutions would provide the basis for a return to prosperity.

Both were remarkably successful. Both owed a great deal to accidental men. In 1945, as his health failed, President Roosevelt’s judgment also seemed mortally afflicted. Probably motivated by a feline jealousy of Churchill, FDR appeared to have decided that he could trust Stalin. In his biography of Roosevelt, Conrad Black argues that this was only a feint and that the President was not deceived. Henry Kissinger cautiously endorses the Black verdict, pointing out that none of FDR’s many critics ever accused him of naivety. Equally –  evidence for the Black thesis –  Roosevelt had already taken one of the most important decisions any US president has ever made. He had replaced his Vice-President.

Henry Wallace, Vice-President since 1940, was naive. Impressed by Soviet Communism’s rhetoric, he was impervious to its reality. As President at a crucial and dangerous moment, he would probably have been a disaster. But FDR sacked him, replacing him with Harry Truman. Nothing in Truman’s previous career had suggested that he was Presidential timber. Moreover, foreign policy is a long study. Truman was still a novice. Yet he had all the right instincts.

So did another accidental figure: Ernie Bevin. Truman did not have a degree. Bevin had almost no formal schooling. A formidable trade union leader – arguably a stronger qualification than anything in Truman’s CV – he became Foreign Secretary with virtually no background in foreign affairs. But he too had all the right instincts. Truman and Bevin were the founding fathers of Nato; the bedrock of Western Europe’s survival.

Nato was the nuclear umbrella. Underneath its shelter, on the continent of Europe, statesmen like Monnet, Schuman and Adenauer worked towards a new future, in which Europeans would move beyond nationalism. The foundations were economic. Starting with a Coal and Steel Community, working towards free trade in a common market, the founding fathers sought to rebuild Europe’s prosperity and thus recruit Europe’s peoples to a new political dispensation. Although none of them were marxists, these men did believe that economics would determine politics.

History is written backwards but lived forwards. Those of us tempted to disparage the achievements of Nato or the EU should pause to consider how matters must have seemed in 1945. Looking backwards, we think that we see an easy route upwards. They would have seen the most arduous climb over rough ground and rocks, facing an almost vertical gradient. But the daunting challenges were surmounted. For a generation, Nato and the European Community (under its changing nomenclatures) were more successful than the wildest optimists could have foreseen. Europe had survived. The abyss had receded. Europeans forgot how to be pessimistic, and then the troubles started.

1945: Europe was afflicted by implosion. From 1990 onwards, the problem was overstretch. The Russian Empire collapsed. When Empires fall, there is always tumbling masonry: consider the Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and British experiences. In comparison, the Soviet Empire’s expiry was a euthanasia. But there were still risks. They could have been averted, if the Westerners had taken a simple precaution: scrap their concepts while keeping their weaponry. Instead, defence budgets were reduced in order to pay a peace dividend, while Nato expanded.

It is hardly surprising that the Russians took offence, when we seemed determined to keep the Cold War alive and turn their retreat from Empire into a humiliation. Equally, the Russians know that the West’s posture on the Ukraine is based on bluster. At the height of the Cold War, de Gaulle always doubted the efficacy of mutually assured destruction; would the Americans really risk Detroit for Dusseldorf? But Nato’s posture retained its credibility. That is no longer true.

The EU also succumbed to overstretch. It forgot Marx, and tried to make politics determine economics. The Single Currency could only have worked if there had been a single fiscal policy. But that would have required huge democratic support. Without it, the creators of the Euro were trying to build a house, starting from the roof.

There was also the reductio ad absurdum: a Latin phrase for a Greek shambles. Greece was in no position to join the Euro. It had neither the economic strength nor the political stability. Post-war Greece has never recovered from the Civil War, which adds an especial bitterness to the electoral contests between Right and Left. Stalinopoulos would be succeeded by Kleptocrates; neither would bring healing, reform and realism. Admitting Greece to the Single Currency: that was not just overstretch. It was lunacy.

In order to see the world clearly, Europe has to recover from the overstretch mindset. We need a new system of collective security, which would include the Russians, and which could be used to stabilise boundaries and resolve disputes. In the EU, we require a variable geometry, accepting that different countries have different – and legitimate – agendas. It should not have needed the Greek dégringolade to convince the EU that it cannot be based on Procrustes’ bed.

The post-1945 European settlement had many successes. But it is now crumbling. It needs drastic modification. That requires statesmen of the calibre of the men of 1945. It is time for politicians who wish to earn a place in history and upgrade themselves to statesmanhood to step up to the challenge.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.