by Bruce S. Thornton
The foreign minister of Spain recently compared the troubled EU to the Titanic, a metaphor not quite so trite given the new research into why the world’s biggest ocean liner collided with an iceberg. Titanic historian Tim Maltin argues that a cold-water mirage may have obscured the iceberg from the watchmen until it was too late. So too with the EU: ideological illusions have for decades fooled the EUrophiles into thinking that they could speed full steam ahead to their utopian destination, a United States of Europe that could rival the United States for global power and influence. Now that the fiscal iceberg is looming ever closer, the enthusiastic effusions of those who once touted Europe as a “bold new experiment in living” and “the best hope in an insecure age” sound more and more like the White Star Line’s assurances that the Titanic was unsinkable.
The mirage that has blinded the EU’s creators and champions is not hard to explain. For two centuries many Europeans have been deluded by the notion that nationalist loyalties and identity could be subordinated to a transnational institution run by elites with superior knowledge and technical skills. Loyalty to and affection for one’s own people, land, customs, governments, and mores were seen as primitive holdovers from a less enlightened age. Like religious faith, these exclusionary, divisive values were barbaric instigators of war and civil strife, predicated as they were on ignorance and superstition. Sweep those loyalties and beliefs away, and the human race could progress to peace and prosperity by relying instead on science, technology, and the elites who possessed the knowledge of both.
And why not? History offered evidence of such progress. In the 19th century, communication and transport technologies like the telegraph, railroad, and steamship shrank the world, making possible a global trade and exchange of ideas that seemingly bound people into a “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations,” as the Preamble to the First Hague Convention put it in 1899. For many internationalist idealists, what Immanuel Kant a century earlier had called the “progress of the human mind” was creating a global community of shared values and aims, a “harmony of interests” that could be codified in international laws and institutions superior to the parochial cultures, irrational customs, and retrograde values of any individual country or people. An imagined consequence of this increasing unification of peoples was Kant’s imagined “federation of free states” that could create global peace and prosperity by transcending the zero-sum and often irrational, destructive interests of individual states and peoples.
World War I should have put paid to the illusion that humans could progress beyond the local and particular cultures in which most people lived and found their identities. From 1914-1918 millions of Europeans slaughtered each other on behalf of those national loyalties, even the universalist, transnational socialists fighting and dying in the trenches under their nations’ banners. In 1918, G. K. Chesterton explained why: “Nobody has any such ecstatic regard for the mere relations of different people to each other, as one would gather from the rhetoric of idealistic internationalism . . . Now, too much cosmopolitan culture is mere praise of machinery. It turns ultimately upon the point that a telegram can be sent from one end of the earth to the other, irrespective of what is in the telegram.” In the end, Chesterton says, “Men care more for the rag that is called a flag than for the rag that is called a newspaper. Men care more for Rome, Paris, Prague, Warsaw than for the international railways connecting these towns.”
In other words, the “global community” is a mirage, no more a real human community than an online chat room. Our collective identities and loyalties are necessarily local, a consequence of particular ways of life lived in particular landscapes defined in part by their differences from those of other peoples, an existential fact no amount of technological advances can change. This means that we want to be ruled by people who live and speak like us, and whom we can hold politically accountable. And it means that our own national interests will necessarily differ from those of other states, and sometimes those different interests will lead to conflict.
After World War I, the persistence of internationalist idealism institutionalized a fatal incoherence in the Versailles Treaty’s supranational League of Nations. The designers of the League intended it to be the creator and guarantor of global peace and order, and thus avoid the sort of nationalist-driven carnage of the Great War. Yet the League also enshrined the notion of what Woodrow Wilson called “national aspirations” and ethnic self-determination. The two ideals were contradictory, since sovereign nations defined by their distinct identities did not want to surrender their sovereignty or subordinate their particular interests to a body comprising alien peoples that would at times have to pursue aims contrary to those nations’ own. The failure of the League in resolving this contradiction quickly became evident in the two decades between the wars, when it was powerless to stop the escalating inter-state violence that paved the way for World War II. Nor should we be surprised at this failure: as long as there are sovereign, self-ruling states comprising peoples with different languages, cultures, and customs, nations and peoples will collide, sometimes violently.
Yet the failure of the League, along with that of its equally incoherent offspring the UN, did not inhibit the creation of the EU, yet another “federation of free states” whose purpose is to subordinate national interests to loftier goals. Yet the incoherence remains and is obvious in the EU monetary union, which is made up of sovereign states, each with its own peculiar economic and political interests, histories, cultural norms regarding work and leisure, laws, and fiscal systems. These different customs, different virtues, and different attitudes towards work, leisure, and the good life all derive from the particular histories, geographies, and cultures that define a people and a nation. These differences will not disappear because states share a currency or economic regulations.
The increasingly bitter divide among the EU nations is evidenced over the past few years in the elections of leaders skeptical about the leadership of the EU’s economic powerhouse and financier, Germany, and its prescriptions about how to solve the fiscal disaster. These divisions increasingly illustrate the continuing power of national identity and culture that always has compromised the whole EU project. As Walter Russell Mead succinctly put it, “Club Med doesn’t want to live under German rules and Germany doesn’t want a Club Med currency. Club Med can’t make Germany underwrite the Club’s lavish lifestyle and Germany can’t make Club Med live by German rules.” That’s because Germans, French, Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, and the rest are all profoundlydifferent peoples, and no amount of internationalist mirages can change the reality of those differences. Like that iceberg in 1912, the cultural and nationalist peculiarities of the EU countries are the stubborn and unchanging realities with which the EU project is destined to collide.
©2012 Bruce S. Thornton