And “Of Paradise and Power”
One of the foundations of Cold War Europe was an American military presence large enough to make the threat of American retaliation to a Soviet attack believable. In other words, there had to be enough soldiers there so that if they were killed – we’d be pissed enough to start and finish another world war. By the time I was growing up in the 80's and was first becoming aware of geo-politics it was a matter of dogma that World War III would be fought between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe. NATO was best understood as US forces with a handful of German and British support units. Warsaw Pact forces were Russians...just Russians. To put a finer point on it, we had this euphemism that pitted the "East" against the "West" and imagined a "World War" but what we all really meant was that The United States and Russia would fight, but not on either's home turf. Even "The Soviet Union" was a kind of distortion of reality since the other union members weren't there willingly, and would not willingly participate materially. So for about 50 years Europe, both east and west, lived under the shadow/umbrella of the two superpowers and was like a kid caught in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle; with both parents so caught up in defending their stuff that the child just becomes another extension of their warring egos. It’s funny how well that metaphor anticipates the end. One day, one of the parents ran out of money...and dropped their case. The Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was over.
But with no need to fight over or defend Europe, the United States wasn’t quite sure what to do with the ‘prize.’ It seems that Bill Clinton’s ‘Peace Dividend’ was our way of saying “The danger is over now. You guys can stand on your own two feet now. Have fun.” The aside to the audience would have read something like, “I’m glad that burden is off my shoulders. I’m going to go over here now and look for something more fun to do.” Then in the mid 90's, Europe had a problem in its own back yard - Kosovo. In time, after much debate, they decided that military intervention was needed. But even in this "European" enterprise, a relatively meager distance from France, Germany and England - something like 70% of the equipment and personnel used in that campaign were American. In all those years under our wings, the entire continent had forgotten how to fight for for themselves. More specifically, their militaries had atrophied to almost nothing in both hardware and know-how. The main training mantra in all those years had become “When the going gets tough, call the Yankees.”
If you’ll remember, when we were building up to the war in Iraq, there was this big fuss because the US felt that our European allies weren't stepping up when we needed their support. Many Americans felt as if these nations owed us a degree of deference and loyalty because of all the years we had risked our own blood and treasure to defend them. I was one of them. But since then, I’ve come to think differently. I realize that the use of military force is not a realistic option for Europe. Of course they're reluctant to fight, because their capacity to fight is so limited. Conversely, our capacity to fight, more specifically our remarkable capacity to win with increasingly small loss of life and property, has made the use of force a rather attractive option for the United States (perhaps too attractive, but I’m not at all certain of that conclusion). Please don't misunderstand - the loss of almost 2500 American lives in Iraq is in no way being trivialized, but when one considers that more soldiers were lost in a single training exercise for D-Day, to say nothing of the lives lost in that single battle, it's hard not to notice that the risks are much smaller than they used to be, at least for the US. (the guilt associated with that preeminence is another topic I’d love to explore, but not here.)
Where the US is emboldened by our success, Europe has been weakened by their dependence. We weren’t their ally, we were their protector, and it weakened them. Not just in the number of tanks and jets, but in their hearts. All that time spoke one message loud and clear – you are incapable of defending yourself. And the mission in Kosovo must have driven that point home even deeper. And so now, trying to find some hook to hang their pride on, the leaders of Europe look to their seats on the UN Security Council as the one place where formerly great nations still wield real power. They resent the US for our pride, our success and the help we gave them starting with the Marshall Plan. It’s odd to look at W@H as a template to understand politics but I have to say...the shoe really fits here. The template of the wound and the vow and the false self – it all goes a very long way to understanding Europe in the double-oughts.
What happened to Europe over the last 100 years? At the beginning of the 1900’s Europe as a whole was ascendant. Internal bickering aside, the continent led the world by a large margin in economics, politics, military might, intellectual thought, etc. etc. But then it’s as if they just self-destructed from the inside out. These two events we call the World Wars really weren’t world wars at all – but by centering on Europe they affected the entire world. What caused them to eventually combust? Pride at what they’d accomplished? Guilt over colonial sins? I don’t really have an answer here, I’m just wondering. While we don’t generally look at the last century as having a unit called “Europe” it certainly applies to some degree. The amount of intellectual, cultural, and economic interchange has made Europe a distinct and coherent thing since Roman times.
So today, with an obviously atrophied military they continue to desire a seat with superpower status (see: UN Security Council) even when the term ‘superpower’ is almost defined by military power. Similarly, they want to have a world court, a single currency, a grand unifying constitution, etc. etc. It's like there is this vision of something bigger in Europe, something that would empower Europe with real relevance and vitality...but they can't quite seem to get it done. It's almost like the overweight, spoiled kid of a rich dad who earned his fortune by hard work. The kid has seen big ideas work but has had everything handed to him for so long that he doesn't know how to balance his admittedly beefy checkbook.
As the Cold War recedes farther into the past, and as the US draws away, most likely to face the rapid and exciting changes in Asia, Europe is getting acquainted with some harder realities that it's been largely insulated from over the previous 50 years. They're finding that the world is a lot more competitive these days. They're finding that without a common enemy, they have a lot of old animosity between them that hasn't been settled. They're finding that a military costs money and requires support if it's going to ever figure as a factor in international politics. It must seem like a cold bucket of water in the face after the Cold War, where they were able to live in a sort of Kantian paradise and the bills were always paid by somebody else - us.
There is another aspect here that I’m at a loss to account for, but must be important – the fact that Europe now sees itself as Post-Christian. I guess as I say that I must conclude that this matter is in fact MORE important than the economic, political or military aspects of Europe’s path. The truth is that I haven’t done my homework and I have no sense of where or when Europe’s faith started its nosedive. But in my (unverified) image of 1901 Europe - it sure looks as if Christianity was still alive and well at that time. It seems that it only fell apart in the next 100 years. Was it less? Was Europe still Christian in 1950? My gut tells me that the death knell of European Christianity was World War I. The brutal futility of trench warfare, the appearance of mustard gas, the helplessness with which nation after nation was drawn into a conflict by force of treaties that were intricately designed to prevent war.
Perhaps it largely comes down to modernity.
20th century Europe was built on the foundation of modernity. It’s rise to power hinged on technological advances, the promise of progress and an abiding faith in man’s ability to better himself. It was the Enlightenment and humanism and the Age of Reason. For the most part modernity had no problem with Christianity. Sure there were tensions like that mess with Galileo and the Pope, but the bulk of Enlightenment movers and shakers were at least deists. Still, at some point that would be hard to define, a belief in human potential became a belief in human independence and God became at first distant, then disinterested, then dead. Christian faith went from pivotal, to parochial, to problematic. It was The Enlightenment Unchecked that brought us mustard gas and machine guns and coal soot so thick it changed the color of the peppered moth. And as 1917 closed, standing atop its massive cathedrals and looking over their profound ability to slaughter one another by the hundreds of thousands Europe must have wondered, Where is God in all of this? But it was then, like in Forest Gump – that God showed up. Out of nowhere rose the Spanish flu, and the world witnessed death on a scale not seen since the plague. Millions of dead in a single year and all of man’s great potential and power was unable to cause or prevent it. The Enlightenment had failed. Its premise was demonstrated to be false by its own methods.
When modernity lost its connection to God, it essentially lost its anchor to reality and to life. At that point, its eventual decline into morbidity was inevitable. Look, I’m not one of those guys who thinks that all of modernity was bad, but cut free from Heaven and Hell it was just another Tower of Babel. The root problem that Postmodernism seeks to grapple with is a world where nothing means anything, all symbols are referential, and all truth is relative. When people say that Europe is Post-Christian they are recognizing and opposing one fact – that Europe was built on Christianity for the previous 1600 years. But they are forgetting or ignoring a much more germane point – that Europe worked hard to break free of Christianity in the most recent 100 or so years, and most of the pain and misery at issue came after that break, not before.
There’s a saying that great civilizations fall from within, they are not conquered from without. It’s as if somewhere in the mix of the two world wars and the rise of Communism that Europe grew somehow disgusted with itself at some level and it balked at the future. The US, I suspect, could not have risen to power as it did unless the European powers invited or allowed it. In a way, WWI, WWII and the Cold War are the stories of Europe needing to be saved from itself. Like we interfered in great acts of self immolation...and perhaps Europe resents that like a jumper who’s violently yanked from the precipice. To that degree, America’s continuing Christianity perhaps seems offensive – they are the cynics who bark at the optimists – “Grow up!”
Boy, this post started in one direction, veered sharply to one side and now drifts slowly into a third...sorry for the rambling.
But I started with a thought on Europe’s future. Let me make something clear - I'm not sassing Europe in this post. I'm just describing what I see. I think Europe is at a crossroads and I'm curious to see which way they go. On the current course, I think they are most likely headed toward a ‘remember the glory days’ kind of stagnation and eventually irrelevance - BUT...I also think that they'll change. While Postmodernism could be described as a rejection of truth, it could also be seen as a (albeit cynical) search for truth...and in that case they will find it. There is a tremendous spiritual hunger out there. At least twice in this post I’ve likened Europe to a child and I think that’s accurate in many ways. On the point of religion I see Europe in a kind of teen-age rebellion, throwing down their parent’s faith in defiance of what they see as hypocrisy and foolishness. But teenagers grow up when they get kicked out of the house. What makes sense from your upstairs bedroom doesn’t wash in your own apartment. I suspect that even now, the regular folks in Europe are sniffing around the edges of Christianity and finding that it is not the same as modernity, it just has something to say about it. Nor is it imperialism or socialism or capitalism – or any of the other things that turned out to be false idols. I suspect it’s at that point when the deep laid seeds of European Christianity will start to bloom again.