Americans don’t think much about Europe, let alone what does or does not constitute the European ideal. Mostly this is a matter of geographic realities, but in his new book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age journalist James Kirchick observes that when these matters do come up, American concern about Europe often devolves into contempt.
“There is a tendency among American policy makers and pundits, particularly those on the right, to hold up their collective nose at Europe,” he writes. “They shudder at Europeans’ deference to the state, their willingness to turn over so much of their incomes to the government, their limits on free speech, and their reluctance to pay for militaries, never mind use them. So widespread and deeply held is this conception in some quarters that ‘Europe’ has become a dirty word in American political discourse, shorthand for a sort of feeble collectivist impulse. Americans complain that Europeans are ‘free-riders’ whose lavish social programs are possible only through the defense umbrella thanklessly subsidized by American taxpayers.”
These criticisms of Europe aren’t completely off-base, but with rise of a populist-driven “America First” foreign policy they are increasingly being used to justify American disengagement from Europe. Further, Brexit and Europe’s own populist movements suggest Europe itself is on the verge of disengaging from a host of formal and informal economic and security alliances that have been built up over decades.
Unless you’re Pat Buchanan, you have to concede that there have been at least two rather notable examples in the last century where the United States ignoring mounting intra-European tensions has literally blown up in American faces. Looking at current continental tensions, it would be the height of foolishness to assume that, to paraphrase a quintessentially American tourist slogan, what happens in Europe stays in Europe.
The key question is how threatening Europe’s current problems are. Kirchick is well-qualified to make an assessment. He’s former reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and The End of Europe consists of a series of well-researched sketches of various European hot spots, augmented by his on-the-ground reporting. Early on in The End of Europe Kirchick warns, “In some ways, the region’s geopolitical turmoil evokes the perilous 1930s.”
The End of Europe is a pretty stark departure from the relatively recent consensus on Europe. Supposedly, the fall of communism and the rise of the European Union meant Pax Europaea far into the future. In fact, Kirchick notes his book is something of a corrective to a number of recent tomes on Europe. In 2005, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, “boasted that ‘Europe, quietly, has rediscovered within its foundations a revolutionary model for the future and an alternative to American hard power’ in the unfortunately titled Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century.”
This rose-colored thinking has also had a direct influence on foreign policy in the White House: “In 2002, Charles Kupchan, director of European affairs on the National Security Councils of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, published The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century. America’s chief rival for global influence, Kupchan prophesied, would not be China, but ‘an integrating Europe that is rising as a counterweight to the United States.’”
It’s now obvious that this optimism was wholly unwarranted. In its place, Kirchick offers a useful frame for thinking about the cultural and security conflicts that are likely to rend Europe until the underlying issues are resolved:
Imagine the continent on an x-y axis. The vertical dividing line, running roughly ‘from Stettin to Trieste’ as Winston Churchill described the Iron Curtain, divides an Eastern Europe demanding a harder line against Russia from a Western Europe desiring accommodation. The eastern half also to Germany’s insistence that Europe absorb well over a million African and Middle Eastern migrants. The horizontal dividing line pits the budget-conscious nations of Europe’s north against the more prodigal economies of its south. Britain, more detached from continental affairs than at any time since it joined the European Economic Community (the EU’s precursor) in 1973, scarcely fit into the diagram, even before voting to leave the EU in June 2016.
Russia, Russia, Russia
Obviously, Europe’s central security problem—and by extension the source of many other European problems—is Russia. Unlike the issues of Europe writ large, Russia is an issue that Americans have put a lot of thought into as of late. However, given the hysteria and partisan political baggage that has accompanied this concern, it’s an open question as to whether this sudden concern about Russia’s scheming against the West has been terribly productive.
Kirchick’s extensive first chapter on Russia is, once again, a useful corrective. If you’re familiar at all with Kirchick’s prolific byline, you know Kirchick has been a strident critic of President Trump since the beginning. True to form, he pauses here to excoriate Trump for his handling of Russia, relating to everything from his rhetoric undermining NATO to Trump’s assent to letting Russia seize Crimea. (One senses Kirchick has more to say, but at the time he was writing the book the thought of the inspiration for the villain in Back to the Future II becoming leader of the free world still seemed like a very unlikely possibility.)
But while criticism of Trump and his attitude toward Russia is hardly in short supply, Kirchick’s chapter is largely focused on the damning missteps the Obama administration made with regard to Russia. Obama blunders here continue to be largely ignored. As Obama was entering office, Central and Eastern European leaders—including those who know a thing or two about Russian agression, such as former Czech and Polish presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa—published an open letter to President Obama warning “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda with 21st-century tactics and methods.”
Nonetheless, Obama ignored those who knew better and moved full steam ahead with plans to placate Russia. The administration’s incompetent “Russian Reset” came just six months after the invasion of Georgia, for crying out loud. The Snowden affair—and by now, anyone who doesn’t think Snowden is actively abetted by Russia needs to have his head examined—should have made it clear that Russia’s ambitions and skullduggery were also directed at America, and more specifically, cleaving America from its allies in Europe. In fact, later in the eye-opening chapter on Germany, Kirchick explains at length how the revelations that America was spying on the German chancellor did incredible harm to American and German relations, and turned Snowden into something of a folk hero in Germany.
Yet the absurdly conciliatory attitude toward Russia continued very nearly to the end of the Obama administration. This was demonstrated most famously by Obama’s retort in the 2012 debate against Romney, who had quite correctly warned of the Russian threat: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” By the time Russia invaded Crimea, Kirchick notes that Obama’s response—“You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext”—betrayed an obdurate lack of self-awareness. If only Obama had been warned of Russia’s nineteenth-century mindset…
Even with the first hostile land grab in Europe since World War II and Russia zig-zagging over Obama’s red lines in Syria while 400,000 died, it took the hacking of Democratic Party turnspit John Podesta and Hillary Clinton’s electoral loss for Obama to start acting tough. By then he was on his way out the White House door, and a new president who once openly wondered if Putin will “become my new best friend” was on his way in.
Obviously, this is a book on Europe, and accordingly there’s so much more here than just Russia. Kirchick’s reporting on much of what’s going on in pockets of Europe will likely be both unfamiliar and horrifying to American readers. Other topics include how influential ethno-nationalists in Hungary are trying to whitewash the country’s Nazi complicity, and the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in France, where you have to get patted down whenever you enter a synagogue.
There are good surveys of the underpinnings of Brexit and the failure of the European Union to deal with the problems created by mass Islamic migration into the continent. Finally, more good reporting from Greece, where the economic crises and anti-capitalist sentiment are leading to yet more political revolt, and he details in depth the tense security situation in the Ukraine, which Kirchick calls “the new West Berlin.”
There’s so much ground to cover, that Kirchick wisely approaches all of this with a reporter’s eye. While he’s not one to lack opinions, Kirchick doesn’t pontificate excessively, as the concerns about creeping illiberalism mostly speak for themselves. That said, the occasional generalization does slip through. Kirchick is critical of certain realist approaches to Europe, and at a time when we desperately need to square the circle of the apparent hankering for an “America First” foreign policy with the obvious need to find smart ways to assert American power in Europe, this could turn off some of the very readers most in need of considering Kirchick’s case.
Further, because Kirchick’s book is focused on relatively recent events and is reported, at times there is a desire for a deeper background on the big-picture causes of modern Europe’s woes—Christopher Caldwell’s amazingly prescient Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam and the West would make an excellent companion volume to better understand the roots of Europe’s political upheaval. But this is hardly a criticism of Kirchick’s book, because shoehorning a comprehensive topic like modern Europe into a single volume is always difficult and The End of Europe does what it does very well.
While reading the book there’s a constant, gnawing sense that Europe is moving culturally and politically backwards. “Europe’s manifold crises collectively represent a crisis of liberalism,” Kirchick writes. “As the memory of World War II, the Holocaust, and the gulag fades, so too does antipathy to the illiberal ideologies that spawned Europe’s past horrors.” He further warns in the conclusion that, “Where Europe once had men and women like Havel, Kohl, Thatcher, Mitterand, and Walesa, today the likes of Zeman, Corbyn, Orbán, Kaczynski, and Le Pen are ascendant. Belief in joint prosperity and the rejection of zero-sum politics—necessary precursors to Europe’s unprecedented peace and prosperity—are losing adherents.”
Indeed, Europe appears to be on the precipice of swapping out a bunch of feckless liberals-in-name-only for a new set of nationalist populist leaders, and the last time Europe made this trade, to say things did not turn out well might be the literal understatement of the century. It’s not clear whether this new breed of populists will prove to be as threatening as they’re made out to be, but the situation is alarming enough that by the time readers finish The End of Europe Kirchick’s suggestion that the situation “evokes the perilous 1930s” doesn’t carry one whiff of hyperbole.