Is Europe, 1945, Coming Back to Life?

Is Europe, 1945, Coming Back to Life?

By Steven Butler

SourceJonathan McHugh/Getty


Disintegration in Europe could be corrosive for everyone.

By Steven Butler

Greece may be the sick man of Europe. But what if the entire continent is ill? A decade ago, the “European project” seemed an unstoppable freight train toward peace, democracy and prosperity. Yet today, it’s not far-fetched to imagine Europe breaking up, with Russia encroaching in the east, the continent-wide economy dragged down by a badly designed monetary system, an aging and shrinking labor force, the rise of anti-Europe nationalist parties and Greece on the edge of saying goodbye. Will Europe have the heft to continue serving as America’s principal and most reliable partner in global affairs?

To help sort through these questions, OZY caught up with leading Europeanist Ivo Daalder. Daalder’s current gig is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a post he took up after serving as the Obama-appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Brussels-based North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose principal mission has been to protect the continent from outside aggression (meaning the Soviet Union and now Russia). Daalder, 55, was born European, in the Netherlands, and came to the U.S. in the early 1980s for study. He stayed on. His tenure in Brussels also included the NATO intervention in Libya, which has become progressively more controversial as that country has descended into chaos.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

OZY: What do you think about the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in Europe?

Ivo Daalder: We all have to be concerned, because they represent a side of European politics that looks backward rather than forward. And at its most extreme, it represents that side of Europe that we hoped had vanished from the continent in 1945. In crises, national identity and national ethos become more important than the European project. The only time the European project is more important, no matter what the national identity, is when you’re trying to use it to deal with a very big threat.

OZY: And that threat once was Germany?

Ivo Daalder speaking in a file photo from 2012.

Europeanist Ivo Daalder.

Source Peter Hudec/Corbis

I.D.: The price that Germany was willing and eager to pay was to say that we would become a bigger, unified Germany within a larger and more integrated Europe, a basic deal between German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president Francois Mitterrand in which “you support German unification and I will support a weakening of German economic might.” Now, it didn’t work out that way. Germany has emerged as the most powerful economic and political actor on the European stage. Whether Europe can contain Germany, I have my doubts. Germany is beyond that. But whether there is a need to contain Germany today, I also have my doubts.

OZY: Can Europe hang together?

I.D.: We are today in a fight between national identities, such as the Greeks’, and the European project. I don’t think Europe will fall apart, because German chancellor Angela Merkel has taken on the mantle of leadership. She’s come around to pursuing the path that has been able to keep two very important goals in mind: maintaining European unity and maintaining the viability of the euro. The extent of change and the rate of change may have been too rapid, and that may lead to Greece exiting the euro, possibly even the union. But I think it is imperative on Germany’s leadership that that doesn’t happen. If Grexit [Greek exit] becomes easy, then maybe the next victim will be thrown out a little easier. It may call into question the project. This is uncharted territory, and everything I know about Mrs. Merkel is, that isn’t where she likes to be. She’s not a big risk taker, and I think she’s going to try to figure out a way to keep Greece in.

OZY: Why have you called for providing weaponry to Ukraine?

I.D.: I start with the proposition that when a country is invaded, it should have the right to defend itself. In effect, we’re putting an arms embargo on the victim. The counterargument is usually that there’s no military solution, so we should do negotiations. I agree there is no military solution — there’s no way we could provide enough arms to defeat the Russians. But the only way to get a political solution is to make the cost of the conflict high for Russia. 

OZY: How has Europe responded to the crisis?

I.D.: I am concerned when we are seeing the biggest crisis in Europe since 1990 that we don’t see a fundamental reaction. The Brits are still cutting their defense budget, and others have leveled off. I would like to see a more serious commitment to the defense of NATO territory from the Europeans. We should first bolster NATO’s actual capability. Second, we should be much more serious in ensuring that Putin fails in his attempt to destabilize Ukraine. The kind of money we are putting on the table is minuscule compared to what we need. Third, we need to raise the cost on Putin. We can’t lift sanctions; we need to increase them.  


OZY: Can Europe continue to be America’s global partner?

I.D.: We’re not yet at the breaking point. It is still the largest agglomeration of democratic states, our largest economic partner. It’s still the area that is most like us. There have always been differences, but the long-term trend is problematic — rising nationalist or extremist political movements, aging labor force. You have the potential to move through lost decades just as Japan has. We are starting to look toward India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN. But still the first instinct in a crisis is to call London, Paris or Berlin.  

OZY: Do you have second thoughts about the U.S. and NATO intervention in Libya? 

I.D.: Every day. Given what is happening in Libya, it would be foolish not to ask, “Would we do it differently?” I’m not convinced that the answer to that is yes. We had two purposes: first, preventing a massacre of the people of Benghazi by the regime’s military. Second was the Arab Spring, to give Libyans time and space to make their own decision. I don’t think that if we had put troops on the ground or provided for security, or done something more massive, that would have led to an outcome different from the chaos we now see. We should learn a lesson: Our capacity to effect internal positive change in society is limited.