Letter from Europe: Western Europe’s Crisis of Confidence

To many Americans who read about Europe in their newspapers, who watch Europeans demonstrating against American nuclear weapons or American policy in Central America on their TV screen, Western Europe must have become a place difficult to understand. What went wrong in a relationship and an alliance that has been more successful in keeping the peace and protecting freedom and democracy than any comparable one in history? Why this upsurge of anti-Americanism in countries which would be unable to survive as democracies if America decided to disengage itself from their defense? Sure, most European critics of American policy are not very original minds. They often simply repeat the arguments of the American east-coast press and the opposition in Congress. They did so during the Vietnam War, they do so today. Some of them do even worse: they spread the news disseminated by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua or the rumors planted by the Soviet disinformation department. Many Europeans appear to look at the United States the way they look at the Soviet Union. They see themselves as lamentable victims caught between two dangerous “superpowers,” while they themselves strive for detente between East and West in Europe. While turning a blind eye to the suffering of the people of Afghanistan and leaning backwards to understand the need for the repression of Poland, they are up in arms as soon as President Reagan has opened his mouth.

In the meantime, they seem to have abandoned that single promising postwar ideal of theirs to regain political strength through federal unity. The unification of Western Europe is still publicly preached; it is no longer practically pursued. At least the process appears to be stuck in mountains of agricultural overproduction and unaccepted proposals.

To understand the crisis of confidence between Western Europe and North America, one must first try to understand the crisis of identity in Western Europe itself. This latter crisis is even more serious than the former one. The former one cannot be understood without it.

I would like to urge my American readers to see pre-sent anti-Americanism in Europe as a product of Western Europe’s own crisis of identity even when expressed with the arrogance of some of its leading (former) statesmen. Europe may be old and experienced as some of them like to tell you. But — leaving aside now our poets, musicians and painters — what other experience can European states offer but violence, war, poor government and unstable democracies? The painful division of the European continent between East and West was not agreed upon at Yalta, as some Europeans like to argue. It was the outcome of two European world wars and the European crisis of 1914-1945, which produced the rise of totalitarian ideologies and reduced the former European great powers to impotence. The division of Europe has arisen on the ruins of Hitler’s Germany. Whoever wants to grasp Europe’s crisis of identity today, must look at the Berlin Wall, the barbed wire and the minefields running through the heart of Germany and Europe. For Americans, the division of Europe may be a strategic or political problem; for West-Europeans it is a cultural problem; for Germans it is a family problem. While Americans tend to look at the division of Europe as an adversary relationship to be managed, Europeans feel themselves hostages to this division.

Europeans are hostages of their own history. The principal lesson they draw from two world wars is that another major war on their soil must be prevented … at any price. Beyond that lesson they draw in common, “Europeans” cease to exist as an identifiable group. In their responses to crises and threats of war, they again fall apart into Germans, Italians, Greeks; Dutch, French, Belgian, Danish or British nationals. The Germans carry the burden of two lost wars fought for causes few Germans would like to defend or even remember; it is hard for them to explain to their younger generation that any cause today is worth fighting for. French national pride has never been able to digest the fact that their nation was thrice defeated by Germany, and that national independence could only be restored with British and American assistance; they tend to resent and request American protection. The British alone stood firm against Hitler-Germany in the second world war; they won the war but lost their empire. Ever since, they maneuver between a policy of maintaining the special relationship with America and one of becoming part of Western Europe. The experience of the smaller Benelux countries is again entirely different.

Whatever their policy, the military interests of the major powers alone, will decide whether they shall be victims or neutrals in a war. Following the violation of their neutrality, their postwar choice for alliance and American protection was the obvious one. Faced with increased East-West tension and growing Soviet power, they tend to succumb to the inclination to withdraw from responsibility and hope for the best. Unlike the Germans, the Italians do not carry too heavy a burden from Mussolini’s fascism and the lost second world war. For them the strength of the communist party is a more serious threat to their postwar democracy than a revival of fascism; more than any other country in Western Europe, they need the Atlantic Alliance for the sake of internal political stability. Anti-Americanism today appears to be strongest in Greece; the explanation lies in the unsolved conflict with Turkey and the recent Greek experience with a nasty military dictatorship from 1967-74, which Greece feels Americans accepted too benignly.

The Europeans of different nationalities are also hostages of their own history in a deeper sense. The tremendous moral confusion created by the two world wars followed an era in which the nineteenth-century philosophies of progress had come to replace traditional Christian thinking as the intellectual frame of reference. As a consequence many Europeans felt and feel unable to rise above the challenge posed by the totalitarian ideologies which emerged from the chaos of the first world war. Afraid to be considered “enemies of progress,” many intellectuals were lured into the temptation of communist and socialist ideology.

In the immediate postwar years, Western Europe’s crisis of identity was disguised by the commitment to economic and political recovery and the reorientation of American foreign policy. American superiority enabled West-European states to accept American protection and to postpone decisions on assuming major responsibility for their own security. Within the framework of American Marshall aid and Atlantic cooperation, West-European states could pursue their aim to achieve economic integration and work for political unity. Had the aims been achieved, Western Europe’s crisis of identity might well have been overcome; a unified Western Europe might well have exercised such attraction that the division of Europe would be looked upon as a tragedy that could be overcome. All this, unfortunately, has not come to pass. Western Europe’s crisis of identity has become all the more serious as a result. Faced with superior Soviet power and frustrated attempts to unify their countries, Europeans are sliding back into the mood of the thirties. In their desire to avoid war from a position of weakness, they are more inclined to appease the stronger Soviet power than to support the American ally.

In so doing, they make themselves also hostages to the present division of Europe, and to Soviet policy. If — as many Europeans today assume — America can no longer be relied upon to overcome the division of Europe, and Western Europe itself lacks the desire to do so, opinions and policies are bound to slide into those of the hostage, who no longer believes in outside assistance.

The hostage seeks to accommodate his enemy and to dissociate himself from his ally. Anti-Americanism in Western Europe today reflects the widespread feeling that the division of Europe can be overcome only through a process of accommodating the Soviet Union. It is not a policy but a state of mind. It expresses the European crisis of identity and is the outcome of submissiveness to superior totalitarian power.

The resulting crisis of confidence between Western Europe and North America cannot be overcome by restoring military strength — however necessary it be — or by improving mutual consultation. Only a renewed commitment to democracy and basic shared values can keep Western Europe and North America together.



  • Frans Alting von Geusau

    Frans Alting von Geusau (born in 1933 in Bilthoven) is a Dutch legal scholar and diplomat. When he wrote this article he was affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Institute in Tilburg, the Netherlands, and was also professor of international and European organizations at the Catholic University of Tilburg.

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