Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Wise Old Europe

During the cold war, Western European countries deflected criticism that they spent far less, as a percentage of their gross domestic products, on defense than did the United States with a curious argument: Because it is more threatened by the collectivist propaganda of the Soviet Union, Europe must spend vastly more on welfare programs to avoid the growth of internal European sympathy for the Soviet system among the intellectually vulnerable working class. There are therefore necessarily fewer resources remaining for defense - the argument continued - but this is not objectionable because in Europe such welfare spending IS essentially defense spending.

Whatever truth (if any) this argument held, its neat conflation of defense and welfare priorites was never significantly made in the United States. Indeed, most Americans aren't aware that this argument was routinely passed by and around Europe as serious stuff - but it was.

That the argument represented a typical European shell game with many shells and no pea was, of course, revealed to any who cared to notice at the conclusion of the cold war, when European defense budgets diverged even further from American expenditures. The Europeans quitely stopped making that argument.

With the passing of the Soviet threat, and an even more profound discrediting of the Soviet economic system, the Europeans needed to shore up their willful insistence of passing their defense buck to the United States. They seem to have chosen "American unilateralism" as the surrogate, an inherently unstable posture which requires them to criticize in increasingly strident tones the very country they are counting on to foot their defense bill. Further, the advance of European cultural homogenization and political integration makes the European "unilateralism" argument increasing absurd - as has been discussed here before.

But Europe's prior long term reliance on the almost equally absurd "our-welfare-IS-defense" argument should indicate that the problems in Europe are far deeper and go back much further than any dissonance emerging from the current War on Terror (a la Chris Patten). The Cold War threatened to consume Europe utterly, so there was always much more at stake there than there is in the War on Terror or in any hideous event - even the inevitable event in Europe - this War seeks to head off. But the European political systems never faced up even to the realities of the Cold War, preferring the comforts of specious argumentation, which the United States allowed them to do. There is no reason to believe that they will ever do any better in the current setting absent implacable American insistence.

One cost to Europe of its expanding dependence on ever more absurd and intellectually dishonest rationalizations is, of course, ever growing irrelevancy, as noted for example by Irwin Stelzer in The Times. But Europe's irrelevancy is not a sufficient consequence for its unspeakable and long-term irresponsibility. More should be done.

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