European Affairs

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Events Are in the Saddle, Riding our Nations

Paraphrasing American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who warned that “things are in the saddle, and ride mankind,” events seem to be driving history faster than the leaders trying to manage it. Lately, the EU and the United States have seen many well-laid plans go astray – at least plans that seemed well-laid, until they backfired. The turn of events has instilled apprehensions that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic are losing control over the forces unleashed around the globe.

This perception may be too pessimistic. The looming threat of Iran has sparked significantly better geopolitical coordination among EU leaders and the Bush administration, showing how well the lessons of the Iraqi showdown have been learned on both sides of the Atlantic. But there is no evidence yet that this Transatlantic effort has turned the tide of events. On the contrary: Iran is likely to be a defining challenge on the shared global security agenda for Europe and the United States in the months ahead.

Meanwhile the setbacks and threats are all too visible. The EU constitution was intended to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the union. Instead, the outcome has partially paralyzed EU action. Expectations for settling Kosovo’s future and other lingering issues in the Balkans could be hampered if “enlargement fatigue” stymies hopes of using EU membership as a carrot to entice all the Balkan parties into agreement. The U.S. intervention in Iraq proved to be a much more difficult venture in practice than it seemed on paper. Instead of reducing threats in the volatile Middle East, the U.S. military foray has triggered reactions that could spread chaos in the region and in the global economy. Questions about Iran raise the stakes dramatically. At this perilous juncture, electoral trends have brought on a period of weakened political leadership in the four largest EU countries, introduced some wayward directions in the EU’s biggest newcomer and raised questions about U.S. staying power. Throughout the Western democracies, electorates seem doubtful about governments’ ability to look after their interests, a fear fueling nationalistic pressures for isolationist diplomacy and protectionist economics. In all these countries, domestic self-confidence seems to be fraying.

Yet, as this issue of European Affairs chronicles, sentiments of powerlessness about controlling the big picture are not preventing many determined policy-makers and activists from pressing ahead constructively. No program seems more exemplary and effective than the UN peacekeeping and nation-building managed by Under-Secretary-General Jean-Marie Guéhenno, who gives a candid interview explaining the goals and risks of this security activity. It is an open question about whether some of the UN’s successful templates for state-building could have been translated – on a much larger scale, of course – into the recent stages of the U.S. campaign in Iraq.

Preventive diplomacy, too, is alive in some quarters. In the Balkans, the international community seems determined to push through a decision on final status of Kosovo this year. In this issue, the U.S. representative to those talks spells out the view in Washington that Kosovo must have its own government – presumably independent – if it is to become accountable for the Serbian minority there. This is a reversal of the old approach based on “standards” of behavior before “status” of independence. A senior Greek official insists that the Balkans can be integrated into the European Union, partly because they would be a comparatively small EU addition (50 million people).

In their article urging more institutional flexibility for European diplomacy, two British specialists implicitly evoke the fact, as confirmed in polls, that Europeans (including many who voted against the constitution) want more EU foreign policy, not less. This change in the way people think about themselves emerges clearly in Tony Judt’s magisterial and indispensable book, Postwar, reviewed in these pages by Jacqueline Grapin. An essential point about this history is its ground-breaking insistence on the “Europeanness” of the continent’s last half-century. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the modern “narrative” has unfolded largely in terms of the communality in the relations of neighboring nations. Individual European nations are forgetting their old habit of thinking of themselves as global players that happen to be located in Europe and instead thinking of themselves as actors in a “European” history.

Economic “events” include bad news and good. Our articles describe nascent national protectionism, even within the EU single market, but the writers agree that a newly self-confident generation of European corporate managers will resist protectionist nostrums. Such insistence on sound economic thinking is the bedrock of a great European success story told in our pages as the triumph of a knowledge-based economy in Finland, a country that harnessed technological innovation to power its way out of an economic depression. As a small and close-knit society, Finland is an example with lessons for every community that wants to bet on the future, not hide from it. Clearly, Finland has some a special vision of how states survive on the periphery of big-power politics. The country’s former president,Martti Ahtisaari (not to be confused with the current prime minister, Matti Vanhanen), is the lead envoy in the UN mission on Kosovo’s final status. Finland will hold the EU presidency for the second half of 2006, propitious timing if the Finns’ determination and diplomacy can push ahead with the EU agenda in the Balkans.

Perhaps it is not necessarily bad for events to be in the saddle. Potentially dangerous developments may spur wiser and braver leadership to go beyond the maneuvering that seemed enough in calmer times. Emerson’s dire-sounding phrase, which referred to the American Civil War, can be read another way. That terrible conflict ended slavery. It took “events” to do it.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 1-2 in the Spring/Summer of 2006.

 
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