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Monday, March 10, 2003


Jaed (or Jeanne DeVoto) at Bitter Sanity has a thought-provoking post called Europe, Multilateralism, and Moral Imperatives Redux (link from den Beste) that I find extremely persuasive. Some samples:

I think that Europeans see the UN's mission, not as ensuring security, but as acting as a check on unfettered nationalism. And I see this profound but unstated difference in perception of the UN's purpose as the underlying source of the current UN conflict.
Considering what European nationalism did to the twentieth century - not to mention the nineteenth, the eighteenth, and I could go on for a while - it's reasonable for them to have concluded that nationalism unrestrained is the evil that causes war. And to have turned, after the Second World War, to transnational organizations - the UN, the EC, the EU - as a way of putting chains on nationalism, of keeping it within bounds, of preventing it from ever again drawing the whole world into war.

When Europeans look at America now, they see nationalism rearing its head again. They see God only knows what - a new Nazism, a new Fascism, an age of empire (the real thing, not "the US is an empire because 'Baywatch' reruns and McDonalds are popular") - because those are the associations nationalism has had for Europeans. Americans do not tend to carry these fears, because their experience of nationalism hasn't been the same. And because this is all part of the background, the water we swim in, the assumptions tend to be unspoken, and when they collide like this people may not even realize that they're working from fundamentally different pictures of the way the world works. This is why there's such a disconnect; this is why we are not reacting the way the Europeans expect.
And they see the UN's role now, in this dangerous time, as reining in America - not out of fundamental anti-Americanism but out of anti-nationalism. Sovereignty, in this way of looking at the UN's purpose, must be constrained by transnational institutions. Unfettered sovereignty is dangerous, and the more powerful the country, the greater the danger.

America's willingness to ignore UN wishes and UN procedures, if need be to protect itself, is not just pragmatism in this view. It's almost blasphemous.
And there's worse coming. If Stephen Pollard's sources are right, and we provisionally leave the UN if a nineteenth resolution on Iraq is vetoed, Americans will see it as a major act - but as, fundamentally, a pragmatic one in intent. The UN is no longer serving its purpose, the reasoning will go, and it's therefore a waste of time and money and attention. If other countries want to keep doing it for their own entertainment, fine, but there's no point if it's not doing what it was designed to do.
But if I'm right about their mindset, Europeans are more likely to see US withdrawal from the UN not as a practical act but as a symbolic throwing off all civilized bonds.

As they say, read the whole thing.

I think, though, that she doesn't go far enough back. (Oh, these foolish Americans and their ignorance of history!) It wasn't WWII that caused Europe to turn from nationalism as the poisoned tree that produced such toxic fruit, or even the earlier collapse of faith in Western civilization that grew out of WWI: nationalism has always been suspect in Europe – even though they invented the nation-state.

To the Enlightenment, nations were dangerous not because they were too strong, but because they were too weak. When Napoleon ran roughshod over everyone except the Russian winter and the alliance-of-the-willing that the English assembled, Europeans began to believe that security lay in collective action. After the uprisings of the 1840's Metternich stitched most of Europe together into a network of what Americans could immediately recognize as entangling alliances that maintained a basically peaceful status quo for sixty years. Some small wars in Europe, and lots of competition overseas, but everyone knew not to go too far. And the entanglements grew tighter, and more pervasive.

And then 1914 came, and a Serbian terrorist lit the powderkeg that destroyed Europe's place as the crown jewel of civilization. On this side of the Atlantic, we clearly see that the intricate alliances themselves caused an essentially local problem to become the first World War. In Europe, accepted opinion blames the mobilizations and a “rush to war” – which explains the origin and resonance of this preposterous accusation, because they're afraid the same thing is happening today. It couldn't have been the collective security arrangements: they're a good thing.

Compare American and European explanations for the failure of the League of Nations: Americans say it was because the League failed to act against Mussolini in Abyssinia; Europeans say the fault was America's for not joining. And they'll blame us for the French-assisted suicide of the UN as well.

Is there a way to resolve this difference of fundamental assumptions? Likely not – but the creation of ongoing coalitions of the willing should help. Europeans don't mind using transnational organizations for crassly nationalist ends (see EU, agricultural policies) as long as the fictions of multilateralism and collective stability are maintained. Uncloaked self-interest, however – no matter how justified – bothers them. We'll have to work on that.

Victory won't hurt, either – on either the Arab or the European street.

Sidebar: A continuing problem in post-colonial international affairs is another legacy from the 1919 Paris peace conference: Wilson's American principle of self-determination married to European assumptions of the ethnic/linguistic nation-state. So today we have a globeful of fragmented, economically unsustainable countries with a monopoly on violence within their borders whose only organizing principle is racial and whose only common policy is hatred of their near neighbors.
That, the League, and German reparations payments. Thanks, guys – hard to pick your best work from this hand.

posted by Kelly | 6:50 PM link