Sunday, May 02, 2004

The New EU: An American Success?

On May 1, ten new member states joined the European Union. This occurred with much fanfare and self-congratulation on the part of Europeans. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Britain and the United States. It was these nations, more than any others, that saw off the fascist threat, that worked to secure liberal democracy and market-based economics and that stood up to the encroaching Red Army. Certainly the nations of Europe, especially France and the German Republic had a hand in this, but ultimately, the victory of the liberal version of democracy over its socialist and fascist rivals could not have occurred without the two preeminent English democracies, and without this victory, the EU would have been nothing more than a French bureaucrats pipedream.

Therefore, it would seem that a great deal of thanks is due the UK and US on this auspicious occasion. And having said that, we can’t help but wonder, even now, if all the nay-saying about Iraq is a bit premature and misguided judging by past successes when Britain and America have taken the field together. But this suggests a problem for us. After all, the great obstructionists when it came to Iraq were precisely France, Germany and Russia – one nation the home of the most barbaric form of fascism, one the cradle of Soviet tyranny and the other the rhetorical home of the “rights of man” which in reality has often been or befriended tyrants.

The difficulty here is obvious: two of the nations at the center of the EU success story in continental Europe are the same ones that turned on the US and its British allies in Iraq. Moreover, they turned on these countries in the name of international law, the United Nations and democratic dialogue with Arab states and, most specifically, with the Palestinians. Simply put, these nations, once the home of Hitler and the Terror, are now trying to outdo the Americans on their most valued claim: to be the great defender of democracy in the world.

The background to all this can get a bit muddled. France is rather unique in Europe, and is similar to the US, in that it was the first to initiate a democratic revolution which it then sought to export to the rest of Europe. France is different from the US in that the revolution was hardly a ringing success. It brought about widespread violence within France itself and it launched the French nation on a seesaw ride that would take it through an ever-changing array of restorations, empires, constitutional monarchies and republics. The problem for France was complex, but in some ways also quite simple. This was a proud and ostentatious nation ruled by absolute monarchs who made a show of their position unequalled among European royalty. This was a country of deep Catholic sympathy, but also one that had had its share of civil strife over the religious issue. The revolution sought to overthrow all that had come before, but in doing so it became a model for extreme democracy run riot. If anything, it showed how difficult it can be to install practically functioning liberal democracy in a pre-democratic nation. Most often, the theories of democracy (and this would include French democracy, fascism – which is also a version of democracy – and all forms of modern communism) would take on a life of their own and lead to horrendous violence and repression while reasoned and functioning democratic institutions would go by the wayside.

Today, continental Europe is relatively democratic, but it came at a price, and even then, it can certainly be argued that Europe’s democracy is still highly prone to the failings of democratic theory as present in the bloated welfare states and obsession with human rights that currently dominates so much of the talk coming from Eurocrats. From the historical perspective, the twentieth century was largely a battle fought between liberal democracy on one side and totalitarianism in its two modern forms of fascism and communism on the other. Once again though, we must note that the great representatives of liberal democracy – the British and the Americans – were then, and remain today, the democratic nations least likely to be swayed by the temptations and arguments of totalitarian ideology. It says a great deal that a Labor Prime Minister would be George W. Bush’s greatest ally in Iraq, while a French right-of-centre President would become his greatest opponent. The conclusion one must draw is that perhaps liberal democracy hasn’t really won the day, at least not to the extent that we would like to think. Rather, it appears that in the heart of Europe, the battle goes on to some extent, and even if fascism and communism as such will not likely return, the fanaticism of democracy – key to both fascism and communism – still wield great influence in Europe and they are finding their way into international law and international organizations enamored of this law.

And this brings me to a final point. It has often been said that if the US had not turned to isolationism following World War I, the events that led to World War II could have been stopped. In fact, it probably would have made little difference what the US would have done. The seeds of fascism and communism run deep in continental Europe, and when World War I ended, there were still some powerful arguments in favor of these ideologies in opposition to the “imperialist” liberal democracies. Of course, the underlying contention of the argument about the failure of the US to open itself to the world after the Great War is itself an argument for globalism and radical democracy since the US is specifically criticized for failing to join an international organization – the League of Nations.

It probably was the case that the US could have used its considerable might to attempt to stop fascism and communism, but would it not also have been the case that, had it done so, it would have faced exactly the rhetorical broadsides heard over Iraq today? In fact, it took World War II and its attendant horrors to defeat fascism in the minds of Europeans. Communism took even longer to fall, and when it did so it still had numerous fellow-travelers in the West. Today, many in Europe use a radical form of democracy against the democratic claims made by the US. And yet, America goes forth in the world with the claim that it seeks to bring democracy to yet another part of the globe. It would seem that her record has been laudable in this regard, but there are doubts precisely because those to whom she has brought that democracy are not always the most reliable allies in the democratic cause. More importantly, they are themselves claiming democracy is on their side. And all this suggests that democracy, like so many political regimes, carries with it the possibility of its own destruction. This isn’t to suggest that I’m opposed to what the US has done in Iraq – I still fully support the war. What it does say though, as we reflect on the successes of modern Europe, is that there are always dangers, always failures, and democratization has some very peculiar and ominous ones.

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