Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
At peace for over fifty years, a historical first, Europeans have lost their traditional belligerence against each other and against the rest of the world, but now turn against those who threaten their tranquility from within. Or so goes the tale about present day Europe, where armies shrink and military budgets are cut while populist anti-foreigner parties are on the upswing. But is this really what is happening?
There some strong indications that the answer is 'yes'. Yet it is, as I will illustrate with some examples, a case of ‘yes, but...’.
Regarding the warrior bit, I recently had a fascinating discussion with an elderly French historian guiding still older Army officers through an exhibition on French colonialism in the sprawling military hospital turned National Military Museum adjacent to Napoleon’s tomb in the heart of Paris.
Many in the group were veterans of Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 battle which sealed the French defeat against the Vietnamese nationalist tide. They were clearly rattled by the ghosts of their own military past, all the more so as this tour came only weeks after the death, at 100 years of age, of their great nemesis at the time, General Vo Nguyen Giap.
Yet as the guide, himself scion of a French family of Polish origins with many distinguished soldiers having served ‘la grande nation’ since Napoleon’s time, pointed out to me, this is a blast from a past largely forgotten by a younger French generations which no longer turns to the armed forces for a career. One of the veterans was himself a striking example in this regard. In his generation, born in the 1920s, four out of six sons in his family became military men. A generation later, none.
If the French no longer want to lead the fight; if on the other side of the Channel a conservative prime minister fails to rally his House of Commons with a battle cry to defend cherished values in Syria; if the Germans remain traumatised by their own belligerent past; if smaller armies with proud traditions such as the Dutch stumble over easy hurdles (militarily speaking) such as defending civilians in Srebrenica; who will stand up and fight for Europe?
And to protect its peaceful paradise, is Europe now hanging ‘no admittance’ signs at its gates to the south and the east, including its own east (Roma, Transcaucasians)?
Let me first discuss the loss of the fighting genes in present and potentially future European generations. Two reasons stand out. First and foremost is the banal but historically amazing fact that with very few exceptions, Europeans have ceased to make war against each other. Rallying cries conjuring honor and fatherland and vilifying ‘arch-enemies’ find no echoes in today’s borderless Europe.
This is linked to the second reason, namely that last war (World War II) and prospect of war (the Cold War) were just too horrific. To illustrate, another telling story from my friend the historian: he occasionally brings young people from western Europe to the country of his ancestors, which probably more than any other is emblematic of the senselessness of war and the abyss to which it can lead. When he takes his disciples to Auschwitz, so he testifies, all of them, including him time and again, are moved to tears by the sheer enormity of the cruelty.
It just might be that the important educational work done (especially in Germany of course but also in many other European countries) to come to terms with the legacy of totalitarian pasts has paid its dividends so that history might not repeat itself, and the same nationalist sins are not recommitted by generations born after. (Educational work, incidentally, which is still partly waiting to be done in and by Japan with regard to its imperial past and is completely absent in China with regard to Maoist horrors. It is difficult to see how the Asia Pacific can ever have sustainable peace in the absence of a cleansing confrontation with its own ghosts.)
And yet, the time when all European swords are bent into ploughshares remains as elusive as ever. Two powerful points stand against the presumption of eternal peace in, and emanating from, Europe.
As the violent implosion of Yugoslavia after 1990 showed, brute nationalism can lead to large scale violence, where modern armies are required to intervene to prevent worse. It is to be hoped that the painful experience of a Europe too weak and too divided to come to terms with a two-bit dictator like Milosevic will have served as a useful lesson on why hard power remains an essential part of interstate relations.
Second, as the great German poet Schiller put it in one of his historical dramas: 'If it displeases his bad neighbour, not even a saint can live in peace.'
The near abroad of Europe (around the Mediterranean, deep into the Middle East and beyond the Sahel into sub-Saharan Africa) needs now and into the foreseeable future European firefighting, properly justified and internationally legitimised but nevertheless muscled and potentially overwhelming. This is more urgent as America's inevitable ‘Asia pivot’ becomes ever more tangible in our century. This firefighting is needed not only in the name of values and for the ultimate benefit of those where intervention takes place, but also to prevent worse back home such as uncontrollable streams of refugees and imported terrorism by some of Europe’s own, often naturalized, children.
In part 2 of this post, I will address the second point in my title: populism.