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In Defense of the European Union

If you could commission a time machine to go back and ‘re-do’ a specific event, what would it be?  Would it be Germany 1933, when President Hindenburg issued the decree nullifying key civil liberties of the German people, paving the way for Hitler’s one-party Nazi state?  How about January 30, 1933 – the day Hitler became German Chancellor?  Maybe you would want to meet with Truman in 1945, imploring him not to drop the bomb on Hiroshima which incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens and ushered in an age where war is not just a ugly scenario, but a civilization ending possibility.

Or would it be June 1919 when a young 29 year-old Vietnamese would-be revolutionary Nguyen Tat Thanh handed a letter to an aide to President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles imploring the proponent of “self-determination” to remember colonized peoples during peace negotiations.  That young man, would eventually become disillusioned with the West and its liberal ideals as oppressed colonial peoples were not included in Wilson’s call for self-determination and instead turned to Lenin’s Communism for enlightenment.  That young man would eventually become Ho Chi Minh, communist leader of Vietnam. If President Wilson would have met with Thanh, would it have changed history?

Rarely though, do we get the opportunity to prevent a really bad thing from occurring, particularly when that “really bad thing” will likely occur decades down the road. So today, I want to talk about preventing one “really bad thing” from happening – and that is, the renewed sense of nationalism, anti-globalism, and isolationism that could very well lead to the break-up of the European Union.  If you like what I post and feel you learn something, please take what follows to heart. This is a really big deal.

To start, let me remind you of Europe’s violent past.  Without Googling, I can think of the following intercontinental wars that engulfed not only European states, but in some cases continents:

The Thirty Years War
The Seven Years War
The Hundred Years War
The Franco-Prussian War
French Revolutionary Wars
The Napoleonic Wars
The Great War (World War I)
World War II
The Bosnian War

Then I DID Google and found myself on the Wikipedia page, “List of Conflicts in Europe.”  The number is mind numbing.  Mind numbing.  As Americans, we learn about conflicts that have either direct or indirect consequences to us and only us.  But when you scan that list, you get a sense for the magnitude of pain, violence and lost opportunity that a single continent has endured.

Now it is true, that human beings are inherently violent and as we have gained technology, we have truly become evil towards each other.  I am unsure if the European experience is different from other regions, but I do know that its geographic location and place in history makes its evolution paramount to world history.  So we have to pay attention.

During World War II, there were incredibly gifted people (today they would be called “the elites” or “liberal establishment types”) that warned against a return to 1920s style international relations and unregulated, free market capitalism.  These academics pointed to history and noted that fierce nationalism and suspicion between European peoples and the idea of the “zero-sum” game in diplomacy (the idea that one nation’s “win” means another country’s “loss”) had led to centuries of intercontinental conflict and war.

The free market, laissez-faire capitalism practiced in the 1920s had not taken industrial workers and peasants economic and political concerns into consideration and as such, most of the population of Europe were impoverished, disenfranchised and unsettled.  They were easily manipulated into believing that outside forces were trying to take advantage and that their hardships were to be blamed on others.  As a result, the world saw the rise of totalitarian and dictatorial leaders in Europe that unleashed what we all know of as World War II.   When speaking to the German people, for example, Hitler railed against the Jews and the Communists for selling out at Versailles; that it was not the German people’s fault that the economy was in shambles.  No, it was the fault of “others.”   In talking up valiant Patriots and invoking German history ALONG WITH blaming German defeats and problems on others, Hitler stirred nationalist sentiment in insidious and dangerous ways.

Consequently, as World War II moved towards its dramatic end, Allied leaders (Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin) met to discuss and plan the post war world order.  Much has been made of these discussions and frankly, I could probably write dozens of posts.  But the key takes away for this one is that the Big Three agreed that in order to mitigate and hopefully avoid large scale conflicts in the future, technologically and economically advanced nations had to see themselves as integrated blocs and not purely competitors.  They had to see themselves as part of a global marketplace; not as winners and losers but as participants who mutually benefited from one another.

Another post will talk about all the downside in this argument – particularly to the periphery (the developing world).  I could also go on about what happened after Potsdam or Yalta and how some of the agreements during those conferences broke down and led to the Cold War.  But that is not the point of this one.  The point of this post is how the forces that were deemed so destructive after World War II that global institutions were built to suppress their negative output are on the rise again.

First, though, we need to define nationalism.  Nationalism is NOT patriotism.  Patriotism is a love of and pride in one’s country.  We show our patriotism by flying the American flag, standing for the national anthem and honoring our fallen soldiers.  We show our patriotism by paying our taxes and following our laws.  I argue that we show our patriotism when we practice our first amendment rights:  freedom of speech, assembly, demonstration and the press.

Nationalism though – can be something far more sinister.  It is true, nationalism is the first step in self-identification as a people.  You first have to FEEL like a nation and FEEL like a people before you can become a country.  Disparate peoples with a shared history, language, culture and rituals may come together with patriotic and nationalist pride in order to become a single nation.  Nationalism has helped create the global order we have today.   But too much nationalism can foster suspicion and when stoked, it can invoke feelings of superiority over other peoples and countries.  Think of what is happening today.   When placed in the context of President Trump’s speeches, “Make America Great Again,” invokes extremely dangerous nationalist tendencies because it insinuates that outside forces have become great at the expense of the United States.  How many times during the campaign did Trump point to China and Mexico and claim, falsely that those countries “won” by “stealing” from America?

These same arguments were made in Europe during the 1930s.  Hell – they were made in the United States in the 1930s.   When you stoke patriotism to the point that people believe they are superior to other nations – and that those other nations are stealing from you – it is human nature, to fight back.  At that point, it does not matter if it is true or not.  At that point, all you see is an enemy.

I have oversimplified centuries of national animosities – but essentially, this was the tendency by European leaders for centuries through World War II.  The French and German peoples were classic examples.  It was easier to gain support at home by demonizing your foreign neighbor and claiming that they were trying to steal your land – as both France and Germany did throughout the 19th century than in formulating public policies that would help the majority of the people.  Whether it was the British versus the French, the French versus the Germans or the British versus the Spanish – national rivalries were built on nationalist tendencies.  When technological advances in warfare met extreme nationalist fervor, millions of people were killed.

Humanity tried to change course after World War and in particular, Europe attempted to stop the carnage.  The European Union started as free trade zone between France and Germany and expanded to include multiple countries in Central Europe.  Leaders did know where negotiations would end when they started but they knew this:  economically integrated countries were less likely to go to war with one another.  Democracies that were economically integrated were even less likely to go to war with one another.  That rule of thumb formed the basis of the European Union when free trade negotiations began in the early 50s.

Over four decades, negotiations extended beyond a free trade zone into political and cultural integration.  Today, people in twenty-eight countries hold EU passports.  That means, within those 28 countries resources, goods and services can move freely without additional taxes,  tariffs or other regulations.  Those twenty-eight countries subscribe to a common currency so business is more easily conducted “across country lines.”  An integrated Europe allows for the free flow of capital and resources, which is good for capitalism and theoretically, it should lift all boats.

Today, a Frenchman is a citizen of France and a citizen of Europe in much the same way that I am a citizen of both Connecticut and the United States.  It may seem like semantics, but from an economic a political perspective it is significant.  However, building a federal bureaucracy like the EU (headquartered in Brussels) means ceding some national powers to that higher entity.  It means giving up some border controls and monetary flexibility when economic conditions require.  In layman’s terms, France has a great deal of sovereignty, but it does not have complete sovereignty over all matters.

Two events have pushed the EU towards what journalists call an “existential crisis.”  Those were:  the 2008 financial crash the resulting recession and the Syrian refugee crisis.  The first is fairly easy to understand.  When the economy is poor, it is politically advantageous to look for scapegoats as well as valid reasons for economic hardship.  The European Union is a large bureaucracy and when making monetary and fiscal policy, even in a financial crisis, requires that bureaucrats evaluate risk across the entire union and not just what is best for one country.  It is true that within the EU, there are rich countries and poor countries.  Germany, for example, is very rich.  Greece is very poor.  As such, Germany helps subsidize Greece and other poor countries with loans and subsidies.

It is also true that in order to reap the benefits of the European Union, countries have to adhere to the rules.  For example, when Greece entered the EU it “potentially” cooked its books in regard to its national debt, making it appear that it was more financially stable than it actually was.  When the recession hit, its deficit became worse and because it did not have control over its own currency (by then it was on the Euro), it was unable to pursue a loose monetary policy in order to respond to the economic downturn.  The International Monetary Fund loaned Greece a lot of money with the expectation that Greece would get its house in order.  Not long ago, there was fear of a Grexit because Greece had not gotten its house in order, was unable to make a huge payment on the IMF loan and as such was contemplating an exit from the EU in order to return to its currency, which would allow Athens the control it needed to print money.

The Syrian war and subsequent refugee crisis were the second force to negatively impact the EU.  As refugees poured out of the Middle East, Germany made the compassionate decision to let anyone in (after proper vetting of course).  Once those refugees were admitted to Germany, they were part of a EU resettlement project.  Contrary to popular belief, they were not just “let loose” in Europe.  But once you are inside the EU, then yes – there is the free movement of people.  All EU countries saw an uptick in Muslim immigrants – from Syria to North Africa – as recall, it was not just Syria at war.  Many North African countries also experienced turmoil as a result of the Arab Spring.

From there, the arguments can be easily made:  economic downturn + browning of the population + threat of terrorism = upsurge in nationalist propaganda.  And yes – it is propaganda.  In last year’s referendum, pro-Brexit supporters ran ads indicating that the hundreds of thousands of pounds sent to the EU each month could be spent state side on the national health care system.  Thing is – after the election, those Brexit leaders (Nigel Farage) – had to admit that no, that money would not be diverted to the national health care system because by leaving the EU, Britain would be losing, even more, money in benefits (or some nonsense like that).  But now, as Britain works through the details of her exit, she leaves one of the largest trading blocs in the world – and that is big for British businesses.

In the next several months, there are major national elections across Europe – elections in which right wing, nationalist candidates are more popular than they have ever been.  Interestingly (or perhaps frighteningly), the Russians seem to be big financial contributors to these nationalist candidates who are calling for their own country’s referendum on the European Union.  In the Netherlands of all places, a right wing nationalist who is campaigning on closing mosques and prohibiting Muslim’s from entering the country has enough support in the polls to win seats in the Parliament.  Will these elections, should the nationalists win, be enough to force the collapse of the EU?  No – not yet.  But even a few victories would signal a significant blow to a decade’s old project that had truly hoped to end these types of antiquated and potentially devastating tendencies.

And yes folks – it does get worse.  While there was a great deal of incentive for European leaders to come together in the post war period, the key player in the negotiations was the United States – specifically the US State Department.  To explain how and why this happened would require an even longer post – plus, I would have to refresh my memory on the details.  But suffice it to say, the United States played an integral role from the post war period through the 1990s, bringing European leaders together, hammering out the details and negotiating conflicts.  At this point in its history, the EU is at cross roads and yes – it does need American leadership.  Unfortunately, the United States is led by its own economic nationalist – Donald Trump – who frankly, has no ideology.  He is simply playing a role written by Steve Bannon, a true nationalist ideologue who has said many times that he is in favor of “blowing up” the existing order.   In any normal administration, the State Department would be taking a lead role in this crisis but apparently, Rex Tillerson is understaffed and underfunded, perhaps purposefully.   So the United States sits by while Europe potentially splits apart.

I am really concerned we are part of an event we will eventually want to “un-do” and unfortunately, we will not know it until countries start attacking each other.  So what can we do now?  Here are a few concrete things that everyone can do to MAYBE reduce the risk of something really bad happening.

  • President Trump has submitted a budget proposal that includes a 37% reduction in State Department funding. With this reduction in staff and programs, the State Department will not be able to do the job of presenting America’s “case” to the world.  Call your representatives and tell them that you do not support these draconian cuts to the budget and ask them not to either.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has not been part of foreign policy meetings with the president, nor has he been allowed to staff his organization (This is the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is that he is actually firing civilian staff members with institutional knowledge of the foreign service).  Call your representatives AGAIN and ask them what they are doing to staff the State Department and provide oversight of this critical government function.
  • Stop this ridiculous attack on the free press. If you are using the term “fake news” – stop it.  If someone around you uses the term “fake news” – tell them to stop it.  Disparaging the free media by calling them liars and disgusting human beings is despotic and totalitarian behavior.  That is what dictators do.  Stop doing it.  You do not like what the media prints?  So what?  Learn to filter.
  • Pay attention and vote in every election. Stop disparaging politics and DO NOT vote for nationalist candidates.

I get that not everyone is into geopolitics and certainly not as much as I am, but this stuff impacts you and your family.  More importantly, it will impact your kids and grandkids.  Did you know that the Nazi party was formed in 1920 and that the first American casualty of World War II was in 1940 (prior to Pearl Harbor)?  What is happening in the world today will impact your grandchildren.  I want Bryant’s only visit to a battlefield to be as a tourist – never as a combatant.  I suspect that when you look at your kids and grandkids, you feel the same.  What is happening throughout the world today – in the United States, Russia, and Europe – will reverberate for decades to come and I truly hope that this nationalist bent we are experiencing now is a mere blip on the radar.  But if voters continue to blame everyone else for their own problems, then I am afraid that history is doomed to repeat itself once again.

Amy, from the Facebook Archives

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