Freedom, European-style

February 27, 2005

I have posted before on the curious moral posture adopted by Europeans of this generation.  That posture appears predicated on the belief that nothing larger than a person – an individual, me – has moral value.  Universal principles, on this view, are propaganda tools of crazed religious fundamentalists and oppressive totalitarians, used to forge a deluded solidarity on behalf of anti-democratic objectives.

The Europeans defend freedom after their own lights.  The problem is that the defense of freedom at its most particular and individualistic, without the possibility of appeal to a larger sustaining principle, is a very difficult proposition at best, and very likely impossible.

Enter the U.S., in the person of President Bush, who addressed the assembled worthies of the European Union last Monday in Brussels.  Freedom American-style becomes more than a passive defense of individual predilections:  it is a warrior faith, complete with calls to duty and claims to universality.

This strategy is not American strategy, or European strategy, or Western strategy. Spreading liberty for the sake of peace is the cause of all mankind. This approach not only reduces a danger to free peoples; it honors the dignity of all peoples, by placing human rights and human freedom at the center of our agenda. And our alliance has the ability, and the duty, to tip the balance of history in favor of freedom.

Confronted with this expansive view of freedom, the Europeans have been – almost literally – at a loss for words.  They cherish their freedom, and now the President has asked that they join the United States in spreading it to the less fortunate places of the world.  Why not?  But that would mean appealing to a principle Europeans no longer believe in, and acting in a way that runs counter to their passive inclinations.

Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian, describing the scene in Brussels during the President’s speech, sums up the sense among Europeans that they should stand for something – only, what?

Seizing his moment in the global limelight, the Belgian prime minister welcomed president Bush to “the capital of Belgium and the capital of Europe”. He adapted a remark by one of the Belgian founding fathers of the EU, Paul-Henri Spaak, to the effect that Europe consists only of small countries, “but some know it and some don’t. Only a united Europe,” he said, “can be a reliable partner of the United States”. To walk, he concluded, we need two strong legs.

But where is the European leg? When he got to speak, after the Belgian premier’s over-long introduction, President Bush laid out an ambitious agenda for what his administration is calling “transformational diplomacy”. It contained some significant elements, including the insistence on a Palestinian state with contiguous territory on the West Bank (“a state of scattered territories will not work”) and placing “democratic reform” at the heart of our dialogue with Russia. Like this agenda or hate it, you sure as hell know what it is.

Who knows what is Europe’s agenda for the world? The question always attributed to Henry Kissinger – “You say Europe, but which number should I call?” – remains posed. The baffling multiplicity of people the American president had to meet in Brussels, including heads of large-minded small countries and small-minded large countries, as well as those of competing institutional parts of the EU, not to mention Nato just up the road, shows how far we still are from an answer.

In a WSJ column today, Victor Davis Hanson questions the value of a morally paralyzed continent as an ally to the United States.  While Hanson focuses on the voluntary disarming of Europe, the problem goes far beyond a disparity in military power.

The United States should ignore all this ankle-biting, praise the EU to the skies, but not take very seriously their views on the world until we learn exactly what is going on inside Europe during these years of its uncertainty. America is watching enormous historical forces being unleashed on the continent from its own depopulation, new anti-Semitism, and rising Islamicism to Turkish demands for EU membership and further expansion of the EU into the backwaters of Eastern Europe that will bring it to the doorstep of Russia. Whether its politics and economy will evolve to embrace more personal freedom, its popular culture will integrate its minorities, and its military will step up to protect Western values and visions is unclear. But what is certain is that the U.S. cannot remain a true ally of a militarily weak but shrill Europe should its politics grow even more resentful and neutralist, always nursing old wounds and new conspiracies, amoral in its inability to act, quite ready to preach to those who do.

Most pessimistic is the ineffable Mark Steyn, who believes these internal problems are fundamentally insoluble:  Europe as a political and cultural entity will sink beneath the weight of its moral confusion.  The European idea of freedom, Steyn observes, depends entirely on the distribution of government largesse, of which the draft EU constitution drafted by former French President Giscard is a monstrous 511-page example:

Most of the so-called constitution isn’t in the least bit constitutional. That’s to say, it’s not content, as the U.S. Constitution is, to define the distribution and limitation of powers. Instead, it reads like a U.S. defense spending bill that’s got porked up with a ton of miscellaneous expenditures for the ”mohair subsidy” and other notorious Congressional boondoggles. President Ronald Reagan liked to say, ”We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around.” If you want to know what it looks like the other way round, read Monsieur Giscard’s constitution.

Steyn concludes:

Europe’s problems — its unaffordable social programs, its deathbed demographics, its dependence on immigration numbers that no stable nation (not even America in the Ellis Island era) has ever successfully absorbed — are all of Europe’s making. By some projections, the EU’s population will be 40 percent Muslim by 2025. Already, more people each week attend Friday prayers at British mosques than Sunday service at Christian churches — and in a country where Anglican bishops have permanent seats in the national legislature.

Some of us think an Islamic Europe will be easier for America to deal with than the present Europe of cynical, wily, duplicitous pseudo-allies. But getting there is certain to be messy, and violent.

A particularistic approach to freedom – one that avoids embracing any principles that bind the entire community – might be practicable, as a kind of laboratory experiment, in absolute isolation.  In the world we live in, confrontations will occur with other ways of life, some of which will care little for freedom of either the European or the American kind.  I hope Steyn is premature in his death notice.  But the way out of the Europeans’ predicament is through an increasingly narrow gate, and they seem disinclined to act before it closes.