On a Related Note
We have someone agreeing with my brother, Bear Who Swims, in that they are seeing Europe heading toward a shooting war in the relatively near term.
As I’ve said before, I expect a breakdown of the EU and a cold war, but this guy is predicting that the US is in decline because of Afghanistan, (I disagree, but only because I see Afghanistan as a symptom and not a cause of the decline) and that without US forces to guarantee the peace, the Europeans will start shooting at each other once again.
I’m more of the Gwyn Dyer school of thought, that asymmetries in power develop over time in Europe, and so every century of so, war breaks out as a mechanism to redefine the power balance on the continent:
The notion that history has nothing to teach us is one of the most pervasive beliefs in modern industrial society. It’s also one of the most misguided. Sure, we’ve got all these shiny new technological trinkets, and we love to insist to ourselves that this means we’re constantly breaking new ground and going where no previous society has ever gone before. Clinging to that fond delusion, we keep on making mistakes that were already old when bronze swords were high tech, and flailing helplessly when the usual consequences yet again land on top of us.
The shambolic end of the US occupation of Afghanistan earlier this autumn is a case in point. The self-satisfied gooberocracy that runs the United States these days talked itself into believing that the hard-earned lessons of the Vietnam war didn’t matter any more, and sent American soldiers blundering into a country that earned the name “the graveyard of empires” long before the United States was a twinkle in Ben Franklin’s eye. It wasn’t just Vietnam that the slackjawed warlords of Washington ignored, of course. The Russians had their own messy experiences in Aghanistan, so did the British, so did half a dozen great Asian empires, and so did Alexander the Great. None of that made any difference, because the political class in the US had convinced itself that the past didn’t matter.
Back when the invasion first happened, wags suggested that “Kabul” is how you pronounce “Saigon” in Pashto, and of course they were quite right. Having refused to learn from their history, four US administrations duly repeated it, right down to the humiliating final scenes of helicopters on rooftops and victorious insurgents parading with captured US military hardware. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan will turn into the graveyard of our empire. A hundred years from now, I suspect, historians will consider the collapse of American power in Afghanistan as the point at which the United States crossed the subtle line that separates “decline” from “fall,” but we’ll see.
Yet learning from the lessons of history is just as unpopular in European capitals as it is in Washington DC. The response to the Afghanistan fiasco is hardly the best example of this. The one that stands out most forcefully in my mind just now is the way that the European Union is busy setting the stage for the next great European war.
That, of course, was the context in which the European Union was born. It started out very small, as an agreement between France and West Germany governing the steel trade, and metastasized from there into today’s sprawling and sclerotic bureaucratic mess. The resemblances between the EU, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Holy Roman Empire are striking: similar jerry-rigged and cumbersome structures of governance, similar awkward attempts to force a union among nations with wildly different cultures, institutions, and histories, similar rising spirals of conflicts between component entities with irreconcilable interests, none of which ever quite got resolved. All that’s needed now is a spark — EU officials being thrown out a window in Prague, say, or a spray of bullets on the streets of Sarajevo — to send the continent tumbling down a familiar slope toward war.
That’s a problem because there are two very good ways to make war happen. The first is to be arrogant, blustering, and unwilling to compromise. The second is to be militarily weak. The European Union is both. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Brussels that one of these days, when EU officials order one of the nations in its sphere of influence to shut up and do as it’s told, the nation in question might respond in the time-honored way by mobilizing its army and settling the matter by force. Several flashpoints in eastern and southeastern Europe are potentially close to that. The last few times that happened in the Balkans, of course, the United States was available to do the heavy lifting — but those days, again, are over now.
As an aside, I need to note that the author, John Michael Greer, is arguably the most bellicose contemporary Druid that I have ever heard of.
It’s not the era between the wars, however, that comes to mind most forcefully just now. It’s the Europe of the Belle Epoque, the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth: the last era when people of good will across the European subcontinent insisted that war was the outdated relic of an older and more barbarous time, that the treaty arrangements that had stayed in place since the last round of cataclysmic European wars would surely prevent anything of the kind from happening again, and that the close economic ties uniting the nations of Europe would stop any general European war in its tracks. They were wrong, and millions of people died because they were wrong. Their equivalents today will turn out to be just as wrong, because they’ve bought into the most pervasive fallacy of our time, the serenely foolhardy conviction that history has no lessons to teach, every shift in social conditions is permanent, and a pendulum can only swing in one direction.
I would also note that in the run-up to the first world war, titans of finance were desperately building up international ties between the countries that would become belligerents, which is rather similar to how the EU functions today.
I don’t think the next general European war is imminent, for what it’s worth. If things follow the usual pattern, there will be wars on the periphery first, most likely in the Balkans, while tensions build between the larger nations of the subcontinent. We still probably have some years left before alliances form, positions harden, military spending soars, and nations get locked into a collision course. My readers in Europe, however, might be well advised to look into how their recent ancestors survived the last few rounds of European bloodshed, and keep in mind that they or their children may have to repeat the same exercise. My readers in the United States, to the extent that they can spare the time from the convulsions of an imperial state in extremis, might be equally well advised to keep a wary eye on the other side of the Atlantic, and resist the temptation to get drawn into European quarrels. We’ll have quite enough to deal with over here.
I’m not going to try to predict where the spark that breaks up the EU will begin, but it does seem to me that the Viceroys in Brussels are spectacularly poorly suited to such an eventuality.