Walker's World: Europe after the Wall

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Nov. 9, 2009 at 11:51 AM
share with facebook
share with twitter
1 of 5
| License Photo

FRANKFURT, Germany, Nov. 9 (UPI) -- Exactly 20 years ago a grand historical shift took place. Like the fall of the Roman Empire or the defeat of the Islamic invasions of Europe at Tours in the eighth century or at the gates of Vienna in the 17th, it was an event that seems fated to define a whole era of global history. And it may be the last occasion when a moment so portentous takes place in Europe.

For the fall of the Berlin Wall may have symbolized many things, from the end of Stalin's wretched empire to the triumph of capitalism, but it really marked the end of those long centuries when Europe was the pivot on which world history turned.

This was masked for a while by the diplomatic drama over whether Germany would be reunited and then by the vicious wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the Balkans, where Serbs and Croats, Muslims and Orthodox Slavs and Kosovars all battled for the shards of Tito's unitary state.

It has been shrouded by the enlargement of the European Union to 27 countries with a combined gross domestic product of $17 trillion and by the coming of the euro currency. The EU now stretches from the Arctic Ocean to the Black Sea, from the Atlantic to the Levant. In Finland and Estonia it shares a border with Russia. Spain and Portugal are just a few miles from Africa. The nearest neighbors of Cyprus are Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey.

The EU is already something grander than the European empire of which Napoleon once dreamed, its blue flag with its yellow stars fluttering over northern climes, which the caesars of Rome never even imagined. And yet it is also something far less than either of these earlier historic manifestations of the European idea.

Europe no longer counts for very much on the global stage. No American or Chinese or even Russian president wakes up wondering what Europe will do. No neighbor keeps a wary eye on European troop movements.

Instead, they all pay careful attention to whatever interest rate the European Central Bank decides to set or to the competition and trade policies of the EU Commission. The EU is about money and commerce and the living standards of its people; it is no longer about power.

Given what the Europeans accomplished and inflicted on others when the old continent was obsessed with power and military might, this change is in most ways a welcome development. It is almost as if a great act of genetic engineering has taken place, to transform the world's most warlike, greedy and aggressive tribes into a neutered pack of sleek and bourgeois pussycats.

But these are also people who gave the world the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, who invented the theater and parliaments, trial by jury and the Rights of Man, the symphony orchestra and the novel, who dreamed up the stock exchange and income tax and the university. And now the creative sap seems to have run dry.

Twenty years on, the fall of the Berlin Wall seems the moment that encapsulates all this, that ended Europe's role as the grand battlefield on which the fate of mankind would be decided.

The great armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact that faced one another across the Iron Curtain have been largely disbanded or withdrawn. We learned during the Kosovo war of 1999, a mere 10 years after the wall fell, that while the Europeans had some 2 million troops nominally under arms it was hard put to deploy even 40,000 of them for combat.

Like so much of the world's trade, and so many of its dollar and foreign currency reserves, the geopolitical drama has shifted from Europe to Asia. The water resources of the Himalayas or the oil-tanker routes through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits and the South China Sea seem fated to replace Berlin as the stage on which the world's power games will be enacted.

And having played a starring role on that stage for so many centuries, Europe now seems content to take its seat among the audience, or perhaps to run the concession stand, selling programs and refreshments and commemorative CDs.

There has been no conscious or considered decision by the Europeans to adopt this passive role. And there is little doubt that if the Europeans chose, they have the resources and the technology and the manpower to be a great power, or even a superpower. They simply do not have either the institutions or the political will to do so. They have lost the taste for power and ceded the responsibility for steering the world's affairs to others.

Shortly after the wall came down a young scholar in the Policy Planning Office of the U.S. State Department wrote a famous essay titled "The End of History." He argued that the end of the Cold War had been a historical verdict, and that liberal capitalism with its free markets and free institutions had won the long debate over the way humankind would govern and administer itself.

The authoritarian state capitalists of Beijing and Moscow and the jihadists of Islam have proved him wrong. But he was right about the Europeans. For them, the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the end of history as Europe has so long known it, a history dominated by war and militarism and occupations and the bloody game of nations.

But how long will Europe's happy state of bovine content continue? Those who lose their political will tend pretty soon to lose the will to do very much at all. And those who seek to escape history, and are content to be the objects rather than the subjects of their own narratives, tend eventually to become history's victims.

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories