Monday, March 26, 2007

Unity, Disunity; the US, Europe

I've been thinking about the Western alliance recently. To be more precise I’ve been thinking about how few real defenders it has. People increasingly seem to choose a 'side' between Europe and America, usually on ideological lines. Those who don't, Tony Blair for example, seem to be more interested in avoiding a decision or an argument than making a genuine case for European and American ties.

Why should we care about the West? What is special about the European-US alliance? Why is Europe so much more important an ally to the US than, for example, India?

The answers to all these questions seem important to our future choices as a civilisation. There are probably a host of reasons why Europe and the US work so well together and it is clearly wrong to propose a monocausal explanation. Common cultural ties are the most commonly cited justification for strong links between Europe and America. However, I would like to advance a new explanation of why Europeans and Americans working together can be so successful which I think is of particular importance.

Europe's huge achievements over the ages have been built on its division. This is an argument which has been advanced in economic history by various authors such as Landes. When one nation's creative genius was spoiled by awful institutions or the devastation of war another would seize the torch. A classic example is the Inquisition which broke the collective mind of the Spanish in particular who had been leading lights in earlier periods. In another region, China for example, that could have ended intellectual progress and killed a chance at economic development but in Europe it just lead to Northern Europe taking over. Strategic competition between states meant that those left behind soon had to catch up and introduce successful innovations. At the same time European kingdoms were at least an approximation of modern states and could provide the modicum of security development required; economic gains would usually provide a strategic advantage rather than riches for others to plunder.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is an article about the EU by the way. The idea the EU can rid Europe of its divisions is either alarmism or touching optimism depending on your perspective. If it started to do so I might get genuinely alarmed but there seems little sign of that as EU states continue to make different policy choices.

By contrast, American success came from its unity. Political unity meant that it possessed an unusually large market without tariff barriers to break it into sections. That market was also made up of relatively homogenous consumers. Britain, and the rest of Europe, didn't develop mass production because it didn't have the demand for large quantities of standardised consumer goods. As worldwide incomes rose the American, mass production model was more able to guarantee a general rise in living standards.

Now, if the source of Europe's strength has been its disunity and the source of America's has been its unity I think these qualities might hint at their contribution to an alliance as well. I'm afraid I'll have to stick to gross generalisations but I think that there is something to this idea. Of course, Europe can exhibit unity and the US is often deeply disunited as with the regularly cited ‘red states vs. blue states’ split. However, in general it seems sensible to believe that Europe has more disunity than the US.

Europe's disunity provides durability to the ideas, values and progress of the West. When one country drops the ball there is usually another making different choices. I think this makes Europe both the West's soul and its testing ground.

However much Europe loses its way it is a diverse place and there will always be states who remember what makes the West great. If the West was one nation, one culture that society might forget its values far more easily. For the purpose of this article I'm not going to claim a special knowledge about what ‘Western values’ might be. Whatever your view of what makes the West so successful that view is reflected somewhere in Europe and can be reasserted elsewhere from its existing foothold. Europe is a far more durable container for the intangible values that make up the Western soul thanks to its disunity.

Of course, sometimes it is important that the values or politics of the West change rather than be maintained. This is also easier with disunity. Disunity makes real dissent far more possible as different policies can actually be tried. While the states in the US can do this they are limited by the far greater strength of the Federal state and a common political culture (there is something of a common faultline in American politics even if different views predominate in different areas). The use of disunity to establish testing grounds can be seen with school vouchers in Sweden or the flat tax in Eastern Europe. It can also be seen with different forms of child support between France and Italy (cash) and Scandinavia (free childcare). All these are differences that have arisen since EU membership and new differences seem to be emerging at least as quickly as the EU standardises other, often narrow, areas of policy.

America's unity makes it strong. There is a reason why it was America that played a leading role in defeating the great threats, internal and external, to the West in the last century. While Europe has greater population and sometimes a larger economy in total there must always be a temptation to free-ride. As each small state is comparatively weak (although many are still titans compared to most non-Western states) they often cannot do what needs to be done alone. Cooperation is difficult to find because it is easier to hope that others will do the job of confronting common enemies. Without America Europe is endangered and weak. Without the power it used to possess thanks to Empire and technological dominance it is vulnerable to the great crises that afflicted the world in the last century and might do so this century as well. America's unity allows it to intervene more effectively than the Europeans even in Europe's backyard (the Balkans) but also to confront other enemies in the wider world.

Without Europe America cuts a sad figure. I have never been convinced that America should choose multilateralism because of some legal or moral duty. I doubt our enemies would respect international law if they were more powerful and if all international law can do is restrain the good it is not worth much. I see no principled reason why America's defence of its interests should be contingent on French, Chinese and Russian approval. However, I think perhaps it is not a coincidence that America's unilateral engagements have been managed so poorly. Europe brings a diversity of opinions which has to make the American approach to using its power more thoughtful and effective. America alone is not just more incompetent, though.

It is also fundamentally less impressive. As an Atlas America looks lonely and embittered. As leader of the 'free world' America is confident and proud. When Europe and America are working together as they were in the Cold War the universalist ideal America looks to for inspiration is much more tenable. Without Europe the question of why, of whether anyone actually has any interest in the shining city on the hill, is far harder for America to answer. Europe gives America purpose and keeps it from the temptation of small minded isolationism.

Neither those Americans, Mark Steyn is a prime example, who take satisfaction in the moral simplicity of America being alone or Europeans such as the French Gaullists who wish to set their country up in opposition to America have their country’s best interests at heart. The West is stronger than the sum of its parts and cutting it to pieces will make all weaker.

I’m a little worried that this article is a little messy and poorly argued. I must confess I’m still working these ideas out in my head but thought the comments of others might clarify my thinking. Let’s think about it in another way.

Disunity tends to lead to uncertainty whereas unity leads to certainty. In a unified body a decision can be made and stuck to whereas in a disunited body it will be subjected to further challenge by those who never agreed and were forced into line. Europe will generally be less unified and also less certain than the US.

Mencken on the advantages of uncertainty:

"Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on 'I am not too sure.'"

Dalrymple on the problems with uncertainty:

"This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction, brought about preferably at your own expense. First, you can't take them seriously; second, you suspect they might in any case be right."

When Europe and America work together they can take the advantages of being both certain and uncertain.

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