(Oslo) In 1992 renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an iconic book entitled The End of History and the last Man which was widely interpreted to mean that with the collapse of the Soviet Union the World had reached a decisive turning point characterized by the final triumph of liberal democracy and free markets.
For many an appealing corollary to Fukuyama’s thesis was that nationalism was in decline and institutions such as the United Nations, the World Court, and the emerging European Union (EU) would be the prototypes for Global Governance in the peaceful world of the future.
Today these notions lie in ruin; eviscerated by developments no one foresaw e.g. the rise of Radical Islamic Terrorism, the re-emergence of Russian Expansionism, totalitarian China’s bid for Asian Hegemony, a myriad of global economic woes, and the dramatic shrinkage of American influence on world events.
As I walk through the streets of Norway’s quiet capital and enter the great hall where Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, it is interesting to reflect how much the European mind-set has changed since that event just over five years ago.
As the Bush Era ended fashionable European opinion viewed the United States as an overly aggressive super-power led by a President they contemptuously regarded as a “sub-literate cowboy”. The Nobel Award to the newly inaugurated Obama represented a final slap at Bush and joyous delight that the American people had finally elected a President worthy of European respect.
Today fashionable European opinion views the United States as an indecisive and unreliable super-power in apparent decline led by a highly disappointing President with an alarming preference for “leading from behind”.
The catalyst for this dramatic transformation of opinion has been Vladimir Putin whose naked aggression in Ukraine has been an absolute shock to European consciousness.
The backdrop to the Putin shock is the ongoing carnage across the Muslim world from Libya to Afghanistan, where in country after country the Europeans had some role- albeit as adjuncts to the United States- in trying to “fix” the various quarrels afflicting the local “folks”. In none of these places did things work out the way Europe and the United States hoped. Instead we’ve seen the use of chemical weapons, nuclear blackmail, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other practices we thought this enlightened world had relegated to the past.
The saving grace was that these bad things only happened far away from Europe. That complacency however was shattered by Putin’s unchallenged seizure of Crimea and sponsorship of continued fighting in Eastern Ukraine.
Suddenly a long comfortable Europe faced the appalling thought that War- Hot and/or Cold- could return to the Continent.
Economic sanctions applied for years to Iraq, North Korea, and Iran did nothing to alter the behavior of those authoritarian regimes.
Why do we think that far less rigorous sanctions- even if the countries of Europe could agree on them- would bring Putin to his knees?
While appearing at the D-Day anniversary in June Putin observed that to defeat Hitler Russia had sacrificed more of its soldiers and citizens- nearly five million- than the rest of the Allies combined. Pointedly he was reminding the West that the pride, toughness, and patriotism behind those sacrifices were not just a thing of the past.
If Putin as the leader of Europe’s largest country and possessing the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, presses his expansionist aims in places long ruled by Russia, how many Europeans, or for that matter Americans are ready to shed their blood to stop him?
A century ago Europe blundered into the ultimate War of Miscalculation. Fashionable opinion said war wouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen, but then it did happen. Too late Europe’s leaders realized that their perceptions about their opponent’s beliefs and intentions were horribly wrong.
History as George Will has noted may occasionally seem “to take a vacation but it always returns”. Human miscalculations aren’t going away either, or the sad truth that the ones who make them rarely are the ones who pay the highest price.
William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.