The death of the European dream
By Gideon Rachman
Published: May 18 2010 03:00 | Last updated: May 18 2010 03:00
With the enactment of the Lisbon treaty late last year, some European leaders allowed themselves to dream of a new world order - one in which the European Union was finally recognised as a global superpower, to rank alongside the US and China.
In the past few weeks, Europe has certainly got the world's attention - but not in the way that it had hoped. Rather than admiring the EU for its dynamism and power, the rest of the world is watching the unfolding economic crisis in Europe with fascination and horror. Observing the struggle to save the euro from Washington or Beijing is a bit like watching a car crash on the other side of the road. It is bad enough being a spectator - but there is the added fear that you will be hit by flying debris.
Onlookers in America and Asia have good reason to fear that they might be affected by contagion from a banking or sovereign-debt crisis in Europe. Even a long period of depressed demand in the EU - still, collectively, the world's largest economy - can only damage the global economic recovery.
It is natural that international attention should focus first on the economics of the crisis in Europe. But there are also broader, if less immediately obvious, political consequences. It is easy to mock the pretensions of the authorities in Brussels. But the fact is that the EU does - or perhaps did - stand for something important on the world stage.
What Europe represents is not so much raw power as the power of an idea - a European dream. For internationalists everywhere, for believers in much deeper co-operation between nations, for those pushing for the establishment of an international legal order, the EU is a beacon of hope.
If the European experiment begins to unravel - after more than 60 years of painstaking advances - then the ideas that Europe represents will also suffer severe damage. Rival ideas - the primacy of power over law, the enduring supremacy of the nation state, authoritarianism - may gain ground instead.
The foreign supporters of the European dream are not just obscure professors at American liberal arts colleges - although there are plenty of those. The fans of the European dream include the prime minister of Japan and the president of the US.
Shortly before he took office, Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister, called for the establishment of a pan-Asian currency modelled on the euro and cited the early believers in European unity as a personal inspiration. Barack Obama, US president, has been much less open in his admiration for the European model. The privileges of American power and the constraints of US politics place powerful limits on the extent to which he would ever look explicitly to Europe as a model.
Nonetheless, both the foreign and domestic policies of the Obama administration look much more "European" than those of the Bush administration. The president's healthcare reforms were hailed in Europe. And while the Bush administration was often openly contemptuous of the foreign-policy ideas pushed by the "Euroids" (to use the derisive phrase of John Bolton, Mr Bush's UN ambassador), the Obama administration is much more sympathetic.
The policy-planning office at the state department - which in previous eras housed big thinkers such as George Kennan and Francis Fukuyama - is currently headed by Anne-Marie Slaughter, an academic and international lawyer, who argues that the defining idea of the Obama administration's foreign policy is the belief that the biggest global problems - such as climate change and nuclear proliferation - can no longer be solved by the US acting alone. International co-operation is indispensable. That is the kind of argument you hear all the time in Brussels but was not particularly fashionable in Mr Bush's Washington.
However, the European economic crisis has made life much harder for those Americans or Asians who want to argue that the rest of the world should learn from Europe. Last week I met a member of the Japanese establishment who was guffawing at the idea that his prime minister had ever believed that Europe could be some sort of model. In the US, the European financial crisis has been seized upon by conservatives, who argue that Mr Obama's alleged embrace of European-style "socialism" will bankrupt America.
While the EU's foreign admirers are on the defensive, international Eurosceptics are in the ascendancy. Charles Grant, head of the Centre for European Reform, a pro-EU think-tank, says he has been struck on his recent travels by the growing disdain for Europe in Delhi, Beijing and Washington. "We're seen as locked into permanent economic and demographic decline, and our pretensions to hard power are treated with contempt," he laments.
A few years ago Jeremy Rifkin, an American author, published a book called The European Dream , which made a great splash in Brussels. Mr Rifkin, who perhaps not coincidentally also wrote a book called The End of Work , argued that Europe was a model for the future. "While the American spirit is languishing, a new European dream is being born," he wrote. "It is a dream far better suited to the next stage in the human journey - one that promises to bring humanity to a global consciousness befitting an increasingly interconnected society."
Reading those words today, I don't know whether to laugh or cry.