Much has been written and said about making the European Union a “world player.” The Lisbon Treaty was expected to accomplish this by bestowing a president, foreign-policy representative and diplomatic service. It was another expression of Europe’s inability to come to terms with the reality of Europe present and past, and thereby liberate its future potentialities.

The leading members of the EU — Germany, France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands — are already major world “players” as economic and technological powers, manufacturers and financial and trading states.

Historically, with the other European states, and crucially with Greece and Italy, they created Western civilization itself, and the modern Western intelligence, which may arguably be identified with the modern mind as it exists elsewhere.

Not one of these nations can today be considered a “failed” or archaic nation — one living on its historical legacy.

The great Islamic civilizations of the caliphates in Damascus and Baghdad, and that in Andalusia, in learning, libraries, architecture and political sophistication, were contemporaneous with, and dazzlingly in advance of, the Christian states of the early West European Middle Ages. All are long since gone. The Ottoman Empire, their successor, which perpetuated Islamic rule and civilization but was unable to advance it after Western Europe had graduated into Renaissance and Enlightenment, was destroyed by Europe’s First World War.

China and India were in their time great civilizations, but like Islamic society proved unable to make the crucial transition from the political institutions and forms of antiquity and the pre-modern world, and during the age of European exploration were picked apart by European states like Holland and Portugal, and then Britain, all of much less power and sophistication than their victims. They remained under European domination until our own times.

India and China now demonstrate the will to return to their former eminence but have many years to go. Japan is the single exception to Asia’s disastrous failure.

So what is this problem about Europe’s standing in the world today that obsesses the Europeans and generates constant self-examination, endless academic seminars and political conferences, all permeated with inarticulate anxiety?

It has no foundation in the real circumstances of Europe today. Obviously some of the EU’s recently entered members have legacy problems of corruption and crime, weak political structure and uncompetitive industry and agriculture; but thanks to membership in the EU, more is being done to solve these problems than would ever have happened without EU membership.

All the EU members today suffer the consequences of crisis in a globalized financial system mainly created by Britain and the United States, not by Western Europe. It has been a concatenation of financial interdependence exploited for corporate and individual gain in all but total indifference to the social consequences of its activities. It has been a phenomenon of an intellectually fashionable or faddish, and sometimes fraudulent, deregulation of the international economy, and disregard of moral norms asserted by Adam Smith himself.

As a result, the European economies are in trouble, but in the long term theirs are no worse than America’s troubles, and they are generally better off than the U.S. today in terms of employment and corporate debt. In state deficit, they are objectively far better than the United States in terms of wasted state spending on irrelevant weapons and unnecessary wars.

But here, curiously enough, we seem to arrive at the source of the EU’s present belief in its own inadequacy. Its members do not compose a military superpower engaged in world interventions intended to shape international society in a manner that will profit Europe and gratify the self-regard of the European public. This is taken as a weakness.

The actual explanation is one of elegant and edifying simplicity, linked to memories of modern terror and suffering. To use the American colloquialism: Western Europe has already been there, and already done that. And paid the price: in nihilism, death and waste in 1914-18 and 1939-45. Eastern and Balkan Europe — and Russia — subsequently suffered still more during the Cold War.

The European Union today is allowing itself to be intimidated by the American accusation that it shamefully and selfishly exists under America’s protection, doing the minimum to support the United States in Washington’s great tasks of international security.

Europe humors the increasingly dangerous American fantasy of global mission. It is time that for America’s good as well as its own, the EU ceases doing so, and tries to shake the U.S. free of its illusions.

During the Cold War, the United States defended Western Europe from the threat of Russian attack. Since the Cold War ended, there has been no threat from which to defend Europe. The so-called war against terror was, and has remained, a war by Islamist groups against the American military presence in the Middle East and Central Asia.

It has never been directed against European societies, other than those that have intervened in this “war” on the American side. Washington, even under Barack Obama, seems determined to add to its enemies in Asia — possibly to include China, and Russia as well. The new foreign affairs apparatus of the European Union should assure Washington that this is not a course on which the Europeans will be its fellow travelers.

Visit William Pfaff’s website at

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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