Will the Four Horsemen of Europe’s Apocalypse Ride Again?
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge@Wharton: In your review of Ian Kershaw’s recently published book To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949, you wrote: “Why did Europe go mad during those years?” The four horsemen of the apocalypse Kershaw identifies are the rise of ethnic-racist nationalism; the demands for territorial revisionism; class conflict; and a prolonged crisis of capitalism. In the article you ask: “Might we not blunder again?” How likely is it that we might blunder again, in your view?
Harold Evans: We have already blundered over Iraq and Syria, and we have plenty of other opportunities to barge in where angels fear to tread: Putin’s cross-border ambitions for Russia, China’s in the South China Seas, the refugee crisis, the jihadist menace, the seismic tremors from the Eurozone currency imbalances.
Yes, the four horsemen are still saddled up, but they are less menacing than in the 1930s for two reasons: One, in 1941, the United States, after decades of isolationism, woke up to both its self-interest and its idealism in rejoining the world. Two, the shattered European states were led by political realists with vision (Churchill and Bevin, de Gaulle, and Adenauer). They were ready to be led by the United States in the creation of economic and security institutions that have given us six decades of peace and prosperity.
We have to hold fast to that vision especially when everybody is [dissing] the idea of a united Europe. Things are not nearly as bad as they were in the years leading to World War II. I think that in another five to 10 years, the refugee crisis will have been resolved. The economic migrants will either have been absorbed or welcomed back in their native countries and the asylum seekers will have been given sanctuary in countries led by politicians who can see further than the nearest frontier post. Germany has shown a capacity for economic and moral leadership to shame the 1930’s-style primitives, some of whom are leaders in Europe.
The imponderable, as we talk, is the United States. President Obama has not been much of a leader for trans-Atlantica, but all bets are off if the electorate votes in as reckless and ignorant a person as Donald Trump. Nuclear weapons? No national capital is complete without one. I have more faith in the U.S. electorate. I wish I could say the same for the nationalist electorate in Russia and the cowed masses in China.
Yes, there are risks that Europe might blunder into another war, but European society strikes me as more mature and less flammable than it was then. What was the Germany of the Holocaust is now the most welcoming of Jews. And the most hostile opponents of radical jihadism in Europe and the Middle East are not Trump and company, but Muslims. I think the lessons of history have been learned. It’s easy to feel despair by selectively citing supposed historical parallels.
Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s focus on the rise of ethnic-racist nationalism. We are seeing this in the reaction of some EU citizens to the arrival of thousands of people from the Middle East and elsewhere. How do the ethnic feelings of today compare with those in Europe between the wars?
Evans: Nobody can deny that there is fear among Europeans of the arrival of large numbers of Muslim migrants. But it’s stupid to make all Muslims a scapegoat for the terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino (in California). It is tragic when nationalism and ethnic identity go together. The Hungarian government, for example, is behaving in a most reactionary fashion to the influx of migrants. Governments that tolerate hatred — and, still worse, incite it — perish by it.
Contrast the scares about absorbing newcomers with the way that West Germany integrated the East Germans after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought the East Germans would be indoctrinated with communism after all those years in the Soviet bloc, yet they managed to make a national community out of the new Germany that has recently behaved in a morally superior way toward the migrants from Syria and elsewhere.
Knowledge@Wharton: But isn’t the integration of Muslim migrants into European society going to be a lot harder than East Germans into one German nation?
Evans: I’d agree that it is a different order of magnitude. But we have to distinguish between the 15% to 20% who are refugees, the 0.001% who might be jihadists, and the remainder
Knowledge@Wharton: The tiny number who are terrorists, though, pose a continuing threat to create mayhem and thus sow enmity between local people and the migrants, don’t they?
Evans: Yes, but the last thing we should do is give ground to that enmity by persecuting and discriminating against non-radical Muslims. Remember that the bulk is fleeing from monsters who’ve kidnapped their religion and murdered their families. Don’t learn the wrong lesson from European history. We all want the European authorities to capture the terrorists and bring them to justice, but let’s not be so clumsy as to make them appear martyrs to their odious cause. Ted Cruz, who has lost the Republican nomination for president to Trump, came up with the wackiest notion that we should police Muslim communities already integrated in the U.S. His next speech or book should be: How to Breed Jihadists Without Leaving Home.
Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s turn to conflicts over territory. We see this in Ukraine and the Russian takeover of Crimea. As with Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, doesn’t President Putin feel like the loser after the end of communism?
Evans: It isn’t just Putin, though. President Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, believed that there was an understanding at the end of the Cold War that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would not push East. He felt that the West betrayed that understanding.
But this does not justify Putin’s actions in Crimea or the massing of his forces on the border with the rest of Ukraine. I believe he is an expansionist, and that, by invading Crimea, he broke his agreement that Ukraine was a separate country.
I was in favor of stronger Western resistance to Putin’s actions in Ukraine and have argued that President Obama’s response was reminiscent of the inaction of America (and France and Britain) in 1936 when German troops marched into Rhineland. Now, we have to make sure we will defend the Baltic States and continue to enforce the economic sanctions imposed on Russia.
And let’s have a referendum in Eastern Ukraine and see whether people there actually want to become part of Russia.
One of the problems is that the polarization of politics has a mirror image in the polarization of cable news, so our media is not as helpful as it might be in forming a national consensus for an intelligent foreign policy. As for the Internet, it’s a wondrous medium for research, but the proliferation of social media has undermined the economic base of the national press for foreign coverage and investigation. Deprived by budget cuts of consistent, independent reporting, we are suddenly taken aback to find that Iraq’s [former] Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had, for eight years, pursued a vendetta against Sunnis and we now have ISIS on our doorstep.
Network TV, with less financial justification, has closed many foreign bureaus; nowadays a correspondent drops in with a wind machine and looks for a bunch of photogenic palm trees.
And the trend is for people to go to websites that confirm and reconfirm their prejudices with not much leakage of unsettling information. There are still millions who believe Saddam Hussein plotted 9/11.
Knowledge@Wharton: The two other horsemen in the 1930s were class conflict and a crisis of capitalism. Are there parallels today — the widening gap between rich and poor in Europe, as elsewhere, and the fact that many European economies have not recovered from the financial crisis that began in 2009?
Evans: Yes. I think the policies of economic austerity imposed in much of Europe were a huge mistake. It’s as if President Hoover were still alive. I think the Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow got it right when he said that the EU governments threw Greece a lifebelt, but the rope was too short.
But I want to add to the anxiety about the four horsemen by noting the possibility of the U.K. voting in a referendum in June to leave the EU. If Britain votes to withdraw, then this would probably lead not only to the weakening of the EU, but also to the breakup of the U.K., because the Scots would opt to stay in the EU. There is a depressing, primitive nativism among Prime Minister Cameron’s opponents in the Tory party.
Boris Johnson, leading the “Get Out” nativists, is a jolly fellow, but he’s also an opportunist who’d seize any opportunity to grab the crown. To be true to his advertisement of himself as Churchillian, he should get on his bike and not get off until he reaches Calais, where he could prove himself by sorting out the disgraceful camps of the refugees who’ve been turned away from the white cliffs of Dover. But the leaders of the “Stay In” crowd don’t show much inspiration either.
Knowledge@Wharton: You started off by saying you were more optimistic about the future of Europe than the circumstances might warrant, but now you sound pessimistic. So where do you stand?
Evans: I am like a man floundering in the sea, but if I hold on tightly enough to my lifebelt and if the political leadership and the media pull me in strongly enough, we’ll reach the promised land. But you’ve got to have a vision of a cohesive Europe or you’ll lose all hope. W. B. Yeats summed it up brilliantly in his poem, “The Second Coming”: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” [The 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry] Goldwater said extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, so I’ll paraphrase that, by saying that extremism in defense of a united Europe is a virtue.