July 2, 2011

Review: “The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe”

English political theorist and former Labor Party MP David Marquand’s recently published The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe, comes at an opportune moment.   The Greek financial crisis, U.S. jibes at NATO, and the suggestion by disgruntled British conservative party members that the UK quit the EU foretells a continental reckoning at hand.

Marquand’s thesis is that changing global circumstances press into relief both unresolved ambiguities that now must be resolved if the European Union is to continue as a viable institution.  The creators of the European Community were eager to forge the organization, and to feel they were beginning to put the outrages of hyper-nationalism, in Nazism and fascism, and the ethnic hatreds exemplified by the Holocaust behind them. These terrible events stood in sharp contrast to the modern Western self-ideal: rational, egalitarian, and humanist, rather than racially minded, and the European Community was a way to return Europe to that better model of itself.

As a result of this fervor to move beyond the horrors of World War II, the founders of the European Community (later the European Union) never explored ambiguities regarding the implications of being “European.” These included complex issues of ethnic identity vis-à-vis national and European identity, the degree to which supranational governance would override the national sovereignty of member countries, and basic questions about geography—what are the territorial boundaries of Europe, and are they identical with some sort of defining quality of Europeanness?

Among the many insights that make Marquand’s analysis worthwhile is his reminder that European states were a haphazard creations of chance and politics. American and European commentators have often observed that many borders of Middle Eastern and Central Asian states were artificially imposed by either imperial powers or regional ones, and that they cut across more organic ethnic and religious borders.  The Kurds, whose natural home is at the intersection of four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, are a pointed example.

In contrast, we in the West tell our own national narratives as organic and necessary expressions of our unity in blood and soil.   But, as Marquand observes: “There was always an element of bluff in the Westphalian states of Europe. They were products of artifice, will, the accidents of dynastic marriage and the fortunes of war rather than of mystic chords of popular feeling.”

And, just as in the Middle East, the lack of correspondence between peoples and nation-states roots contemporary challenges, especially as “premodern provincialism” meets “postmodern globalization and Europeanization.”  Marquand provides an excellent analysis of how the Islamophobia that pervades political rhetoric across much of Europe exemplifies this challenge.

In the end, Marquand is interested in reviving the European idea, in its own most idealistic terms. If the American ideal is that of individualism, the European ideal is that of “groups, living together in harmony, negotiating their differences and nurturing their members.”  In Marquand’s view, one of the necessary paths toward that ideal is a revitalized narrative that no longer asserts the primacy of a monolithic “West” over a unified East:

We shall have to recognize that the familiar “Western” narrative of global history, in which uniquely precious and, in evolutionary terms, uniquely successful “Western” values molded the modern world in our great-grandparents’ image, is a parochial distortion of a far more complex truth. And, on a less elevated but more immediate level, we shall have to accept that the “West” will never again call the shots in global politics: that there is no longer a “West” to call them.

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