Just how ‘enlightened’ is Europe?
There are problems, both within Europe and in the actions–or lack of actions–that European governments are willing to take toward others. Yet a superficial look at history justifies the most positive of adjectives.
Until 1945, warfare, rigid class lines, and limited personal opportunities were the prominent traits of Europe. Thanks largely to the United States, but with no little help from Britain and the Soviet Union, the worst ended for Western Europe. The results were a gradual emergence of the European Community, the refurbishing of German universities that had dropped from the peak to the bottom of intellectual prestige during the Nazi period, the opening of new universities throughout Western Europe, the lowering of class barriers, as well as a single currency, free migration, and decent social policies throughout much of the continent.
Bargaining and vote trading, rather than saber rattling is now the medium of exchange among governments. The institutions of the Community are no more perfect than the United States Congress, and European bureaucrats are not clearly better or worse than those of the United States or the individual European governments. Individuals and organizations complain and mobilize their forces, but the language is politics rather than war.
Sections of European cities have been made unpleasant by migrations from Muslim countries and other places where limited opportunities provide the push that used to send migrants from Western Europe to North and South America. Currently nine Western European countries score higher than the United States on a widely used measure of economic well being, and all countries of Western Europe score as more egalitarian than the United States. There are also European advantages in lower rates of violent crime and longer life expectancy, as well as more effective ways of providing medical care.
The United States remains attractive. The flow of migrants from Latin America, as well as from Africa and Muslim countries testifies to that, with social problems similar to those in Western Europe, as well as the benefits of many hands to do the dirty work that “natives” (whoever they are) do not want for themselves..
Has Europe’s anathema to conflict gotten in the way of appropriate efforts to save the world from evil? It is Russia and China, rather than Western European governments, that have most clearly dragged their feet on sanctions against Iran. France and other European governments opposed the Bush invasion of Iraq, on the ground that sanctions had limited Saddam’s aggressive capacities. Remember the American response, which included the renaming of “French fries?”
Insofar as several years of assiduous looking turned up no stocks of weapons of mass destruction, one can say that the Europeans were wiser than Americans with respect to Iraq. And the same Europeans have been less than supportive of Bush and now Obama in their efforts to occupy and reform Afghanistan. Until Iraq and Afghanistan (as well as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) turn a corner toward stability and democracy, one should be chary of concluding that the Americans were right and the Europeans wrong.
What to do?
It would be great to ratchet down the excess patriotism, and to add a bit of modesty to the anyone’s aspirations for leadership. The world is complex, with both evil and poverty. Neither Europeans nor Americans have the key to Paradise. Israelis are fated to maneuver between demands coming from powers greater than themselves. They are strong enough to respond in part, and to obfuscate where necessary.
So where are the most enlightened? I know of no summary measure. Neither do I know a cure for those who insist that it is them.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University