Commentary Magazine


The Europeans, by Luigi Barzini

Atlanticism

The Europeans.
by Luigi Barzini.
Simon & Schuster. 267 pp. $14.95.

Is the Atlantic Alliance breaking up? The signs are certainly ominous. A common defense policy remains elusive. American efforts to restrict trade with the Soviet bloc meet with public rebuff from the European allies. Protectionism is again on the rise, and monetary affairs are a continuing source of dispute. Outside the Atlantic region proper, in crucial areas such as the Middle East and Central America, the supposed allies often find themselves working at cross-purposes.

Similar conflicts have always plagued Alliance politics, but now is a time when the need for unity seems especially great. Not since the years right after World War II has the Soviet Union posed so great a threat to the independence of Western Europe. Yet the United States and its NATO allies, instead of organizing a common resistance as they did then, have responded by quarreling with one another—sometimes over nothing more important than the composition of mayonnaise (the Germans use a synthetic, the French do not).

This sorry state of affairs is the subject of Luigi Barzini’s new book, The Europeans. In a series of essays that are as witty and charming as they are realistic and candid, the distinguished Italian journalist asks why the major countries of the Alliance (including the United States) are acting so recklessly. His conclusions make one wonder not just whether “Atlanticism” is a thing of the past, but also how it has managed to survive so long.

Most observers have tended to blame the current troubles of the Alliance on the shortsighted behavior of its members. The United States, Europeans say, has been impulsive and unpredictable in foreign affairs, or too preoccupied with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, its high interest rates have weakened European currencies and harmed European economies. From the American viewpoint, the Europeans seem unwilling to shoulder their share of the common burden, are too willing to spend money on welfare programs rather than on defense, and all too eager to make lucrative trade deals with the Soviet bloc. What is needed, according to this line of reasoning, is better understanding and a greater resolve to put the common good above national interests.

Barzini agrees that such a solution would be desirable, but thinks its likelihood remote—as remote as the age-old dreams of European unity. Although cut from a common cultural cloth, the countries of the Atlantic Alliance are astonishingly diverse. They differ in their foods, their wines, their temperaments, and, most importantly, their histories. In Barzini’s eyes, the past is more than a prologue; for better or worse it continues to shape the views and behavior of citizens and statesmen. While he does not deny the extent to which recent events have aggravated matters, Barzini finds the more fundamental reason for Atlantic disunity in the persistence of “national prides.”

Most of The Europeans is devoted to this theme. Thus, the French are fractious because they still insist on being the chief rooster in the barnyard, even though they have long since lost the means: their vaunted missiles—the force de frappe—are but the contemporary equivalent of Cyrano de Bergerac’s sword. In contrast, the Italians are the staunchest advocates of allied unity, because they hope—perhaps more for public consumption than out of private conviction—that it will provide a solution to their own historic ungovernability.

The British, writes Barzini, are stoics. The imperturbability which enabled them to carry their customs to distant lands and made them the envy of Europe now hampers their efforts (and their desire) to fit into the habits of the continent. Similarly, the lowland countries—in particular, Belgium and the Netherlands—are strong Atlanticists, but bring with this a commitment to pacifism that is better suited to small trading powers than to a union whose purposes are mostly military.

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It is Germany, though, which Barzini finds especially worrisome. Throughout history, he argues, the Germans have excelled at adopting, “Proteuslike,” characteristics they have thought would endear them to others. Since World War II, it is the Americans they have sought to please, by emphasizing the stolid, bourgeois elements of their tradition. In this they have succeeded, to an even higher degree than the Americans themselves; as a result, the gap between their economic and cultural strength, on the one hand, and their political and military inferiority on the other, has become all the more irritating.

In addition, lurking in German consciousness is the issue of reunification. Unless it is settled, Barzini believes, Germany will remain “vulnerable psychologically” as well as militarily. Yet the price of a solution is apt to be a neutralized nation in the heart of Europe that will make the position of the Atlantic Alliance untenable.

As these problems fester in Germany, a new mood seems to be taking hold which Barzini calls “national pacifism.” The Germans wish to regain control of their destiny, not in order to strengthen the defenses of the West but in order to opt out. The new mood is not yet dominant politically, but, as Barzini writes, “Germany is, as it always was, a mutable . . . unpredictable country, particularly dangerous when it is unhappy.” And once again, as has happened before, Germany may hold the future of Europe and the United States in its hands.

Barzini does see the growing success of the Common Market (EEC) as a possible avenue to a better outcome. The people of each country in the EEC, he notes, are increasingly likely to buy one another’s products, learn one another’s languages, marry one another’s citizens. A European passport is about to be introduced, and there has been talk of a common currency and postage. Slowly, invisibly, “coral-like,” the cultural differences that have historically divided the continent are being homogenized. Even Britons, Barzini claims, are now likely to acknowledge, somewhat reluctantly, that they are Europeans.

This, if true, should come as a relief to Americans, since it might enable them to disburden themselves of at least some of the Alliance’s defense. Yet Barzini provides little evidence that such a unification is really under way. Indeed, most of The Europeans conveys the opposite impression. And in any case, as Barzini admits, the development of a common identity will take one or two generations at a minimum. The Atlantic Alliance might not have that much time.

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The cultural contradictions Barzini observes have been present for a long time, and the Atlantic Alliance has still managed to function effectively, despite occasional strains. What might prevent it from doing so in the future?

For one thing, Europe itself has changed. When the Alliance was born, the nations that joined with the United States were still suffering from the effects of a long and brutal war. Most were economically weak, physically ruined, spiritually devastated. And they also had fresh memories of what the process of appeasing a totalitarian power could lead to.

Europe today is a far different place. It is rebuilt, prosperous, and, as Barzini shows so well, culturally vibrant and contentious. Moreover, after nearly fifty years, the lessons of Munich have apparently begun to fade. If the Alliance were being proposed now, one wonders whether many countries would join.

An even more important change has occurred in the United States. At the close of World War II, it was unquestionably the leader of the West. The Europeans knew this, as did the Americans themselves. In a sense, the Atlantic Alliance was little more than a device for ratifying that preeminence and creating a means of effectuating it.

Now, none of the partners is so sure. In the United States, the Vietnam experience replaced self-confidence with self-doubt, while across the Atlantic, American leadership began to seem unreliable and dangerous. Instead of deference and even admiration, Europeans have become more likely to show only a grudging respect, coupled with wariness, for American power. “They are what they are,” former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt has said, “but they are the only Americans we have.”

What Barzini and most Atlanticists forget, however, is the converse: that the Europeans are not the only allies the Americans have. Indeed, the fact that the United States even became part of the Atlantic Alliance is somewhat surprising, for not least among its cultural contradictions are those which divide the New World from the Old. Despite their common roots, Americans are different from Europeans—“baffling,” as Barzini puts it. Their involvement in European wars did not come easily; forty years ago the creed of Atlanticism was hardly to be found among them, as the primary foreign-policy interests of the United States were thought to be elsewhere—south of the border and westward across the Pacific. With these regions now coming under intense Soviet pressure, a return to traditional American concerns might well be in the offing.

Reducing Europe’s indebtedness to the United States might ultimately make for greater cooperation between them. Yet by the same token, the breakup of the Alliance might lead to national folly like that which preceded World War II. A Europe left to itself might decide that the price of defense is too high to pay, and succumb to the temptations of neutralism with Finlandization not far behind. Thus does the very fractiousness of the individual allies serve as an ironic reminder that the Alliance is Europe, and that without it, a free and independent Western Europe might well cease to exist.

About the Author

Leslie Lenkowsky is professor of public affairs and philanthropic studies at Indiana University.




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