Commentary Magazine

Europe Breaks Apart

A mid the general clamor surrounding the unleashing of the Carter administration’s new foreign policies, a major anniversary slipped by with little fanfare; in Rome late in March, the members of the European Common Market celebrated the passage of two decades since the establishment of that institution. The Treaty of Rome in 1957 was supposed to have been the first step in the creation of a new Europe, free from the dangerous nationalism which had twice in this century led the continent into catastrophic wars. The Common Market was designed to minimize the risks of divisive economic competition, thus making it more likely that the European nations would find it possible to achieve some sort of political integration in the following years. It appeared that Europe, along with its American ally, had learned the basic lessons of World War II. The two parties seemed to have concluded that it was necessary to break with the nationalistic traditions of the past, both because nationalism was a cause of warfare on the continent and because, in Hajo Holborn’s words, “No Western European state, or for that matter, not even all the Western European nations together, could resist Russia’s power.”

Those who advocated European unity realized that this was an enormously desirable development for both partners in the Atlantic alliance. Europe could not defend itself alone, and thus needed American assistance and guarantees. On its side, the United States badly needed a free and viable Europe. For the greater the coherence and coordination of the European nations, the more successful NATO—the cornerstone of the effort to contain the Soviet menace—was likely to be.

All these themes were present in the speeches of the founders of the Common Market, and hopes were high twenty years ago in Rome that Europe, hand in hand with an aroused United States, would soon provide the necessary structures and strength of will to block any Soviet designs on Western Europe. Under the circumstances, it is just as well that the twentieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome received such scant attention in the American press, for the “New Europe” is in considerable trouble. If the marriage of the old continental nations was celebrated two decades ago, we are today witnessing a trial separation. Despite the solemn vows to cherish, honor, and preserve one another, the nations of Western Europe now show alarming signs of reverting to their old prewar habits of narrow chauvinism.

Such at least is the conclusion one is forced to draw from the general elections of 1976 held in various European countries. By and large these elections have been analyzed in terms of the traditional categories of Left and Right, which has produced a mixed bag of results: a shocking and perhaps historic overthrow of the Western world’s oldest socialist government in Sweden; a significant, if somewhat less than triumphant, advance by Italian Communism; and a razor-thin victory by a coalition of liberals and social democrats in West Germany. The Belgian elections produced a stand-off between the governing centrist coalition and the Socialist party, while Dom Mintoff’s contested victory in Malta marks the triumph of both Mintoff’s peculiar brand of nationalist socialism and the meddling of Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi from the southern shores of the Mediterranean.



But a somewhat clearer pattern emerges if we look at the election results from a different angle. In each case, foreign-policy issues played a major role, and the forces of nationalism (very different from one another, to be sure) scored clear gains. The Swedish instance is perhaps the most dramatic, because of the almost mythological quality which that socialist government had acquired in the eyes of the world. Sweden was the official showcase for both democratic socialism and a particular kind of internationalism. If some people were inclined to argue that socialism was fundamentally anti-democratic, one could always point to Sweden as proof that democratic socialism was flourishing. Moreover, Swedish foreign aid was designed in a unique way: the budget was modeled on that of the United Nations. Olof Palme and his supporters like to say that old chauvinistic considerations had been eliminated in Sweden and that a kind of international conscience, if not consciousness, had been created there.

This was the government that Swedish voters rejected after forty-four years in office. They rejected it for several reasons. Many were worried about Palme’s program of proliferating Swedish nuclear-power plants. Others were fed up with the relentless advance of the bureaucracy, particularly with its tax-collecting methods. Still others were alarmed by the program of the trade-union movement, which would have converted the national economy from one where over 90 per cent of industry is still in private hands to one where virtually every major company would pass into the hands of the workers (i.e., the unions). Palme took care not to endorse the proposal publicly, but many suspected that he would soon have done so had he been reelected.

Finally, and crucially for our present purposes, many Swedes were disgusted with Palme’s demagogical Third-Worldism and what the French centrist newspaper L’aurore called his “one-way humanitarianism.” The Palme who had mounted his white horse on behalf of the Vietcong was nowhere to be heard when the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities of Cambodia; and American radicals were always given a greater measure of support than dissidents from Sweden’s nearby superpower, the Soviet Union. Significantly, the only really violent debate in the Swedish parliament in the year prior to the elections was over proposed aid to Cuba (a fact virtually unnoticed in the American press). Palme supported it, and eventually won, but it cost him heavily. Many Swedes were less than enthusiastic about financing Castro’s foreign adventures, and many others wished for a more balanced foreign policy than that advanced by the radical-chic spokesmen of Palme’s coterie. (One of the most powerful members of the new government, Per Ahlmark, is a vigorous supporter of Israel.)

All this suggests a shift in Swedish political sympathies which cannot be explained solely in terms of pro- or anti-socialist sentiment. The Swedish elections showed that the high tide of “progressive” internationalism is beginning to run its course, and that a more particularistic sentiment is in the ascendant.



The same pattern can be found in West Germany, where Helmut Schmidt’s government survived only by the narrowest of margins. The German elections followed the Swedish ones by a few weeks, and Schmidt’s most charismatic opponent, Franz Josef Strauss, put the Swedish results at the center of his campaign rhetoric. Strauss argued that the Swedish vote represented a voice of fear: fear that Sweden had already moved from social democracy to pure socialism, and that it was well on its way to “Communist collectivism.” Strauss attempted to characterize German socialism in much the same terms, hoping to convince the German electorate (which hardly needs to be warned about the dangers of Communism) that a continuation of the social-democratic regime would menace German freedom. The attempt failed, and there has been considerable dispute among analysts of the elections as to whether Strauss’s harsh attacks did not in fact undermine a probable victory. Polls show that the social democrats recovered strongly in the last weeks of the campaign, precisely the period when Strauss and his allies were delivering their most intense diatribes. The electorate may have been more concerned about foreign policy than about socialism (it is difficult, in any event, to think of Helmut Schmidt as a wild-eyed radical, ready to lead Germany down the path to Communism), and it is noteworthy that Schmidt found himself forced to repudiate Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, and anchor his foreign policy in a special tie with the United States. Had Brandt still been at the head of the Center-Left coalition, the Right might well have taken power in Germany.

This shift within German social democracy is extremely significant, for Brandt and Schmidt were leading spokesmen for an active German role in promoting both European unification and a variation of Palme’s “progressive” internationalism. Moreover, Ostpolitik had represented the German version of détente, and its failure to sustain popular support holds important implications for the entire Western alliance.

The Italian elections, as usual, were considerably more complicated. Without going into all the byzantine passages of Italian electoral politics, it can be said that last June’s elections produced two notable results: a strengthening of the Christian Democrats (at the expense of the smaller parties of the Center and Center-Right), and a further advance by the Communists (at the expense of the Socialist party). There is an anti-Communist consensus in the country, but it is not so solid as to be unchallengeable. Still, the Christian Democratic victory surprised a lot of people, who had expected a more substantial gain by Berlinguer’s PCI. The victory was a triumph for those Christian Democrats who had realized that foreign policy was the weakest link in the Communists’ armor, and who brought the election campaign to a fever pitch, warning Italians of the consequences of Communist entry into the government. This was portrayed as a potentially fatal threat to the autonomy of the country, an event which would transport Italy from one side of the Iron Curtain to the other, and which would mean the end of Italian participation in the Western world.

The campaign saw an intensification of the Italian Communists’ attempts to convince the country of the genuineness of their commitment to the West and its alliances. But while Berlinguer and company were reiterating their desire to stay in NATO and participate in the EEC, they also sounded a rather strident nationalist theme (quite similar to that which one hears from certain elements in the British Labor party), complaining about getting short shrift from the Common Market, and suggesting that perhaps Italy might better go it alone. Like the British Left, the Italian Communists were happy to link these complaints to the “crisis of the capitalist system,” and other reliable rhetorical warhorses. It may be significant that one hardly ever heard such words from the Socialists who did so badly in the elections. (However, the collapse of the Italian Socialist party is due to many factors, and this may not have been the determining one.)

Nationalism nowadays is not limited to parties of the Left or Right, and it is gaining strength all over the continent. In Malta, we find the mercurial Dom Mintoff, who is cutting his NATO ties and launching a “progressive” Maltese nationalism with the blessings of Chinese and Libyan manpower and funds. In Denmark, there is the incredible Progress party of Morgens Glistrup (invariably considered conservative if not reactionary), which would literally substitute for the country’s defense forces a recording which says “I surrender” in Russian, and which, modeling its program on the behavior of its leader, proposes to make it possible for Danes to avoid paying most income taxes. In England as in France, groups at both ends of the political spectrum are spreading the nationalist word. Britain’s Labor party has a left wing which is second to none in its chauvinistic defense of purely national interests. It is challenged in this regard only by the National Front on the far Right which adds calls for the racial purification of the country to the separatist rhetoric of the trade unionists and the Communists. In France, both the Gaullists and the Communists are intensely anti-NATO, and sufficiently nationalistic to keep General De Gaulle comfortably immobile in his grave at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises.



How does one explain the new nationalism? The most tempting answer is also the simplest: the tremendous impact of the rise of oil prices following the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. One must agree with the conclusion of Robert W. Tucker1 that we have only just begun to understand the profound effects of the rising energy costs in the industrialized world. England and Italy are at the moment living hand-to-mouth, desperately searching for more funds to bail out their faltering economies. France, Denmark, Belgium, and Holland are all facing strong internal protests against rising inflation; Portugal is solvent only because of the American commitment to keep it afloat at all costs; and Spain has only just begun to face the challenges of modernization and the competition of Western Europe.

But no matter how important the increase in the price of oil, it does not explain the political changes in question here. The most stable economies in Europe are those of Germany and Switzerland, and they are two of the most virulently chauvinistic nations (Switzerland regularly considers legislation to send all foreign laborers out of the country, and has repeatedly refused to increase foreign aid); Italy and Spain, two of the weakest economies, are among the most internationalist in their policies. This suggests a kind of reverse economic determinism: the weaker economies, faced with the impossibility of going it alone, find themselves forced to adopt an internationalist stance, while the stronger countries can permit themselves the luxury of nationalism. But this “explanation” breaks down too, since struggling Britain went through spasms over its entry into the Common Market and has a growing nationalist Right as well as a growing nationalist Left. Moreover, Spain’s new politics have nothing to do with economics, but rather with politics tout court. It is the passing of Franco and the installation of Adolfo Suarez in power in Madrid which produced the amazing political renovation of Spain. Economic factors have remained relatively constant in the past several years.

The truth is that the basic explanation for the breakdown of the drive to create a more united West lies not in Europe itself, but in the behavior of the senior partner in the Atlantic alliance. During the past eight years the United States has failed to provide any consistently unifying leadership, except in a negative sense: during the Vietnam war, various political forces gathered under the banner of anti-Americanism, thus producing a temporary unity. This helps explain both why America left its allies to their own devices for an extended period and one of the principal American motivations for the policy of détente.

The Vietnam war was very unpopular throughout Europe in the late 60’s, making it difficult for European leaders to base their programs on close ties with the United States. There was, accordingly, a tendency for European governments to go their own way, to dissociate themselves not only from American foreign policy in Asia, but from American leadership in general. It was in this atmosphere that Palme’s Third-Worldism, De Gaulle’s continuing calls for French leadership of Europe, and Italian and French Communist demands that their countries withdraw from NATO gathered steam. The extreme case was France, where both Left and Right demanded an end to the “American connection.”

It is against this background, as well as that of the American political furor of the late 60’s, that one must view détente. At least in part, the policy of détente represented an effort to defuse the American issue both at home and abroad by undercutting the idea of America as a major source of instability and aggression in the world. Last July, Henry Kissinger spelled this out in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London: “. . . only a demonstrated commitment to peace can sustain domestic support for an adequate defense and a vigilant foreign policy. Our public and Congress will not back policies which appear to invite crises, nor will they support firmness in a crisis unless they are convinced that peaceful and honorable alternatives have been exhausted.” While the specific reference is to the American public and the American Congress, the broader import of Kissinger’s thinking is plain. When America’s image is tarnished, there can be no “vigilant” foreign policy in the West.



Whatever one may say about détente in relation to the Soviet Union, the policy was notably successful in calming the violent anti-Americanism of the late 60’s both at home and abroad. However, détente had other less desirable effects on the Western alliance. Despite Kissinger’s evident intentions, and regardless of his continued pronunciamentos on the evils of Eurocommunism, détente sent a signal to the West that it was now possible to sup with the devil. Previously, Western Europeans had been wary of extended contacts and deals with the Soviet Union, but they now took what they believed to be their cue from the White House, and initiated a wide series of cooperative programs, ranging from Italian participation in the construction of Togliattigrad and its massive Fiat plant to Brandt’s more ambitious Ostpolitik. There was no “linkage” between these programs (undertaken by individual European countries) and Soviet concessions to the West in political and strategic fields. More seriously, European Communist parties, which had been perceived as closely linked to Soviet interests, now acquired a new kind of acceptability within the Western world. If Nixon and Kissinger could sit down with Brezhnev and company, why could not the leaders of European nations deal with Marchais and Berlinguer?

Western Communists quickly adjusted their line to the new conditions. Where they had resolutely opposed NATO in the past, they now (in Italy) endorsed it as a means of preserving the global balance of power, or (in Spain) supported American bases. (Again, however, France constituted the extreme case of rampant nationalism, as Marchais denounced both NATO and American bases.) The United States found itself in an awkward position, for Kissinger’s warnings about the effects of Communist participation in European governments sounded strangely hypocritical to many ears. Was this not the era of détente? And did détente not mean that the previously contending parties could now negotiate their differences and agree to act in unison when their interests coincided?

Thus, what had to some extent begun as a strategy to draw the teeth of an attack against America from the Left became a golden opportunity for the Communists to advance. And advance they did—in Portugal, in Italy, in France, and in Spain. As they advanced they waved the flag of détente, proclaiming their unending faith in the values of the West even while threatening the alliance which guarantees Western stability and security.

It was of course inevitable that détente would lead to a popular conception of a more benign Soviet Union, and of its political allies within the Western camp. The situation was made even worse by the grave weakening of American prestige and credibility through the attacks on the CIA, the pell-mell rush to print secrets involving America’s allies, and the exposure of bribes by American corporations abroad. In the absence of a more active American “presence” in the Western alliance—which would have driven home the point that the new relationship with the Soviet Union did not mean that America’s vital interests had changed—centrifugal forces were unleashed throughout Europe. Kissinger himself expressed alarm over these tendencies in his London speech:

We should not allow the Soviet Union to apply détente selectively within the alliance. Competition among us in our diplomatic or economic policies toward the East risks dissipating Western advantages and opening up Soviet opportunities. We must resist division and maintain the closest coordination.

It is ironic, to say the least, that these words should have come from the architect of the very policy which Europeans of both Right and Left quote so cheerfully in their rush toward accommodation with the Russians. The situation is particularly alarming because it is asymmetrical. The Russians have not paid an equivalent price for détente, because their ability and determination to exert influence over their Eastern European “allies” have not been as damaged as have those of the U.S. Repression from Moscow has increased in proportion to efforts from below to strengthen national and individual independence (although the effects of the Helsinki treaty and Carter’s new human-rights policy remain to be seen).



The Atlantic alliance is currently threatened in the Southeast by the Greco-Turkish conflict, in the South by Eurocommunism, in the North by independent-minded Scandinavians, and throughout by conflicts between Americans and Europeans over military standardization and other necessary measures of allied interdependence. The problem is not simply one of anti-Communism, nor can it be solved, as many believe, by supporting forces of the Center and the Right against those of the Left. Indeed, it can be argued that the most intensively anti-Soviet groups on the continent are those socialist parties which have learned at first hand about the danger of Russian imperialism, while many parties on the Right have an unlimited capacity to delude themselves into thinking that the old glory days of brave words and breast-thumping are a substitute for European unity and close cooperation between the old and new continents.

From the Russian point of view, the right-wing Morgens Glistrup in Denmark is a major strategic triumph: the spread of Danish-style Progress parties throughout Europe would serve Soviet goals just as surely and just as conclusively as the success of Messrs. Marchais and Berlinguer in future elections. Centrifugal forces, whatever their ideological coloration, are a fundamental threat to Western security in and of themselves. For the net effect of: the programs of the European nationalists, Right as well as Left, would be to offer the Russians a glorious, opportunity to exert military, political, and economic pressure on Western Europe country by country.

There is, in short, simply no substitute for the unity and commitment to one another of the nations of the West, as the signatories of the Treaty of Rome so well recognized twenty years ago. In London, Kissinger concluded his address by saying: “We know what has to be done. We know what can be done. All that remains is to do it.” He would have done better to tell his audience that they had evidently forgotten the vital facts about the world, and that we had all better remind ourselves of them, before it is too late.


1 “Oil and American Power: Three Years Later,” COMMENTARY, January 1977.

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