Freedom in Post-Democratic Europe

If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

Hiatt thinks Obama sorely and mistakenly undervalues the practical uses of the so-called freedom agenda, to the detriment of his own stated policy goals. But there is another relevant facet to this debate. The trend in the rest of the West, notably Europe, is away from democracy. Who, then, will proclaim the virtues of freedom and self-rule if we don’t? The answer is: no one.

Daniel Hannan, writing in the magazine Standpoint, noted that the European Union is, on its face, manifestly undemocratic, as more and more of the continent’s policy is made by unelected committees, whose members are appointed by other unelected committees, in Brussels. The euro is the symbol of this union, and the union’s most powerful and influential state (though we have now begun using the term “state” loosely), within and probably without, is Germany. So what happens when you ask the most obvious question to the most relevant official? When you ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel why the euro should not be dissolved, what does she say? Hannan quotes her response:

Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe, and that’s why I say, if the euro fails, Europe fails. We have a historical obligation: to protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and bloodshed.

Hannan adds: “Put in those terms, of course, the issue is literally beyond argument. If you oppose the euro, Mrs Merkel suggests, you’re in favour of war.” Eurocrats are shown the door when they even glance at the hoi polloi. Hannan notes what happened when Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on the bailout package offered his country by Europe. Less than a week later, Papandreou had been forced out of office. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier and no euroskeptic himself, expressed his ambivalence toward his country staying in the euro. At an EU summit, an official boasted they were about to be rid of Berlusconi. That was a promise, not a threat; five days later the deed was done.

Hannan then upends the conventional wisdom of the European Union:

People sometimes talk of the EU’s democratic deficit as if it were accidental. In fact, it is essential to the whole design. Having lived through the 1920s and 1930s, the founders had little faith in democracy — especially the plebiscitary democracy which they saw as a prelude to demagoguery and fascism. They were therefore unapologetic about vesting supreme power in the hands of appointed commissioners who were to be invulnerable to public opinion. They were disarmingly honest, too, about the fact that their dream of common European statehood would never be realised if successive transfers of power to Brussels had to be approved by the national electorates.

The euro was the culmination of their scheme.

The democracy deficit–in this case forcing the single-currency suicide pact on disapproving commoners–has led to increasing actual deficits. Those financial debts, in turn, have a corrosive effect on freedom abroad. For example, as Justin Vaïsse wrote in February, European governments promised “money, markets access, mobility” to emerging Arab states, especially Tunisia and Libya, during the Arab Spring. But the debt crisis at home resulted in modest, and disappointing, results–just as those countries needed it the most.

But more than cash, and certainly more than immigration opportunities, the awakening human spirit needs an atlas of ideas. Those North African countries may look across the Mediterranean and wonder what all the fuss is about. Where will the inspiration come from? Not Europe, which sticks its fingers in its ears when it hears the noise of the people. And certainly not the leader of the pack–Germany–slow to act against Iranian bank interests and offering diplomatic support to Vladimir Putin, a fraud and a thug who requests, and receives, Germany’s acquiescence in preventing the further enlargement of NATO, whose raison d’être is explicitly tied to promoting and protecting democracy.

No doubt Hiatt’s column will be derided by those on the left who delight in sounding the alarm of a creeping conservatism on the Post’s editorial page (if only!), and by those enlightened observers who scoff at the caveman barbarism of nationalism and identity. But if Europe’s leaders are indeed ready to put their experiment in democracy behind them, there will be one nation, and one office, left to carry the banner. As president of the United States, this is Barack Obama’s mission, whether or not he chooses to accept it.