Timothy Snyder’s recent Kiev presentation on the contending civilizational processes clashing in Ukraine is terrific. He notes today is in many ways a re-litigation of World War I and the contending integrationist agendas in the East. Snyder is concise and lucid.
Snyder is mistaken, however, asserting that EU integration is attributable to military defeats in 1945. European fears about American influence before WW I are the real precursor. European dread then of looming American power before 1914 lead many to ask how Europe could contend with such continental scale market and civilization. They mirrored today’s Russian nationalist and fascist anti-American obsession. To misunderstand this genesis is to miss why Putin’s anti-American assault gains traction so widely in Europe beyond just Moscow funded neo-fascists.
Before WW I European business and governments alike felt compelled to ponder countering American affluence, economies of scale and corrosive ‘leveling’ though mass consumption. American intervention in 1917 confirmed its actual power, underscored by American wealth subsidizing both Weimar and Allied war debt from 1923’s Dawes Paris Conference on. Only England, relying on India, could reasonably think of future, potential near-peer scenarios. Continental European pre-war national rivalries continued to prevent post-war active collaboration.
The Corporal’s continental empire was one answer. Speer and his Ministry of Armaments initiated actual industrial integration only after 1942. Speer found willing partners in France, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Speer enrolled French partners in an effort to scale Luftwaffe production using French components. Baby steps, to be sure. Yet possible because Europe by the 1940s had spent almost half a century looking for an answer to “the American power of scale” and popular culture penetration.
The Soviets had their own answers. The first Five Year Plan began in 1929 (originally proposed in less colossal grandiosity by Trotsky in 1923).
Formal European integration restarted in 1950 building on a Speer-based concept – the European Coal & Steel Community. And so on to Maastricht in 1992, creating today’s EU. The newly born EU represented many new political strands and goals, naturally. One, however, remained. Behind the European ritual of equality and endless meetings and receptions, the EU also finally enabled more than a passively anti-American critique.
In policy terms, the most obvious manifestations immediately began with trade and regulation. The Euro was intended to supplant the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The French quite openly called for the EU (as led by France) to stand up to the “US hyperpower” and so on. The EU’s feeble response to genocide in the Balkans dialed back some hubris. Libya was even worse. EU weakness over Ukraine revealed a unique moral betrayal.
The benefits of Atlantic integration and common cultural ties seemingly transcend these geo-strategic impulses. Most assume “the West” is and always has been “the Allies” (post 1945). Few Americans could explain the differences among the EU, “the Allies”, NATO or a Eurasian Customs Union. Yet still today, the EU regularly and eagerly seeks to curb or cripple American technology companies and promote and subsidize competitors. Co-dependent competition as rational policy choices does not explain the pervasive low-level anti-Americanism in Europe today. That political/psycho-emotional reality taps into something deeper than Iraq/Bush, the crushing aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis or the environment. European fixation on alleged NSA/intelligence community abuses (ignoring European practices) ostentatiously turns a blind eye to Russian penetration of their governments, parties and industry leadership for a reason.
Snyder’s excellent analysis of the European-Russian crisis is actually too constrained. Civilizational questions invoke far more than just 1914. Putin’s anti-Americanism is not just a potent Russian gambit. The ploy ignites a century of European resentments and fears, even if submerged by Cold War expediency until 1991.
Putin would be delighted if observers mistook his anti-American offensive as fuel for the ghetto of Kremlin supported anti-democratic figures such as France’s Le Pen and now Hungary’s Orban. Or for separatist groups such as UKIP in Great Britain. “Russia Today” recently began broadcasting in Germany. It blasts anti-Americanism using both the Left and Right. Political consistency is irrelevant. The goal is de-legitimation and fostering pervasive cynicism. Yes, as Snyder notes, to pull the EU down and apart. But that’s just a step to the ultimate prize.
When Putin speaks of a “united Europe whole and free from Lisbon to Vladivostok” it’s code for Russian revanchist, imperial terms: a continental answer to American (and now Chinese) scale dominated by Moscow. Few in Europe understand this or are motivated to see the difference. The game – and stakes – are much bigger than just the EU and its petty wrangling.