European Affairs

Amid this constellation, the taut and measured observations of the American academic specialist James J. Sheehan stand in refreshingly realistic contrast to the predictions of Khanna, who argues that Brussels will be the next Rome if only through force of example. And he is less judgmental, and certainly less dismissive, than Kagan, whose Mars-versus-Venus argumentation aroused such consternation in Europe in his previous book and whose new book, The Return of History, argues that the future will be full of challenges from a resurgent Russia as the Kremlin reverts to Tsarist-era visions based on the newfound power and wealth of its energy sector.

Sheehan’s book, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, is especially relevant to the question of America’s future role precisely because it rarely mentions the United States. Even more remarkably, covering material familiar to students of history, Sheehan provides engaging insights on issues from compulsory military service to nuclear weapons – without needing revelations from newly-found documents. His previous prolific output has been aimed at specialists, but this work belongs on the reading list of every university general-history course on both sides of the Atlantic.

For one thing, his book is a bracing reminder about the caution required for any intelligent use of the media and even of intellectuals as guides to reality. With his great eye for the right quote, Sheehan reminds us that absurd predictions did not begin with American journalists on cable television. As he notes, even the august Economist magazine can turn out some whoppers – in September 1914 asserting that European nations could not afford to fight for more than a few months and in 1985, that nothing much in Europe would change by 2025. But journalists are pikers in the predictions department when compared with the intelligentsia: numerous European intellectuals were promising a more cohesive European approach to security right up to the moment of the pre-Iraq war rift between the United States and Europe, and World War I broke out while intellectual best-seller lists were still carrying Norman Angel’s The Great Illusion with its thesis that war would be futile in a modern global economy.

So what trends have actually emerged as long-term forces shaping our situation in the transatlantic era? As usual, George Orwell was among the first getting it right when he wrote that early 20th-century Englishmen “had been trained for war from cradle onwards, not technically but morally.” Orwell was not so right in 1949 when his book of political science-fiction, 1984, anticipated a garrison-state emerging in post-World War II Europe. This mistaken prediction aside, Orwell’s observations help form the core of Sheehan’s thesis that Europe became a military state by the early 20th century and then, in the years after World War II, transformed into a civilian state.

The cold war security systems imposed by the United States and Soviet Union on their spheres of Europe, Sheehan says:

provided the incubator within which the states of Western Europe were gradually transformed. They became civilian states, i.e. states that retained the capacity to make war with one another but lost all interest in doing so. The result was an eclipse of violence in both meanings of the word: violence declined in importance, and it was concealed from view by something else – the state’s need to encourage economic growth, provide social welfare and guarantee personal security for its citizens. The eclipse of violence happened gradually. It was a slow, silent revolution, hidden in plain sight, but nonetheless a revolution as dramatic as any other in European history.

Of course, there was the horrendous first half of the 20th century. Among Sheehan’s numerous observations and factoids: had the first war not started after the assassination in Sarajevo, some other event in the Balkans or the collapsing Habsburg and Ottoman empires would have provoked a major conflict among the major powers because all of them already were deeply engaged in aggressive conduct and an escalating arms race. The author states that Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler were direct products of the first war, and the latter sowed the seeds of inevitability about the onset of the Second World War, which no one else in Europe either wanted or prepared for. And as World War II came to an end, after causing the deaths of at least 50 million people, Sheehan notes another detail:

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the end of the Third Reich was the number of people who killed themselves rather than face the consequences of defeat. This included not only the top leaders – Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler – but also 110 generals, many party officials, local administrators, and scores of ordinary men and women, some of whom, like Goebbels, took their wives and children with them. Without precedent in European history, these suicides are yet another expression of the intense feelings of despair, fear, and, one would like to believe, shame, generated by this most terrible of wars.

According to Sheehan, the transformation of a continent from suicidal internecine destruction to 50-plus years of peace (outside the Balkans and the Caucasus) can be attributed to the international order imposed by the Americans and Soviets. Western Europe’s security in the nuclear era depended on the actions and policies of a distant United States – over which Europeans had little or no control. So, he concludes, the new order of European integration was not the cause of peace. Instead, peace was the precondition of an ever-closer union. The danger of nuclear war was a source of diffuse and intermittent anxiety but that Europeans learned to accept as part of everyday life as they had to because they did little to shore up their own conventional military defenses.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, in a New York Times review of Sheehan’s book, elaborated on the point that during the waning years of the cold war, Europe became fully “civilianized”: conscription was abandoned, armies themselves assimilated the values of civilian society, and as the great English military historian Sir Michael Howard puts it, “death was no longer seen as being part of the social contract.” Indeed, the peaceful nature of Eastern Europe’s revolutions that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism can in part be attributed to the non-violent disposition that took hold and gradually prevailed in Europe following the devastation of the two world wars.

The decade and a half that has followed the Central European revolutions of 1989 and the end of communism has been remarkable for how little change it has provoked on the continent. Its institutions expanded but did not fundamentally change or show an ability to adopt unified, coherent positions on major issues. Indeed, when conflict erupted in Bosnia, the initial European response – described by many as “feckless” – showed just how much a civilian state Europe had become. As Sheehan writes,

More important than the Union’s institutional weaknesses were the Europeans’ failures of will and imagination. Their leaders seemed to lack the will to do more than talk, threaten and condemn. When some European governments sent troops as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, they imposed restrictive rules of engagement that rendered the soldiers virtually helpless. Because they viewed the situation from the perspective of their own civilian states, the Europeans could not imagine what was at stake in the Balkans, nor could they understand the vicious but nonetheless rational calculations that drove people like Tudjman and Milosevic to embrace violent solutions.

Sheehan points to the Bosnia debacle, prior to the U.S.-NATO intervention, as a failure of European will and imagination as those involved followed a civilian perspective that was out of touch with the military necessities at hand. Some European leaders, led by British Prime Minister John Major, tended to dismiss the situation as beyond anyone’s control: Fatalism became failure as Europe’s approach left it in a powerless position.

To counter arguments that Europe could and should adopt its own security system independent of the United States, Sheehan avers that most of Europe’s armies resemble police forces rather than military units. European nations will never return to conscription; even the best of their forces are now small and professional. The long-promised European Rapid Reaction Force is far from reality. It would cost $50 billion to man and equip it properly with computers, laser-guided weapons and communications suitable for a high-tech military force. That kind of money seems unlikely to be forthcoming from national parliaments bent on cutting, not expanding, military budgets both in real terms and in share of gross national product. And then there’s the problem of European decision-making. Not only was the now-failed European constitution deliberately ambiguous on pinpointing authority for security matters, even more problematic is the democratic deficit. The European parliament is hardly an institution capable of ratifying, much less declaring, war. Finally, Sheehan concludes:

The eclipse of the willingness and stability to use violence that was once so central to statehood has created a new kind of European state, firmly rooted in new forms of public and private identity. As a result, the European Union may become a super-state – a super civilian state – but not a superpower.
Of course, this book was written long before the guns of August 2008 roared in the Caucasus, reminding Europeans that Russia has far from given up its great power ambitions, certainly vis-à-vis its neighbors in the old Russian (not Soviet) empire that included the Caucasus and Ukraine. Those neighbors, now in or wanting to join NATO, never succumbed to the illusions of Washington or Berlin that Russia could develop into a democratic and harmonious partner. But however the Caucasus’ drama unfolds, it brutally reinforces Sheehan’s warning that Europeans should see and recognize the new dangers beyond their borders and not assume that the “frozen conflicts” on their eastern edge will remain dormant.

Michael Mosettig is a senior producer on foreign affairs at The News Hour with Jim Lehrer broadcast by PBS.

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 3 in the Fall of 2008.