Two no's that spell the end of a 'Europe' that never was

The defeat of the new European Union Constitution in a French referendum should send a lot of clever people back to the drawing board. Or possibly the atlas. First, it further upsets the received wisdom that the Iraq war was a political liability. Forgive my shabby Anglo-Saxon empiricism, but supporters of the war (such as George Bush, Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard, though not Spain's Jose Maria Aznar) generally seem to be doing better than its opponents, from Canada's Liberal party to Jacques Chirac, with Germany's Gerhard Schroeder soon to follow.

More profoundly, this ponderous 448-article Constitution was Europe's answer to the Charlottetown Accord: convoluted, confusing and above all disconnected from the populace whose interests it is meant to serve by an elite itself so disconnected as not to realize the disconnect exists. And while rejecting it was a blunt instrument, it was about the only way the public had left to rein in the Eurocrats, so they used it.

It is easy to scoff at the specific objections of many French voters; some were absurd (too free-market) and others were offensive (too "Anglo-Saxon"). But there was a deep rationality behind the tendency of large numbers of French citizens simply not to trust their rulers' desire, or ability, to act in the public interest, which various suggestions that a "non" vote is at best temporary will do nothing to alleviate.

Here the trivial and the profound merge. This vote (along with the less surprising or significant Dutch one) reveals Franco-German opposition to the Iraq war as not just a partisan but a geopolitical blunder and, moreover, a partisan blunder because it was a geopolitical one. It is a grave setback for the concept of "Europe" becoming a global counterweight to the United States. Not because of technicalities, but because of the underlying reality that there is no "Europe" in the sense that there is a United States politically, constitutionally or, most vitally, in the hearts of its citizens.

It is important not to lapse into the collectivist rhetoric or thought patterns of too many political leaders. All Americans are not united either behind their current president or, more broadly, behind their nation as a powerful force in global affairs. But the gap between the extent to which Americans tend to identify, or at least sympathize, with their nation's role in world affairs and the extent to which Europeans share or even comprehend their elite's vision is now revealed as profound.

The elite pushing for a united Europe without popular support and in ways hostile to the remaining real indigenous symbols and traditions of the cradle of Western civilization was not just a symptom, but also a cause of this problem.

There is a familiar academic distinction between Wilsonian "idealism" and (Theodore) Rooseveltian "realism" among makers of U.S. foreign policy. But historian Walter Russell Mead recently added a great deal to our understanding by emphasizing a major third "Jacksonian" strand in popular thinking: flag-flying, 4th-of-July fireworks, Fred Flintstones and soccer moms largely uninterested in the affairs and problems of foreigners, but deeply resentful of insults or injuries to their country. It greatly strengthens the hand of both Wilsonians and Rooseveltians that so many Americans, though little interested in the details of diplomacy, tend to rally around any administration whose plans provoke insolence or brutality abroad. But there are no European Jacksonians. No one in Europe thinks "my continent, right or wrong."

Thus the recent outburst of Eurocentric opposition to the war in Iraq was profoundly ill-conceived as a long-term strategy. It won't worry those who see the U.S. as the main source of global problems. But more thoughtful people aware of true evil in the world were not entirely mistaken in thinking a multipolar international order would be in many ways safer. Two democratic superpowers would be unlikely to make the same mistake at the same time internationally or suffer a simultaneous loss of global focus due to internal problems, on top of smaller advantages from co-operating on specific issues.

Where these more thoughtful people were dangerously wrong was in believing such a thing possible and in having no back-up plan in case it wasn't. For if there is no "Europe" to serve as a counterweight to the United States, undermining American security policy is petty, adolescent and dangerous. Which suggests the tendency of Europeans to distrust their leaders' judgment was entirely rational.

Europe is a place, not a state of mind. It's just the way things are.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson