Alex Massie

Without War We Are Nothing. Apparently.

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Happily my Outrage Outage didn't last long. Thanks, Robert Kaplan! Your Atlantic column on the fall of the Berlin Wall proved a most adequate tonic. You conclude your piece:

What does the European Union truly stand for besides a cradle-to-grave social welfare system? For without something to struggle for, there can be no civil society—only decadence.

Thus, with their patriotism dissipated, European governments can no longer ask for sacrifices from their populations when it comes to questions of peace and war. Ironically, we may have gained victory in the Cold War, but lost Europe in the process.



Now besides a "cradle-to-grave social welfare system" I'd say that the EU stands for, or at least has ambitions towards, peace and prosperity and that, whatever one may think of the organisation, these are hardly small things. Indeed, their absence through for much of the twentieth century was, shall we say, marked.

For that matter, absorbing the countries of central and eastern europe into the EU is itself no tiny task and one that, not unreasonably, has preoccupied europe these past twenty years. That this absorbtion has, generally speaking, been a success is also an achievement of note. And, of course, the process is not yet complete. (There have, for sure, been some serious problems along the way: hello Yugoslavia.)

But no, apparently a europe at peace is a symptom, or perhaps a proof, of weakness. Yet when considering the history of the twentieth century, a dissipation of patriotism - in the sense Kaplan employs the term, which is to say, a dissipation of the willingness to fight vast and costly wars unless they become a matter of utmost necessity - might be considered no bad thing either.

It may be that a national effort on the scale of that mounted between 1939 and 1945 is no longer be possible. But that's a thesis that, happily, has remained untested since, again mercifully, there's been no opportunity to try it on for size. Normally that too might be considered a Good Thing.

Even if one grants the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and more generally, the conflict with radical Islam the status of war it's clear that the natures of these conflicts are rather different from previous wars. National survival does not, despite what the fretters say, seem imperilled. A degree of stout vigilance may be - no, certainly is - required but that's not quite the same thing.

Kaplan's argument is actually rather similar to one made in the Edwardian age. Then too we were told that civilisation had grown fat and soft and complacent*. Then too, a fair number of intellectuals suggested that a purging moment of barbarism, while undoubtedly unfortunate for the victims, might be a useful means of reinvigorating our dangerously decadent societies. Well, we saw where that led us, didn't we?

Maybe Kaplan is right. But if he is then that might be considered something worth celebrating, not bemoaning.

Kaplan's normally something of a realist - see here and here for instance - and from what I can tell he thinks bombing Iran would be an act of folly. So perhaps this was just a slightly strange column. On the other hand, Kaplan spends a lot of time with the US mlitary (and has written very well on it) and perhaps it's just that he views the world through martial spectacles and, consequently, finds the civilian world rather dull and drab and feeble and disappointing.

One last point: Kaplan, who generally acknowledges uncertainty, abandons that useful reminder here. That europe has looked inward these past twenty years doesn't mean it is doomed/destined/guaranteed to do so forever. Times and circumstances change and countries tend to change with them.

*There are many examples of this. But it's the sort of thing that crops up in Buchan quite often. Then again, Buchan's very much a novelist for our age too. But that's a matter for another day.

UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman has more, including his sense that EU governments actually do want to do mor ein Afghanistan.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyafghanistaneurope