Author: Kaplan, Robert D
Date published: July 1, 2012
The idea of Europe, in the minds of Westerners today, is an intellectual concept - liberal humanism with a geographical basis - that emerged through centuries of material and intellectual advancement, as well as a reaction to devastating military conflicts in previous historical ages. The last such conflict was World War II, which spawned a resolve to merge elements of sovereignty among democratic states in order to set in motion a pacifying trend.
Alas, this grand narrative now is under assault by underlying forces of history and geography. The economic divisions seen today in the European Union, manifest in the Continent's debt crisis and pressures on the euro, have their roots, at least partially, in contradictions that stretch far back into Europe's past and its existential struggle to grapple with the realities of its immutable geographical structure. It is this legacy - somewhat deterministic and rarely acknowledged - that Europe still must overcome and that therefore requires a detailed description.
In the years immediately before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, intellectuals celebrated the ideal of Central Europe-Mitteleuropa-as a beacon of relative multiethnic tolerance and liberalism within the Hapsburg Empire to which the contiguous Balkans could and should aspire. But while the Continent's spiritual heart lies in Mitteleuropa, the political heart now lies slightly to the northwest, in what we might call Charlemagne's Europe. Charlemagne's Europe starts with the Benelux states, then meanders south along the Franco-German frontier to the approaches of the Alps. To wit, there is the European Commission and its civil service in Brussels, the European Court in the Hague, the treaty town of Maastricht, the European Parliament in Strasbourg and so on. All these places lie athwart a line running southward from the North Sea "that formed the centerpiece and primary communications route of the Carolingian monarchy," observes the late scholar of modern Europe Tony Judt. ' The fact that this budding European superstate of our own era is concentrated in Europe's medieval core, with Charlemagne's capital city of Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) still at its very center, is no accident. For nowhere on the Continent is Europe's sea and land interface quite as rich and profound as along this spinal column of Old World civilization. In the Low Countries, there is the openness to the great ocean, even as the entrance to the English Channel and a string of islands in Holland form a protective barrier, giving these small states advantages out of proportion to their size. Immediately to the rear of this North Sea coast is a wealth of protected rivers and waterways, all promising trade, movement and consequent political development. The loess soil of northwestern Europe is dark and productive, and the forests provide a natural defense. Finally, the cold climate between the North Sea and the Alps, much more so than the warmer climate south of the Alps, has been sufficiendy challenging to stimulate human resolve from the late Bronze Age forward, with Franks, Alamanni, Saxons and Frisians settling in late antiquity in Gaul, the Alpine foreland and the coastal lowlands. Here, in turn, would be the proving grounds of Francia and the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century, of Burgundy, Lorraine, Brabant and Friesland, too, and of city-states such as Trier and Liege, all of which collectively displaced Rome and then fostered the polities that today drive the machinery of the European Union.
Of course, before all of the above came Rome - and before Rome, Greece. Both, in University of Chicago scholar William H. McNeill's choice words, constitute the antechamber of the "anciently civilized" world that began in Egypt and Mesopotamia and spread from there through Minoan Crete and Anatolia to the northern shore of the Mediterranean. Civilization, as we well know, took root in warm and protected river valleys such as the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, then continued its migration into the relatively mild climates of the Levant, North Africa, and the Greek and Italian peninsulas, where living was hospitable with only rudimentary technology.
But though European civilization had its initial flowering along the Mediterranean, it continued to develop, in ages of more advanced technology and mobility, further to the north in colder climes. Rome expanded here in the decades before the start of the Common Era, providing for the first time political order and domestic security from the Carpathians in the southeast to the Atlantic in the northwest - that is, throughout much of Central Europe and the region by the North Sea and English Channel. Large settlement complexes, called oppida by Julius Caesar, emerged throughout this sprawling, forested and well-watered European black-soil heartland, which provided the rudimentary foundation for the emergence of medieval and modern cities.2
Just as Roman expansion gave a certain stability to the so-called barbarian tribes of northern Europe, Rome's breakup would lead over the centuries to the formation of peoples and nation-states in what was to become Charlemagne's empire and Mitteleuropa. To be sure, the world of the Middle Ages replaced the world of antiquity as the geographic hold of the Mediterranean "slackened," when northern Europe simply broke free of Rome.3 (Mediterranean unity was, of course, further shattered by the Arab thrust across North Africa.)4 By the eleventh century, the map of Europe already had a modern appearance, with France and Poland roughly in their present shapes, the Holy Roman Empire in the guise of a united Germany and Bohemia - with Prague at its center - presaging the Czech Republic. Thus did history move north. And this is absolutely key for our own economically troubled time.
Mediterranean societies, despite their innovations in politics - Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic - were by and large defined by "traditionalism and rigidity," in the words of the French historian and geographer Fernand Braudel. The poor quality of Mediterranean soil favored large holdings that were, perforce, under the control of the wealthy. And that, in turn, contributed to an inflexible social order. Meanwhile, in the forest clearings of northern Europe, with their richer soils, a freer civilization grew up, anchored by the informal power relationships of feudalism that would be able to take better advantage of the invention of movable type and other technologies yet to come.5
As deterministic as Braudel's explanation may appear, it does work to explain the broad undercurrents of the European past. Obviously, human agency in the persons of such men as Jan Hus, Martin Luther and John Calvin was pivotal to the Protestant Reformation and hence to the Enlightenment that would allow for northern Europe's dynamic emergence as one of the cockpits of history in the modern era. Nevertheless, all that could not have happened without the immense river and ocean access and the loess earth, rich with coal and iron-ore deposits, which formed the foundation for such individual dynamism and industrialization. Great, eclectic and glittering empires certainly flowered along the Mediterranean in the Middle Ages - notably the Norman Roger II's in twelfth-century Sicily, and, lest we forget, the Renaissance blossomed first in late-medieval Florence, with the art of Michelangelo and the secular realism of Machiavelli. But it was the pull of the colder Atlantic that opened up global shipping routes that ultimately won out against the enclosed Mediterranean. While Portugal and Spain were the early beneficiaries of this Atlantic trade - owing to their protruding peninsular position - their pre-Enlightenment societies, traumatized by the proximity of (and occupation by) North African Muslims, lost ground eventually in the oceanic competition to the Dutch, French and English. So just as Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire succeeded Rome, in modern times northern Europe succeeded southern Europe, with the mineralrich Carolingian core winning out in the form of the European Union. All this is attributable, in some measure, to geography.
The medieval Mediterranean was itself divided between the Frankish West and the Byzantine East. For it isn't only divisions between north and south that both define and plague Europe today but also those between west and east and, as we shall see, between northwest and center. Consider the migration route of the Danube Valley that continues eastward beyond the Great Hungarian Plain, the Balkans and the Black Sea, all the way through the Pontic and Kazakh steppes to Mongolia and China.6 This geographical fact, along with the flat, unimpeded access to Russia further north, forms the basis for the waves of invasions of mainly Slavic and Turkic peoples from the East, which have, as we know, greatly shaped Europe's political destiny. So just as there is a Carolingian Europe and a Mediterranean Europe, there is, too, often as a result of these invasions from the East, a Byzantine-Ottoman Europe, a Prussian Europe and a Hapsburg Europe, all of which are geographically distinct and have an echo today through somewhat differing economic-development patterns, however many other factors may be involved. And these varying patterns cannot simply be erased by the creation of a single currency.
Indeed, in the fourth century ad, the Roman Empire itself divided into western and eastern halves. Rome remained the capital of the western empire, while Constantinople became the capital of the eastern one. Rome's western empire gave way to Charlemagne's kingdom further north and to the Vatican - Western Europe, in other words. The eastern empire, Byzantium, was populated mainly by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians and later by Muslims when the Ottoman Turks, migrating from the East, captured Constantinople in 1453. The border between these eastern and western empires ran through the middle of what after World War I became the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia. When diat state broke apart violently in 1991, at least initially the breakup echoed the divisions of Rome sixteen centuries earlier. The Slovenes and Croats were Roman Catholics, heirs to a tradition that went back from AustriaHungary to Rome in die West. The Serbs were Eastern Orthodox and heirs to the Ottoman-Byzantine legacy of Rome in the East. The Carpathian Mountains, which run northeast of the former Yugoslavia and divide Romania into two parts, partially reinforced this boundary between Rome and Byzantium and later between the Hapsburg emperors in Vienna and the Turkish sultans in Constantinople. Passes and thus trade routes existed through these formidable mountains, bringing the cultural repository of Mitteleuropa deep into the Byzantine and Ottoman Balkans. But even if the Carpathians were not a hard and fast border, like the Alps, they marked a gradation, a shift in the balance from one Europe to another. Southeastern Europe would be poor not only compared to northwestern Europe but also in comparison to northeastern Europe, with its Prussian tradition. That is to say the Balkans were not only poor and politically underdeveloped compared to the Benelux countries but also compared to Poland and Hungary.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall brought all these divisions into sharp relief. The Warsaw Pact had constituted a full-fledged eastern empire, ruled from Moscow, featuring military occupation and freeze-frame poverty brought about by the introduction of command economies. During the fortyfour years of Kremlin rule, much of Prussian, Hapsburg and Byzantine-Ottoman Europe was locked away in a Soviet prison of nations collectively known as Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, in Western Europe the European Union was taking shape, first as the European Coal and Steel Community, then as the Common Market and finally as the eu, building out from its Carolingian base of France, Germany and the Benelux countries to encompass Italy, Great Britain, and later Greece and the Iberian nations. Because of its economic head start during the Cold War years, Carolingian Europe inside nato has emerged as stronger, for the time being, than Prussian northeastern Europe and Danubian Mitteleuropa, which historically were equally prosperous but for too long were located inside the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet thrust into Central Europe in the latter phases of World War II created this entire turn of events, even as it bore out the thesis of political scientist Halford Mackinder that Asiatic invasions have shaped the European destiny. Of course, we shouldn't carry this determinism too far, since without the actions of one man, Adolf Hitler, World War II may not have occurred, and then there would have been no Soviet invasion.
But Hitler did exist, and so we are left with the situation as it exists today: the Europe of Charlemagne. Yet because of the resurgence of a united Germany, the balance of power within Europe may shift slighdy eastward to the confluence of Prussia and Mitteleuropa, with German economic power invigorating Poland, the Baltic states and the upper Danube. The Mediterranean seaboard and the Byzantine-Ottoman Balkans generally lag behind. The worlds of the Mediterranean and the Balkans meet in mountainous and peninsular Greece, which despite being rescued from communism in the late 1940s remains among the most economically and socially troubled of the European Union's members. Greece, at the northwestern edge of the Near Eastern oikoumene (inhabited world), was the beneficiary of geography in antiquity - the place where the heartless systems of Egypt and Persia-Mesopotamia could be softened and humanized, leading to the invention of the West. But in today's Europe, dominated by its northern states, Greece finds itself at the wrong end of things, the orientalized end, far more stable and prosperous than places such as Bulgaria and Kosovo but only because it was spared the ravages of communism. Roughly three-quarters of Greek businesses are family owned and rely on family labor, so minimum-wage laws do not always apply, and often those without family connections cannot be promoted.7 This phenomenon finds expression in what to many is purely a financial crisis but in fact is deeply rooted in cultural realities, which means more fundamentally in history and geography.
Geography is a driving force here. When the Warsaw Pact broke up, the formerly captive countries advanced economically and politically almost exactly according to their positions on the map: Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary and the Bohemian end of Czechoslovakia initially performed the best, again with significant variations, while the Balkan countries to the south generally suffered greater destitution and unrest. All the vicissitudes of the twentieth century notwithstanding - including the pulverizing effects of Nazism and communism - the legacies of Prussian, Hapsburg, Byzantine and Ottoman rules are still relevant. These empires were first and foremost creatures of geography, influenced as they were by migration patterns from the Asiatic East.
Thus, behold again that eleventh-century map of Europe, with the Holy Roman Empire resembling a united Germany at its center. All around are region states: Burgundy, Bohemia, Pomerania and Estonia, with Aragon, Castille, Navarre and Portugal to the southwest. Think now of the regional success stories in the twenty-first century, mainly in Carolingian Europe: Baden-Württemberg, the RhoneAlpes, Lombardy and Catalonia. These populations, as Judt reminds us, are for the most part northerners, who peer down on the supposedly "backward, lazy, Mediterranean, subsidized 'south,'" even as they look in some horror at Balkan nations like Romania and Bulgaria joining the European Union.8 It is the center versus the periphery, with the losers in the periphery generally, though not exclusively, in those regions closer geographically to the Middle East and North Africa. But precisely because the Brussels-headquartered European superstate has worked so well for northerly subregions such as BadenWürttemberg and Catalonia, these subregions have been liberated from their own one-size-fits-all, chain-store national governments and have consequently flourished by occupying historically anchored economic, political and cultural niches.
Beyond their dissatisfaction with Europe's losers on the periphery, among prosperous northern Europeans there is an unease over the dissolution of society itself. National populations and labor forces are demographically stagnant in Europe and consequently graying. Europe will lose 24 percent of its prime, working-age population by 2050, and its population of those over sixty years old will rise by 47 percent in that time frame. This will likely lead to increased immigration of young people from the Third World to support Europe's aging welfare states. While reports of Muslim domination of Europe have been exaggerated, the percentage of Muslims in major European countries will, in fact, triple by midcentury, from the current 3 percent of the population to 10 percent. Whereas in 1913 Europe had more people than China, by 2050 the combined populations of Europe, the United States and Canada will comprise just 12 percent of the world total, down from 33 percent after World War I.9 Europe is certainly in the process of being demographically diminished by Asia and Africa, even as European populations themselves become more African and Middle Eastern.
Indeed, the map of Europe is about to move southward and once again encompass the entire Mediterranean world, as it did not only under Rome but also under the Byzantines and the Ottoman Turks. For decades, because of autocratic regimes that stifled economic and social development - while also being the incubators of extremist politics - North Africa was effectively cut off from the northern rim of the Mediterranean. North Africa gave Europe economic migrants and little else. But as North African states evolve into messy democracies, the degree of political and economic interactions with nearby Europe will, over time, multiply. The Mediterranean will become a connector rather than the divider it has been during most of the postcolonial era.
Just as it moved eastward to encompass the former satellite states of the Soviet Union following the democratic revolutions of 1989, Europe will now expand to the south to encompass the Arab uprisings. Tunisia and Egypt are not about to join the European Union, but they are about to become shadow zones of deepening eu involvement. Thus, the eu itself will become an even more ambitious and unwieldy project than ever before. Europe's real southern boundary is not the Mediterranean but the Sahara desert, which cuts equatorial Africa off from the North.
Nevertheless, the European Union, albeit beset by divisions, anxieties and massive growing pains, will remain one of the world's great postindustrial hubs. Thus, the ongoing power shift within it, eastward from Brussels-Strasbourg to Berlin-from the European Union to Germany-will be pivotal to global politics. For it is Germany, Russia and Greece - with only eleven million people and with or without its debt crisis - that will most perceptively reveal Europe's destiny.
The very fact of a united Germany has to mean comparatively less influence for the European Union than in the days of a divided Germany, given united Germany's geographical, demographic and economic preponderance in the heart of Europe. Germany's population is now eighty-one million, compared to almost sixty-six million in France and sixty-one million in Italy. Germany's gross domestic product is $3.63 trillion. France's is $2.81 trillion, and Italy's is $2.25 trillion. More significant is the fact that whereas France's economic influence is mainly limited to the countries of Cold War Western Europe, German economic influence encompasses both Western Europe and the former Warsaw Pact states, a tribute to its more central geographical position and trade links with both East and West.10
Besides their geographical position astride both maritime Europe and Mitteleuropa, Germans have a built-in cultural attitude toward trade. As Norbert Walter, formerly the senior economist for Deutsche Bank, told me long ago, "Germans would rather dominate real economic activities than strict financial activities. We keep clients, we find out what they need, developing niches and relationships over the decades." This ability is aided by a particular dynamism, as the political philosopher Peter Koslowski once explained: "Because so many Germans started from zero after [World War II], we are aggressively modernist. Modernism and middle-class culture have been raised to the status of ideologies here." United Germany is also spatially organized to take advantage of an era of flourishing northern European subregions. Because of the tradition of small, independent states arising out of the Thirty Years' War in the seventeenth century - which still guides Germany's federal system - there is no single, great pressure cooker of a capital but rather a series of smaller ones that manage to survive even in an era of a reborn Berlin; Hamburg is a media center, Munich a fashion center, Frankfurt a banking center and so on, with a railway system radiating impartially in all directions. Because Germany came late to unification in the second half of the nineteenth century, it has preserved its regional flavor, which is advantageous in today's Europe. Finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall - which in historical terms is still recent, given that trends take decades to fully emerge - has reconnected Germany to Central Europe, recreating, in exceedingly subtle and informal ways, the First and Second Reichs of the twelfth and nineteendi centuries, roughly equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire.
Besides the Berlin Wall's collapse, another factor diat has buttressed German geopolitical strength is the historic GermanPolish reconciliation that occurred during the mid-1990s. As Zbigniew Brzezinski writes, "Through Poland, German influence could radiate northward - into the Baltic states - and eastward - into Ukraine and Belarus."11 In other words, German power is enhanced both by a larger Europe and also by a Europe in which Mitteleuropa reemerges as a separate entity.
A critical factor in this evolution will be the degree to which European - and particularly German - quasi pacifism holds up in the future. As the Britain-based strategist Colin S. Gray writes, "Snakebitten ... on the Somme, at Verdun, and by the Götterdämmerung of 1945, the powers of West-Central Europe have been convincingly debellicized."12 But it isn't only the legacy of war and destruction that makes Europeans averse to military solutions (aside from peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions). Another factor is that Europe during the Cold War had its security provided for by an American superpower and today faces no palpable conventional threat. "The threat to Europe comes not in the form of uniforms, but in the tattered garb of refugees," the GermanAmerican academic and journalist Josef Joffe said to me in conversation. But what if Europe's destiny is still subordinate to Asiatic history, in the form of a resurgent Russia? Then there might be a threat. For what drove the Soviet Union to carve out an empire in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II still holds today: a legacy of depredations against Russia by Lithuanians, Poles, Swedes, Frenchmen and Germans, leading to the need for a cordon sanitaire of compliant regimes in the geographically protected space between historic Russia and Central Europe. To be sure, the Russians will not deploy land forces to reoccupy Eastern Europe for the sake of a new cordon sanitaire, but they will do so through a combination of political and economic pressure. Partly owing to Europe's need for natural gas from Russia, Moscow could exert undue influence on its former satellites in years to come. Russia supplies some 25 percent of Europe's gas, 40 percent of Germany's, and nearly 100 percent of Finland's and the Baltic states'.13 Moreover, we may all wake up from Europe's epic economic and currency crisis to a world with greater Russian influence within the Continent. Moscow's investment activities as well as its critical role as an energy supplier would loom larger in a weakened and newly divided Europe.
So will a debellicized Germany partly succumb to Russian influence, leading to a somewhat Finlandized Eastern Europe and an even more hollow North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Or will Germany subtly stand up to Russia through various political and economic means, even as its society remains immersed in postheroic quasi pacifism? This latter scenario would present a richly complex European destiny, one in which Central Europe would fully reappear and flower for the first time since before World War I, and a tier of states between Germany and Russia would equally flourish, leaving Europe in peace even as its aversion to military deployments is geopolitically inconvenient for the United States. In this scenario, Russia would accommodate itself to countries as far east as Ukraine and Georgia joining Europe. Thus, the idea of Europe as a geographical expression of historic liberalism would finally be realized. The Continent went through centuries of political rearrangements in the Middle Ages following Rome's collapse. And in search of that idea, Europe will continue to rearrange itself following the long European war of 1914-1989.
In geographical terms, Europe has been many things throughout its history. Following the age of exploration, Europe moved laterally westward as commerce shifted across the Atlantic, making cities such as Quebec, Philadelphia and Havana closer economically to Western Europe than cities to the east such as Krakow and Lvov, even as Ottoman military advances as far northwest as Vienna in the late seventeenth century cut off die Balkans from much of the rest of the European subcontinent. Of course, nowadays Europe is shifting to the east as it admits former communist nations into the European Union and to the south as it grapples with the political and economic stabilization of the southern shore of the Mediterranean in North Africa.
In all these rearrangements, Greece, of all places, will provide an insightful register of the health of the European project - and for reasons that go beyond the current financial crisis. Greece is the only part of the Balkans accessible on several seaboards to the Mediterranean and thus is the unifier of two European worlds. Greece is geographically equidistant between Brussels and Moscow, and it is as close to Russia culturally as it is to Europe by virtue of its Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a legacy of Byzantium. Throughout modern history, Greece has been burdened by political underdevelopment. Whereas the midnineteenth-century revolutions in Europe were often of middle-class origin, with political liberties as their goal, the Greek independence movement was mainly an ethnic movement with a religious basis. The Greek people overwhelmingly sided with Russia in favor of the Serbs and against Europe during the 1999 Kosovo war, even if the governments position was more helpful. Greece is the most economically troubled European nation that was not part of the communist zone during the Cold War. It is also, going back to antiquity, where Europe - and by inference the West - both ends and begins. The war that Herodotus chronicled between Greece and Persia established a "dichotomy" of West against East that persisted for millennia.14 Athens barely remained in the Western camp at the beginning of the Cold War, owing to its own civil war between rightists and communists and the fateful negotiations between Churchill and Stalin that ultimately made Greece part of nato. It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened during the Cold War had the negotiations between Churchill and Stalin gone differendy: imagine how much stronger the Kremlin's strategic position would have been with Greece inside the communist bloc, endangering Italy across the Adriatic Sea, to say nothing of the whole eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. The Greek financial crisis, so emblematic of Greece's political and economic underdevelopment, has rocked the European Union's currency system since 2010. Because of the tensions it has wrought between northern and southern European countries - and between countries like France and Germany - it has been nothing less than the most significant event in Europe since the wars of the Yugoslav secession. As Greece ably demonstrates, Europe remains a truly ambitious work in progress - one that, as in the past, will have its fate affected by trends and convulsions from the south and east.
1 Tony Judt, A Grand Illusion': An Essay on Europe (New York: NYU Press, 2011), 110.
2 Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 372.
3 Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 11, 13 and 20.
4 Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1954), ACLS Humanities E-book.
5 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. Sian Reynolds (New York: Harper & Row, 1949), 75.
6 Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, 32-42.
7 Philomila Tsoukala, "A Family Portrait of a Greek Tragedy," New York Times (April 24, 2010): WK 14.
8 Judt, A Grand Illusion?, 114.
9 Jack A. Goldstone, "The New Population Bomb: The Four Megatrends That Will Change the World," Foreign Affairs 89, no. 1 (January/February 2010): 31-43.
10 Judt,A Grand Illusion?
11 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperative (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 69-71.
12 Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005), 37.
13 Steve LeVine, "Pipeline Politics Redux," Foreign Policy, June 10, 2010, http://oilandglory. foreignpolicy.com/posts/20 1 0/06/ 1 0/pipeline_ politics_redux.
14 William Anthony Hay, "Geopolitics of Europe," Orbis 47, no. 2 (Spring 2003): 295-310.
Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (Random House, 2012).