Go back in your mind’s eye to the fall of 1940, the fateful period that Winston Churchill called Britain’s “finest hour.” Having subdued the Low Countries and France, Adolf Hitler now turned his attention to the last remaining democratic power in Europe. Hermann Göring convinced Hitler that Britain could be bludgeoned into submission on the cheap, so the Luftwaffe unleashed a fierce aerial blitz intended to break the British will to resist. Night after night, London burned. One of the most famous photographs from those desperate weeks was a nocturnal silhouette of St. Paul’s Cathedral, its great dome standing strong and unshaken against the smoke and fire swirling through the City of London. That grainy photograph stirs the emotions to this day, because it captures in one brilliant image the struggle of Western Civilization against the barbarism that seemed on the verge of overwhelming it.
Now, turn your mind’s eye two generations forward. About forty-five years after the Blitz, Mikhail Gorbachev, then the newly chosen general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, visited London on one of his first trips abroad. As part of the hospitality extended to Gorbachev and his party, they were taken to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. As I recall the story, after touring Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece Gorbachev turned to the Verger, one of the cathedral officials, and said, “A most interesting building. What is it used for today?” To which the Verger replied, “In order, sir, to worship God.”
A decade later, I was in London to lecture and looked up a young Czech seminarian studying at Heythrop College who had been helpful when I was doing research in Prague on the Catholic Church’s role in the collapse of European communism. I asked my young friend what he wanted to see, and he mentioned that he hadn’t yet visited St. Paul’s. So we took the Tube to the City and went to the cathedral. To my surprise, I discovered that one could no longer enter St. Paul’s without paying an entrance fee. Yes, Christian worship continued at the cathedral church of the Diocese of London. But on a Saturday afternoon in January 1995, it had been turned into a museum.
St. Paul’s in defiance of the Nazi blitz, St. Paul’s confounding the leader of Soviet communism, and St. Paul’s become an architectural museum: these three vignettes come to mind when I try to understand what has happened in Western Europe and what has happened to Western Europe in recent decades—and when I try to understand why Europe’s approach to democracy and to the responsibilities of the democracies in world politics seems so different from many Americans’ understanding of these issues. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and particularly in the debate that preceded the Iraq War of 2003, Americans became acutely aware that there is a “European problem.” (Interestingly enough, so do at least some Europeans, including some European intellectuals, among them, as we shall see, two prominent French political philosophers.)
My proposal is that, at its most fundamental level, this “European problem” is best understood in moral and cultural terms. My further suggestion is that the “problem” is not just one besetting our European friends and allies; their “European problem” is our problem, too.
Over the past year, the most widely discussed American analysis of America’s European problem and Europe’s America problem has been that advanced by Robert Kagan in his book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf, 2003). In a line from his book that he may have subsequently come to view with a measure of chagrin, Kagan argues that “on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” However fetching such a characterization may be in a sound-bite world, it does scant justice to the seriousness of Kagan’s argument.
To begin with, Kagan understands that not all Europeans are Venusians—Tony Blair comes to mind—nor, needless to say, are all Americans Martians. Yet Kagan insists that these stereotypes disclose important truths. The United States and Western Europe have different strategic visions: different understandings of how the world works, different understandings of the nature of power, different understandings of the causes of conflict in the world, different views of the role of international legal and political organizations in managing conflict, and different perceptions of the utility of military power in securing peace, freedom, and order in world affairs—and that’s before we get to the policy differences that separate the United States and Europe on issues such as the path to peace in the Middle East, the International Criminal Court, the rebuilding of Iraq, and so forth.
Kagan suggests that these dramatically different strategic visions are not the by-products of national character, reminding us of Europe’s bellicose past and America’s traditional nervousness about international power politics and entangling alliances. Rather, on Kagan’s view, these different strategic visions are the product of a vast disparity of military power between the United States and Europe. That power gap did not just happen, though; the disparity in military strength between the U.S. and Europe is itself the product of an ideological gap between “Old Europe” and the United States—what Kagan terms “a different set of ideals and principles regarding the utility and morality of power.” The ideological gap, in turn, is based on a different set of experiences in the twentieth century.
The devastation of their continent by two world wars; the continent’s division during a Cold War that, had it broken out into hot war, would likely have destroyed Europe; the longer European experience of vulnerability to terrorism—all of this, Kagan suggests, has led Europeans to a different set of perceptions about the threats to peace and freedom at work in the twenty-first century world. Moreover, these experiences have led Europeans to the conviction that security threats can and should be met, in the main, not by traditional applications of “hard power” but by the further refinement of international legal and political instruments of conflict resolution. The most enthusiastic European “Venusians,” like European Commission president and former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, see the present European Union as the model, indeed the prefigurement, of a world run by “soft power.” As Prodi put it in a May 2001 speech, in Europe, “the rule of law has replaced the crude interplay of power [and] power politics have lost their influence; [therefore, by] making a success of [European] integration we are demonstrating to the world that it is possible to create a method for peace.” This, Kagan suggests, has become Europe’s new mission civilisatrice: Europe is to bring to the world the fulfillment of Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace.”
Kagan understands that Europe’s passion for this new mission is in part a function of the fear-that-dare-not-speak-its-name: namely, that if the experience of an integrated, peaceful, post–Cold War Europe isn’t universalizable, then it might not be a settled accomplishment for Europe, either. And that is to think the unthinkable in circumstances in which, as Kagan puts it, “the French are still not confident they can trust the Germans, and the Germans are still not sure they can trust themselves.” That, in turn, helps explain why Europe’s integration—originally intended to create a European superpower and an independent European foreign and defense policy—has gone hand-in-hand with a drastic decline, absolutely and relatively, in Europe’s “hard power” capabilities. There are many ironies in the fire here, and Kagan neatly sums them up:
Europe’s rejection of power politics, its devaluing of military force as a tool of international relations, have depended on the presence of American military forces on European soil. Europe’s new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that United States military power has solved the European problem, especially the “German question,” allows Europeans today to believe that American military power, and the “strategic culture” that has created and sustained it, are outmoded and dangerous.
And that, in Kagan’s view, leads to a “great paradox,” namely, that Europe’s emergence into post-history has been made possible by the fact that the United States still lives in history: “Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of ‘moral consciousness,’ it has become dependent on America’s willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics.”
All of which shows, I hope, that Kagan does his argument insufficient justice when he reduces it to a matter of Martians vs. Venusians.
Yet I would also suggest that Kagan doesn’t push his analysis deep enough. Nor is the problem rectified if one adds to Kagan’s political-military analysis a familiar liberal moral-psychological codicil: that Europeans, ashamed of a twentieth-century history of colonialism, fascism, and appeasement, have eagerly embraced the “end of politics” imagined by Romano Prodi and others in a this-worldly quest for absolution.
Yes, Western Europeans see the world differently, and thus have ordered their institutions, their politics, and their national budgets differently. Yes, that different vision of the world and its possibilities is the product of experiences unlike those Americans underwent in the twentieth century. Yes, Europeans can find some historical warrant for believing a world of perpetual peace is possible in Kant’s idealism (and I mean “idealism” in both its philosophical and psychological senses).
But why did Europe turn out this way? Why did Europeans learn these things from their experience? And why have these lessons taken the political and ideological forms they have?
Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did so many Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity? Why was the only politically acceptable judgment on communism the anodyne observation that it “didn’t work”?
Why, to come to the present, do European statesmen insist on defending certain fictions in world politics: like the fiction that Yassir Arafat is interested in peace with Israel; or the fiction that the Kyoto Protocol would be rigorously observed by the nations that signed it; or the fiction that there is something meaningfully describable in political terms as an “international community,” the highest expression of which is the UN Security Council as presently configured?
Why is Europe retreating from democracy and binding itself ever tighter with the cords of bureaucracy?
Why do European states find it virtually impossible to make hard domestic political decisions—as on the length of the work week or the funding of pensions?
Why do European courts seek an expanded international jurisdiction that defies the democratic decisions of free people in other countries, as in the Pinochet case?
Why is Europe on the way to what French political philosopher Pierre Manent calls “depoliticization”? Why, as Manent puts it, does Europe “[drug] itself with humanitarianism in order to forget that it exists less and less politically”? Why does Manent have “the impression today that the greatest ambition of Europeans is to become the inspectors of American prisons”?
Why have many of Europe’s political leaders insisted that the new Constitution for Europe include a deliberate act of historical amnesia, in which a millennium and a half of Christianity’s contributions to the European understanding of human rights and democracy are airbrushed from the continent’s political memory?
Why are so many European public intellectuals “Christophobic,” as international legal scholar J. H. H. Weiler (himself an observant Jew) puts it? Why is European high culture so enamored of the present and so contemptuous of both religious and secular tradition, as French philosopher Rémi Brague has pointed out?
Above all, and most urgently of all, why is Europe systematically depopulating itself? Why is Europe committing demographic suicide? Why does no Western European country have a replacement-level birthrate? Why will Spain’s population likely decline from 40 million to 31.3 million by the middle of the century? Why will 42 percent of Italians be over age sixty by 2050? What is happening when an entire continent, wealthier and healthier than ever before, declines to create the human future in the most elemental sense, by producing a next generation? Why will Europeans not admit that these demographics—which are without parallel in human history, absent wars, plagues, or natural catastrophes—are the defining reality of their twenty-first century?
These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily by reference only to Europe’s distinct experience of the twentieth century and what Europe learned from it, or by European shame. Deeper questions have to be raised: Why did Europe have the twentieth century it did? Why did a century that began with confident predictions about a maturing humanity reaching new heights of civilizational accomplishment produce, within four decades, two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War threatening global catastrophe, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, Auschwitz and the Gulag? What happened? And why?
Over the course of twelve years of research and teaching in east-central Europe, I’ve been impressed by what might be called the Slavic view of history. You can find it in a great thinker who lived on the borderland between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Vladimir Soloviev, with his religious and moral challenge to the fashionable nihilism and materialism of the late nineteenth century. You can find it in the novelists, poets, and playwrights of Polish Romanticism—Henryk Sienkiewicz, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Slowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid—who broke decisively with the Jacobin conviction that “revolution” means a complete rupture with the past, insisting by contrast that genuine “revolution” means the recovery of lost spiritual and moral values. You can find it in Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, and in such intellectual leaders of the anti-Communist resistance in east-central Europe as Václav Havel and Václav Benda—all of whom believed that “living in the truth” could change what seemed unchangeable in history.
The common thread running through these disparate thinkers is the conviction that the deepest currents of history are spiritual and cultural, rather than political and economic. In this way of thinking, history is not simply the by-product of the contest for power in the world—although power certainly plays an important role in it. And neither is history the exhaust fumes produced by the means of production. Rather, history is driven, over the long haul, by culture—by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on.
Poland is one embodiment of this way of thinking, which Poles believe has been vindicated empirically by their own modern history. In 1795, with the Third Polish Partition, the great powers of the region—Russia, Prussia, Austria-Hungary—completed the vivisection of a political community whose origins went back to the last years of the first millennium of Christian history; thus for one 123 years, from 1795 to 1918, the Polish state was erased from Europe. Yet during that century-and-a-quarter in which you could not find “Poland” on any map of Europe—a time in which the Russians and Prussians, in particular, made strenuous efforts to eradicate the idea of “Poland”—the Polish nation survived. Indeed, the Polish nation survived with such vigor that it could give birth to a new Polish state in 1918. And despite the fact that the Polish state was beset for fifty years by the plagues of Nazism and communism, the Polish nation proved strong enough to give a new birth to freedom in east-central Europe in the Revolution of 1989.
How did this happen? Poland survived—better, Poland prevailed—because of culture: a culture formed by a distinctive language (Slavic, yet written in a Latin alphabet and thus oriented to the West as well as the East); by a unique literature, which helped keep alive the memory and idea of “Poland”; and by the intensity of its Catholic faith. Poles know in their bones that culture is what drives history over the long haul.
To call this a “Slavic view of history” reflects the principal location of this body of thought over the past two hundred years or so. In fact, though, it is really a classically Christian way of thinking about history, whose roots can be traced back at least as far as St. Augustine and The City of God. In the English-speaking world of the twentieth century, the most distinguished exponent of this culture-driven view of history was Christopher Dawson. As Dawson once put it in one of the most cited passages from his voluminous body of work, St. Paul’s passage from Troy in Asia Minor to Philippi on the European mainland did more to shape the future of European culture and European history than anything recorded by the great historians of his day—because it took place “underneath the surface” of history, such that those who even noticed that an itinerant rabbi from Tarsus had come to Europe and was preaching another king than Caesar couldn’t grasp the significance of what was being said.
In any case, it is the Slavs who have been the most powerful exponents of this “culture-first” understanding of the dynamics of the world’s story in our time. One such Slavic reader of the signs of the times, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, brought this optic on history to bear on the “European problem” in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture. Parsing the horrors of the twentieth century, Solzhenitsyn found a historical trapgate in the First World War:
The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war . . . took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power above them. . . . Only the loss of that higher intuition which comes from God could have allowed the West to accept calmly, after World War I, the protracted agony of Russia as she was being torn apart by a band of cannibals. . . . The West did not perceive that this was in fact the beginning of a lengthy process that spells disaster for the whole world.
As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the “disaster” Solzhenitsyn foresaw had been avoided, at least in the form of nuclear holocaust. But that does not diminish the salience of Solzhenitsyn’s chief point—that 1914-1918 marked the beginning of a civilizational crisis in Europe, and perhaps especially in Western Europe, whose effects are much with us today. Indeed, in trying to get a satisfactory answer to several of the questions I raised above, including the most pressing question of Europe’s demographic self-destruction, I can think of no better answer than the one suggested by Solzhenitsyn’s analysis: these phenomena are the expression of a profound, longstanding crisis of civilizational morale.
It should not be surprising that this crisis of civilizational morale has only become visible since the end of the Cold War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace that marked the interwar period; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the Great Depression; then by World War II; and then by the Cold War. It was only after 1991, when the political and military crises that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of Europe’s “rage of self-mutilation” could come to the surface of history and be seen for what they were—and for what they are.
Solzhenitsyn’s insight suggests that a theologically informed analysis of history may in fact shed more light on what imagines itself to be the “real world” than most political realists manage to provide. Another Christian analyst of the dynamics of modern European history fills out Solzhenitsyn’s indictment and helps us get answers to the “European problem” that cut more deeply than the political or psychological.
Writing during the Occupation of France by Nazi Germany, Henri de Lubac, S.J., proposed that the civilizational crisis in which Europe found itself during World War II was the product of what he called “atheistic humanism”—the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, in the name of authentic human liberation. What biblical man had perceived as a liberation from the whims of the gods or fate—the self-revelation in history of the one God who was neither a willful tyrant nor a remote abstraction—atheistic humanism perceived as bondage. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God.
This, de Lubac suggested, was something new. It was not the atheism of skeptical individuals looking to discomfort the neighbors. This was atheistic humanism, atheism with a developed ideology and a program for remaking the world. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have lethal consequences. At the heart of the darkness inside the great mid-twentieth-century tyrannies, de Lubac discerned the lethal effects of the marriage between atheistic humanism and modern technology. He summed up the results of this misbegotten union in these terms: “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man.” That is what the tyrannies of the twentieth century had proven—that ultramundane humanism is inevitably inhuman humanism.
I wonder, though, if we cannot push de Lubac’s analysis backwards and forwards historically. He makes a powerful case that the mid-twentieth-century tyrannies, communism and Nazism, were expressions of an atheistic humanism that took its cues from the positivism of Comte, the subjectivism of Feuerbach, the materialism of Marx, and the radical willfulness of Nietszche. But hadn’t the rot distorted European civilization earlier than Lenin and Hitler? Perhaps the most complete expression of the material effects of atheistic humanism had to wait until Treblinka and Perm Camp 36. But don’t we come to a deeper reading of the civilizational trapgate that was 1914-1918 by applying a similar analytic lens? Can we explain why Europe fell into Solzhenitsyn’s “rage of self-mutilation” without recognizing, as the great Russian writer put it, that men had “forgotten God”? Doesn’t de Lubac’s suggestion that that forgetting was in the name of a false concept of human liberation help us understand why the forgetting was so powerful and so complete? If we read “history” from beneath the surface of history, de Lubac’s analysis of the drama of atheistic humanism helps flesh out Solzhenitsyn’s identification of 1914-1918 as the moment when European civilization went into crisis.
De Lubac’s analysis also sheds light on post–Cold War Europe. Here, too, beneath the surface of recent history, we can find residues of the drama of atheistic humanism. Yes, the most grotesque institutional expressions of atheistic humanism were defeated in World War II and the Cold War. But certain intellectual, spiritual, and moral residues remained, again “underneath the surface” of history. Can we explain Europe’s enthrallment to what philosopher Charles Taylor has called “exclusive secularism”—a secularism determined to exclude transcendent reference points from cultural, social, and political life—without taking full account of the drama of atheistic humanism: without, to repeat, taking account of Comte’s positivism, Feuerbach’s subjectivism, Marx’s materialism, and Nietzsche’s will-to-power? I doubt it. The depoliticization of Europe lamented by Pierre Manent is not the product of the Brussels bureaucracy alone—and neither are the “presentism” and contempt for tradition decried by Remí Brague.
In other words, the “European problem” is not, simply, a twentieth-century problem—although the crisis of European civilizational morale accelerated exponentially during the Great War when, as Pierre Manent writes, “self-sacrifice gave way to self-mutilation and the frenzied love of death.” No, the roots of the “European problem” that thoughtful Europeans and many Americans experience today go back to the nineteenth century, to the drama of atheistic humanism and the related triumph of secularization in Western Europe. For that process of secularization had profound public consequences: it meant the collapse of a transcendent horizon of moral judgment in European public life and the triumph of what Manent calls the “self-adoration” and “fateful hubris” that led to the Great War and its progeny.
As New School University sociologist José Casanova has put it, secularization became “a self-fulfilling prophecy in Europe . . . a taken-for-granted belief shared not only by sociologists but by a majority of the population.” Why European Christianity was particularly vulnerable to the siren-song of atheistic humanism raises another, deeper set of questions that are beyond the scope of this article and that deserve extensive and serious study; answers to those questions will certainly require a careful probing of the Catholic Church’s identification with those political forces most resistant to the democratic project in late-eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, as well as a more thorough understanding of what “democracy” meant to those forces that identified the free society with the laïcisme that was the precursor of Taylor’s “exclusive secularism.” Still, even absent definitive answers to those questions, the proximate cultural roots of today’s “European problem” can be identified with some clarity.
European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. That conviction has had crucial, indeed lethal, consequences for European public life and European culture; indeed, that conviction and its public consequences are at the root of Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale. That crisis of civilizational morale, in turn, helps explain why European man is deliberately forgetting his history. That crisis of civilizational morale helps us understand why European man is abandoning the hard work and high adventure of democratic politics, seeming to prefer the false domestic security of bureaucracy and the false international security of the UN system. That crisis of civilizational morale is why European man is failing to create the human future of Europe.
Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Christopher Dawson took exception to the suggestion that modern European civilization was “pagan.” Paganism was rife with religious sentiment, Dawson recalled; what was going on in mid-twentieth-century Europe was something different. True, many men and women had ceased to belong to the Church; but rather than belonging to something else, rather than adhering to another community of transcendent allegiance, they now belonged nowhere. This “spiritual no man’s land,” as Dawson characterized it, was inherently unstable and ultimately self-destructive. Or, as the usually gentle Dawson put it in an especially fierce passage, “a secular society that has no end beyond its own satisfaction is a monstrosity—a cancerous growth which will ultimately destroy itself.” One wonders what Christopher Dawson would say today.
The next question for Americans, however, is—so what? What has any of this to do with us? A lot, I believe. Which means that their “European problem” is also ours. Why? Aside from the enormous economic and other practical complications that an exhausted and imploding Europe will cause for the United States, let me suggest three reasons why Americans should care.
The first reason involves pietas, an ancient European, which is to say Roman, virtue that teaches us both reverence and gratitude for those on whose shoulders we stand. I am prepared to argue that very little that has crossed the Atlantic in the past several centuries hasn’t been improved in the process: from the English language itself to the institutions of constitutional democracy to “rounders” (transformed by Americans into God’s game, baseball). By the same token, pietas demands that I remember where all those good things came from in their original forms. A United States indifferent to the fate of Europe is a United States indifferent to its roots. Yes, Americans have developed a new form of European civilization. But that American civilization has long understood itself to be in continuity with the civilization of the West that we associate, in its origins, with Europe—with the unique civilizational accomplishment that emerged from the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. Americans learned about the dignity of the human person, about limited and constitutional government, about the principle of consent, and about the transcendent standards of justice to which the state is accountable in the school of political culture that we call “Europe.” We should remember that, with pietas. We have seen what historical amnesia about cultural and civilizational roots has done to Europe. Americans ought not want that to happen in America.
The second reason we can and must care has to do with the medium- and long-term threat to American security posed by Europe’s demographic meltdown. Demographic vacuums do not remain unfilled—especially when the demographic vacuum in question is a continent possessed of immense economic resources. One can see the effects of Europe’s self-inflicted depopulation in the tensions experienced in France, Germany, and elsewhere by rising tides of immigration from North Africa, Turkey, and other parts of the Islamic world. And while, in the most optimistic of scenarios, these immigrants may well become good European democrats, practicing civility and tolerance and committing themselves to the religious freedom of others, there is another and far grimmer alternative. Europe’s current demographic trendlines could eventually produce a Europe in which Sobieski’s victory at Vienna in 1683 is reversed, such that the Europe of the twenty-second century, or even the late twenty-first, is a Europe increasingly influenced, and perhaps even dominated, by radicalized Islamic populations, convinced that their long-delayed triumph in the European heartland is at hand.
We have already seen what the emergence of significant Islamic populations has done to the politics of France. Is there no connection between the problems posed domestically in France by its new immigrant population, on the one hand, and the strategy of appeasement toward radicalized Islam adopted by French political leaders, on the other? It seems very unlikely. Is a European future dominated by an appeasement mentality toward radical Islam in the best interests of the United States? That seems even more unlikely.
The third reason why the “European problem” is ours as well as theirs has to do with the future of the democratic project, here in the United States and indeed throughout the world. What Pierre Manent laments as Europe’s “depoliticization” already has its parallels in our own public life. What is most disturbing, for example, about the bizarre debate over the mere mention of Christianity’s contributions to European civilization in the proposed European Constitution is that the amnesiacs who wish to rewrite European history by eliminating Christianity from the historical equation are doing so in service to a thin, indeed anorexic, idea of procedural democracy. To deny that Christianity had anything to do with the evolution of free, law-governed, and prosperous European societies is more than a question of falsifying the past; it is also a matter of creating a future in which moral truth has no role in governance, in the determination of public policy, in understandings of justice, and in the definition of that freedom which democracy is intended to embody.
Were these ideas to triumph in Europe, that would be bad for Europe; but it would also be bad for the United States, for that triumph would inevitably reinforce similar tendencies in our own high culture, and ultimately in our law. The judicial redefinition of freedom as personal willfulness manifest in the 2003 Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas was buttressed by citations from European courts. And what would it mean for the democratic project in global terms if the notion that democracy has nothing to do with moral truth is exported from Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe via the expanding European Union, and thence to other new democracies around the world? If Christopher Dawson was right that a thoroughly secularized democracy, constitutionally and politically disabled from bringing transcendent moral truths to bear on its public life, is self-destructive, then the entire democratic project—in Latin America, in south and east Asia, in Oceania and Canada—is being imperiled by the prospect that the “European problem” will metastasize beyond the current membership of the EU.
So there are many reasons why we should, and must, care. We sever ourselves from our civilizational roots if we ignore Europe in a fit of aggravation or pique. Our security will be further imperiled in a post–September 11 world if Europe’s demographics continue to change in ways that give new advantage to the dynamism of radical Islamism in world politics. The American democratic experiment will be weakened if Europe’s “depoliticization” reinforces similar tendencies here in the United States, and so will the democratic project in the world.
Is there anything to be done about all this, at the level of public policy? Let me return one last time to Christopher Dawson, who, in an earlier phase of the “European problem,” wrote that “the modern dilemma is essentially a spiritual one, and every one of its main aspects, moral, political, and scientific, brings us back to the need of a spiritual solution.” If Dawson was right, and I think he was, then the long-term answer to the demise of Europe will only be found in a revitalization of Europe’s Christian roots and the rebirth of Christian conviction in Christianity’s historic heartland. Europe, in other words, needs something like a Great Awakening—by which I mean, not necessarily a fourth wave of the Wesleyan revolution, but a rebirth of life-transforming and culture-forming Christian conviction, especially Catholic conviction. And that, by definition, is something that cannot be produced by public policy—either European domestic policy, or American foreign policy.
U.S. foreign policy can help at the margins by supporting the new democracies of east-central Europe if, as French President Jacques Chirac evidently fears, they continue to show bad manners and resist an EU in which the practice of democracy is attenuated by judicial activism, and the democratic idea is further eroded by institutionalizing the notion of democracy as a matter of political and legal procedures alone.
American public diplomacy could also be far more helpful. The failure of American embassies in Europe over the past two years to systematically engage the European media, European universities and research institutes, and European voluntary organizations—all those places where European opinion is molded—has had serious and damaging results. Most Europeans, including such vigorously pro-American Europeans as the Poles, now have a thoroughly distorted view of American civil society, American domestic politics, American intentions in the world, and American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not suggesting that a vigorous public diplomacy would have solved, to our complete satisfaction, that part of the “European problem” that manifested itself at the UN Security Council in late 2002 and early 2003. But it would have created the conditions for the possibility of an internal European debate on the war against terrorism that might have made for a different result in the 2002 German elections, that might have blunted the more egregious behavior of the French government, and that might have created more popular support for the governments of Spain, Italy, and Poland, which did support the U.S. position on Iraq.
Just as the U.S. government must take far more seriously the war of ideas in Europe, so must American philanthropy, which should imagine the present situation as roughly analogous to the contest with Marxist ideas for the soul of Europe in the years immediately following World War II. Generously funded trans-Atlantic initiatives that seek to challenge the hegemony of “exclusive secularism” in European intellectual life and its impact on public policy are as imperative today as initiatives like the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Encounter were fifty years ago.
At the end of the day, however, I am less interested in specific policy options—which souls more clever than I can devise—than with understanding the “European problem” at its roots, which are cultural and spiritual rather than political. That is the beginning of wise policy. But it is also the beginning of understanding why “their” European problem is also ours—a cautionary tale that, unless understood in its depth, can and likely will be replayed on this side of the Atlantic, with unhappy consequences for American democracy and for the future of freedom in the world.
These difficult first years of the twenty-first century have taught us the importance of reading world politics in new ways. Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale teaches us that, while there are many lenses through which history can be read, theological lenses help us to see deeper, farther, and more truly.
George Weigel is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, where an earlier version of this article was given as the Center’s Third Annual William E. Simon Lecture.