Europe: Whole and Free or Fractured and Anxious?

September 2019

Daniel S. Hamilton is the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and formerly Director of its Center for Transatlantic Relations. Daniel Hamilton has been a senior U.S. diplomat, serving as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State; U.S. Coordinator for Southeast European Stabilization; Associate Director of the Policy Planning Staff for two Secretaries of State; Policy Director in the Bureau of European Affairs; and policy advisor to the U.S. Ambassador and Embassy in Germany.  


On November 9, 1989, I found myself on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall in the apartment of a dissident Lutheran pastor whose church provided safe haven for disaffected East Germans. As we moved into his living room, Pastor Rainer Eppelmann pointed silently to the eavesdropping devices installed by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and motioned me over to a more secure place – basically, his closet – to talk about how thousands of people had begun to demonstrate, every Monday, week after week, on the streets of Leipzig, Dresden and countless other east German cities through the fall of 1989.

''The people are afraid,'' Eppelmann told me. They were concerned that East German security forces or Soviet troops might react with force. But they were also heartened by the recent election to power of neighboring Poland’s dissident labor union Solidarność, and encouraged by new tones coming from Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.

Eppelmann was the pastor of the Samariterkirche in East Berlin. He took advantage of the church's role as a safe haven in a dictatorial state by holding church services featuring American blues music – always a subversive force – as well as rock bands that attracted throngs of young people, some of whom came to discuss their faith, but most of whom came to discuss their fears. I was helping ABC's Nightline show document these developments as part of a series on the dramatic changes underway in central and Eastern Europe. I took the producer to Eppelmann's services, or Blues-Messen as they were called, and we heard people express their anger and angst.

Outside the church, big changes were underway. East Germany's long-time dictator, Erich Honecker, had just been deposed; every Monday demonstrators poured out of churches like Eppelmann's, filling East German streets. A few weeks earlier, in Leipzig, a confrontation with security forces had loomed – but when thousands filled the streets of the city, Soviet troops stayed in their barracks.

After I saw Eppelmann that day, I had to get back home to West Berlin. I passed back through the Berlin Wall, at Checkpoint Charlie, as I did fairly regularly, perhaps every couple of weeks. My work at the Aspen Institute in Berlin involved engaging both the regime and its critics, and we often brought east and west together.

That night, in fact, we were hosting a reception for a new colleague. Our reception itself was a sign that no one really expected the Wall to open that night: the mayor of West Berlin was there and other West Berlin politicians, as well as US, Soviet and East German officials.

At 7 p.m. that night, at our reception on the shores of the Wannsee in West Berlin, I found myself talking to Wolfgang Vogel, an East German lawyer who, in exchange for handsome sums of money for himself and his political masters, had quietly arranged the immigration of thousands of East Germans across the Iron Curtain to the West.

“What's going to happen?'' I asked him. ''The Communist Party will not be able to withstand the pressure coming from the streets,” he conceded, “something is likely to happen soon.”

Vogel’s words had no sooner left his lips than they were overtaken by events. Meeting at the other end of town, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, the East German government had just decided that East Germans would be allowed to travel if they had a passport – which most did not. But the regime’s spokesman mangled his announcement, and the run on the Wall began.

As potentially unmanageable throngs of East Berliners surged to the Wall, individual border guards – who had no instructions – opened the gates and a wave of humanity poured from east to west. The first 60 people flowed across Chauseestrasse before East German leaders could decide whether to “allow” people to leave.

Neither Vogel nor any of our guests knew what was happening. The deputy US ambassador stationed in East Berlin was at our reception, and offered Vogel a ride home. Riding back to cross the Wall, they learned together from the car radio what had just happened.

It was the moment the Cold War ended, the hour the German people came back together, the night the Soviet empire cracked. Berlin that night was simply the world's biggest party. The city that had come to symbolize Europe's divisions suddenly became a symbol of a continent coming together.

Central Europe’s message was clear: the old walls were being swept away. A new era had dawned.

For the next quarter century, a new paradigm took hold across much of Europe. The continent’s divisions would be overcome by a magnetic, largely unchallenged and gradually expanding Western-led order, in which Eastern Europe and eventually Russia could potentially find a place. The US would continue to be an affirmative European power, and military tensions and military forces would be reduced. Growing interdependencies and open borders would lower conflict and generate greater security and prosperity. A Europe whole and free, in the words of then-President George H.W. Bush, seemed within our grasp.

Much was achieved during this period. A Euro-Atlantic architecture of cooperative, overlapping and interlocking institutions enabled a host of countries to walk through the doors of NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe, the OECD and other organizations in ways that were not at the expense of other states or institutions. Europe was not fully whole, but it was no longer divided. It was not fully free, but vast parts of the continent were no longer under the thumb of domestic autocrats or foreign overseers. It was not fully at peace, but it was more secure than at any time in the previous century.

We have every right to be proud of these achievements. But we should have the courage to admit that we grew complacent. As time marched on, the vision of a Europe whole and free became more slogan than project, and the business of knitting the continent together was left undone. And now a conflation of crises has so shaken our smug assumptions about the evolution of European order that the original vision could become a paradigm lost.

The New Era   

Thirty years on, Europe again finds itself between strategic epochs. The post-Cold War period has come to an end. A new era has begun: one more fluid, more turbulent, more open-ended. This new landscape is strange, unformed, yet forming fast. Familiar landmarks are changing before we can adjust our thinking.

The post-Cold War paradigm posited that Europe’s 20th century earthquake had ended. Things had stopped shaking. Europe’s new architecture could be built on stable ground. According to this perspective, turmoil in the Balkans, festering conflicts in Eastern Europe, and Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine were episodes to be resolved. Tragic, but peripheral and fixable.

These assumptions simply do not correspond to Europe’s realities. Unfortunately, Europe’s 20th-century earthquake did not end in 1989 or in 1991. Europe’s east is less secure and less at peace than it was at the beginning of this decade. The Soviet succession remains open-ended, and it is still shaking the European landscape. Russian interventions in Georgia and Ukraine were not isolated episodes, they were symptomatic of deeper currents. The reality is that Europe’s vast eastern spaces will remain turbulent, and sporadically violent, for the foreseeable future.

Moscow’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine have also jolted many, although not all, Europeans out of their dream that the future belonged to “civilian powers”. Putin’s three-fold message is clear: hard power remains important; European borders can indeed be changed by force; and Russia is not somehow “lost in transition”. Rather, it is going its own way. Not every European capital, however, seems to have received the memo.  

The post-Cold War paradigm also posited that the magnetic qualities of the EU would continue to generate prosperity and safeguard democracy, holding its members together while exerting an irresistible pull on non-members to create conditions by which their integration could be possible. The new reality is that for more and more Europeans both inside and outside the Union the European experiment, while still ground-breaking and attractive in many ways, has lost a good deal of its cohesive, transformative power.

Life inside the EU has been roiled by the 2008 financial crisis, continuing crises within the Eurozone, the Great Recession, Brexit, and migration flows. Traditional economic divisions between left and right have splintered into new tensions between those championing open societies and open markets, and those seeking to shield their societies and markets from what they perceive to be the excesses of globalization and intrusions into their sovereignty. The remarkable quarter-century alignment of liberalism and nationalism in service to the European project has come undone – and not just in central Europe. For more Europeans, “ever closer Union” is neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable, the “Europe of institutions” seems unprepared to tackle down-home challenges, and the slogan “more Europe” prompts more questions than answers.

An EU whose societies are once again defining and delineating themselves from one another is not a Union willing or able to integrate additional societies knocking on its door. Europe’s west is less confident and prepared to reach out in any significant way to Europe’s east than at any time in a generation. For a quarter century, the European agenda was about how to transform one’s neighbors. Now it is about how to avoid being transformed by those neighbors. The expansive vision of a Europe whole and free is at risk of being replaced by the narrow notion of a “Europe that protects” some Europeans from other Europeans.

In short, despite the huge progress that has been achieved over the past 30 years, the hard reality is that Europe remains tempestuous, dynamic and prone to instability. History did not end with the Cold War. Some walls came down, but others remained and new ones have appeared. Europe has become less settled and more fluid, less capable and more turbulent, less Merkel and more German at a time when more Germans are also questioning tired answers to fresh challenges.

Revisionist Challenges

As if these problems were not tough enough, Europeans still wedded to the spoken and unspoken assumptions that had guided their quarter-century of stability are simply flummoxed by the fact that their major external protagonists – Russia, China, and even the US – have each in their own way become revisionist powers with regard to European order.  

Russia and China are both revisionist powers, yet each poses a different challenge. While Moscow loudly smashes the rules, Beijing quietly erodes them. China is a rising power. Its economic reach, rapid technological progress and growing military capabilities, global diplomacy geared to very different norms, and its vast resource needs render it a systemic challenger. Russia, in contrast, is a declining power. It does not have China’s resources. It is, however, both more desperate and much closer. This can mean that in the short- to medium-term it could also be more dangerous.

The real head-spinner for most Europeans is that the most unpredictable actor in this mix may in fact be the US. The advent of the Trump administration has not only shaken European assumptions about the steadiness and reliability of their major ally, it has exposed the painful reality of their continued dependence on what many fear to be an erratic and reckless superpower. Europe’s irritation with being dependent on Trump is almost as great as its fear of being abandoned by him.

Abandonment is not a likely scenario. The US remains deeply engaged in European security. The Obama administration quadrupled US defense spending in Europe following the Russian intervention in Ukraine. U.S. troops joined German and other allied forces on a rotational presence in the Baltic states, Poland, and Romania. The Trump administration has enhanced that spending, bolstered the US presence on NATO’s eastern flank, and supported a new Mobility Command and a new Atlantic Command for NATO. Moreover, recent European rhetoric about "strategic autonomy" has yet to be given any real substance, despite EU efforts to develop a more robust defense identity. And in terms of ultimate security guarantees, NATO and the US will remain indispensable for a long time to come.

But a more nuanced shift in US approaches to Europe is underway – and it did not begin with Donald Trump. Stated simply, the US is drifting from being a European power to a power in Europe. That simple turn of phrase carries significant implications for transatlantic relations and European security.

For 70 years the US has been a European power. It has been integral to the intra-European balances and coalitions that comprised both Cold War and post-Cold War Europe. It has been actively involved in all of the continent’s mechanisms and institutions, from NATO, the Partnership for Peace, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the OSCE to the US-EU relationship, the OECD and the G7/G8. It cultivated bilateral and regional partnerships, from the Northern European Initiative to the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, across the whole continent.

It did so not just out of hegemonic impulse, but due to a number of fundamental understandings. The first was the realization that Europe alone was still unable to deal with its own civil wars. The second was that Europe remained turbulent und unfinished. Advancing a Europe whole and free was deemed both important and urgent to US interests. Third was the understanding that European order was a linchpin of world order. The US also engaged as a European power because it realized that after two world wars in which Europeans destroyed their continent, it must play a role as Europe’s pacifier. By aligning its security with its allies, it helped those allies build their security together, rather than against each other. NATO offered an umbrella under which the European experiment could flourish. After the Cold War, the US engaged anew, working with Europeans across the continent to extend the space of stability where war simply does not happen, where democracy, freedom and prosperity prevail.

This time, however, the US may finally succumb to its periodic temptation to retrench from European affairs. Donald Trump personifies this shift, but the temptation to step back is both broader and deeper than Trump. This time, America is in real danger of drifting from being a European power to being a power in Europe. By that I mean a US that is selectively rather than comprehensively engaged in European affairs, focused as much on shedding burdens as sharing them, a country that is part stakeholder and part spoiler, one that is less supportive of integration and more open to “disaggregation” by playing Europeans off against one another, a country less intuitively convinced that Europe, while important, is also urgent, or that there is any particular link between the nature of European order and global order.

That is not the America Europe needs. However, it could be the America Europe gets, unless Europeans and those Americans attentive to European affairs can again successfully affirm that our shared and enduring interests – a Europe hospitable to freedom, a Europe at peace with itself, a Europe not dominated or threatened by any power or constellation of powers hostile to the US, a Europe that can be America’s counterpart, not its counterweight – can be best advanced with an America that is a European power, not just a power in Europe. 

America’s debate is more open-ended than Europeans realize and more susceptible to influence than they may appreciate. As in the past, it could turn on the message Americans hear from central Europe.

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