TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Commonwealth of Europe

The following paper was presented at the recent Telos in Europe conference on “The Idea of Europe,” held in L’Aquila, Italy, on September 5–8, 2014.

The End of Westphalia and Europe’s New Schism

The continual crisis in Ukraine is perpetuating an East-West schism that was never overcome after the end of the Cold War. Even if there is no all-out war between the major powers involved in the Ukrainian conflict, Europe faces the distinct prospect of a permanent divide at its very heart. The EU increasingly looks like an annex to the United States, which oscillates between isolationism and interventionism. Meanwhile Russia is fast becoming a vassal state that supplies cheap resources to China. After more than 500 years at the center of international affairs, the whole of Europe is bereft of ideas and incapable of acting as a force for good.

For too long, European and Western foreign policy has focused either on national interests or on universal values, but neither has offered a coherent, long-term strategy. On the contrary, one of the striking features of the current crisis is the absence of strategic thinking on all sides. In the run-up to the events in February 2014 that triggered the Ukrainian conflict, both the West (the United States and the EU) and Russia viewed Ukraine as a pawn in a wider geo-political game of narrow national self-interest. Since the outbreak of violence, the two sides have backed the most vocal and violent elements—Ukrainian militia and pro-Russian separatists. Thus, short-term tactics for self-interested purposes has prevailed over long-term strategy that can serve the mutual interests of all—stability, prosperity, and ultimate the flourishing of all in a shared neighborhood.

This reckless short-sightedness has brought Europe to the brink of a dangerous escalation that could stretch from a draconian sanctions regime crippling both the Russian and the Western economy all the way to an armed conflict involving some NATO countries such as Poland or the Baltic States. Whatever the differences between 1914 and 2014, history suggests that great powers can quite easily be dragged into conflicts that mutate into world wars.

Over the past 200 years, each major conflict was either followed by a new international order—the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the League of Nations in 1919, and indeed the United Nations in 1945. The same never happened after 1989 and 1991. Thus there are no common rules of substantive engagement except much-disputed norms in international law. The Westphalian system never resolved the basic contradiction between the principles of territorial integrity and national self-determination, and now the Ukraine crisis has finally laid to rest the remnants of the modern system. Just as a new settlement is not yet beyond reach, so too the prospect of mass warfare has not disappeared.

Europe’s Shared Axial Origin

Of course there can be no strict moral equivalence between the West and Russia. The rule of law, the dignity of the person and the free space of association between the individual and the state are more developed in Western than in Eastern countries—and that includes not just Russia but also Ukraine, Turkey, and other European powers. But these and other institutions emerged from a shared legacy that all have betrayed in different ways. Western supremacism and Russian exceptionalism undermine the universal tradition bequeathed by the Roman Empire in both East and West. In fact, Europe grew out of the fusion of Greco-Roman philosophy with biblical revelation. Across the wider European space, politics, law, the social order and the economic system reflect dimly the unique blend of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem.

Of course this vision is not limited to ancient Greece and Rome. As Karl Jaspers first argued, the great metaphysics of East and West are of a single axial birth with the world religions: the strangely coincident fusion of philosophy with theology in the period from around the sixth to the second century BC. This centered on a theoretical and practical critique of predominant norms of absolutist power underwritten by gods who were not believed to be on the side of ordinary humans. The advent of critical thought and political resistance was from the outset inextricably intertwined with an appeal to religious transcendence—whether in Plato, Buddha, or Confucius.

Linking all these traditions together is the idea that the rightful exercise of reason involves a pre-rational trust (pistis or faith) in the reasonableness of reality—that the universe and all rational beings therein are not subject either to a deterministic fatalism or to the indeterminacy of random flux but that they can be ordered harmoniously. Based on a new synthesis of personal liberty with universal telos, agency in the immanent order of being was for the first time in human history seen as compatible with a transcendent outlook. The key difference of pre- and post-axial thought is the notion that flourishing requires some form of salvation by a benign deity that refuses sacrificial practices to appease divine wrath and instead represents the ultimate guarantee for the dignity of the person. In this manner, divinity is reconfigured as the supernatural foundation and finality of the good that all human beings desire naturally—a good that exceeds complete comprehension but is amenable to reason.

A New Commonwealth of Europe

Today it the precisely the denial of the common good that marks out both Western liberalism and Russia’s reactionary conservatism. Modern and contemporary geopolitics revolves around individual rights and the “social contract” at the service of power and wealth—whether individual or collective or indeed both at once. But for realism to chart a way beyond the extremes of Western regime change and Russia’s destabilization of neighbors, it needs to be far more realist and recognize not just shared security interests but also common values and long-standing cultural ties.

The existing political and military structures are inadequate on their own terms and in relation to higher purposes such as genuine reconciliation, justice, and peace. What the wider Europe requires is a novel type of commonwealth—people, partly under religious inspiration, covenanted with each other in the interests of mutual benefit. In practice, this means a multi-national association of peoples and nations that shares risks, rewards, and resources. This could be a voluntary agreement among participatory nations to meet minimum standards in both the economic and the social realms. Also to meet certain shared standards of “subsidiarity,” or of decentralized control and responsibility. Part of that covenant could be a pooled promise of financial assistance under inspected control, if any nation found it hard to meet such standards.

Such an extended covenant for social and economic justice could indeed be a way to revive and rethink countries as diverse as Russia and the UK as something like a multi-national association. An association where social and cultural ties shape our identity more than entitlements and contracts. A version of the same idea could make the EU work for and not against nations, regions, and individual people. And might it not even be a new way to reinvigorate the legacy of Christendom?

By this I means not only that Europe’s polity is characterized by hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, polycentric authority, multi-level governance, and multiple membership in different institutions. But more fundamentally, the legacy of Christendom in both East and West is to blend the principle of free association in Germanic common law with the Latin sense of equity and participation in the shared civitas. In this manner, European Christianity has defended a more relational account (in terms of objective rights and reciprocal duties, not merely subjective individual entitlements) that outflanked the dialectic of the individual and the collective that we owe to the American and the French Revolution.

Ultimately, Europe’s unique legacy of faith and reason provided the basis for European claims to an “organically” plural universalism. The mark of this variant of universalism is that it avoids both moral relativism and political absolutism by offering a free, shared social space for religious and non-religious practice—the “realm” of civil society that is more primary than either the central state or the “free” market. As the “corporation of corporations,” the European polity rests on common civic culture and social bonds that are more fundamental than either formal constitutional-legal rights or economic-contractual ties (or some sinister fusion of both).

It this is more organic unity that is currently at stake, facing the most serious internal and external threats since 1945. At present and for the foreseeable future, the greatest threats to civilization are post-national—crony capitalism and the religious extremism of the Islamic State. In the coming years and decades, if we want to contain such forces and shape the future to prevent a “clash of civilizations,” then we must have our own coherent international response. Global liberalism is insufficient and has only reinforced the rise of extremists. On the contrary, only a new pan-European commonwealth can defend the dignity of the human person and uphold all the forms of association that enable human beings to flourish.

All this is only utopian in terms of the current logic and liberal ideology, but it can be achieved under the carapace of a different set of ideas and institutions that combine realism with idealism. Concretely, this means a status for Ukraine similar to that of Finland and Austria (i.e., Western-leaning but not a member of NATO), the end of mutually crippling sanctions between the West and Russia, as well as cooperation on confronting the Islamic State and stabilizing AfPak. It also means creating—however slowly and problematically—something like Pan-Europe. A new Union of Europe that includes the EU, Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, and the members of the British Commonwealth.

Over-ambitious and fanciful? Perhaps, but worth trying, because our only other option is to try to emulate the United States and China (and how extraordinary that those who defend national sovereignty should call for just this). This risks destroying our European, Christian values for the sake of a global competition that we Europeans are likely to lose anyway. At the very least, it would be better to decline nobly and not ignominiously. Yet the best traditions of Europe suggest that in the long run nobility is more likely to succeed.

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