Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Reinventing the European Dream

PRINCETON – The euro crisis and Queen Elizabeth’s recent Jubilee seem to have nothing in common. In fact, together they impart an important lesson: the power of a positive narrative – and the impossibility of winning without one.

Commenting on the Jubilee’s river pageant and horse parade, historian Simon Schama talked to the BBC about “little boats and big ideas.” The biggest idea was that Britain’s monarchy serves to connect the country’s past to its future in ways that transcend the pettiness and ugliness of quotidian politics. The heritage of kings and queens stretching back across more than a millennium – the enduring symbolism of crowns and coaches, and the literal embodiment of the English and now the British state – binds Britons together in a common journey.

Cynics might call this the old bread-and-circuses routine. But the point is to fix eyes and hearts on a narrative of hope and purpose – to uplift, rather than distract, the public. Are Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and other Europeans really supposed to embrace an austerity program imposed on them because prevailing wisdom in Germany and other northern countries considers them profligate and lazy? Those are fighting words, creating resentment and division just when unity and burden-sharing are most needed.

Greece, in particular, now needs a way to connect its past with its future, but no monarch is forthcoming. And, as the cradle of the world’s first democracy, Greece needs other symbols of national renewal than scepters and robes. It is through Homer that virtually all Western readers first encounter the Mediterranean world: its islands and shores and peoples knit together by diplomacy, trade, marriage, oil, wine, and long ships. Greece could once again be a pillar of such a world, using its current crisis to craft a new future.

That vision is more plausible than one might think. Natural-gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean are estimated to hold up to 122 trillion cubic feet, enough to supply the entire world for a year. More gas and large oil fields lie off the Greek coast in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, enough to transform the finances of Greece and the entire region. Israel and Cyprus are planning joint exploration; Israel and Greece are discussing a pipeline; Turkey and Lebanon are prospecting; and Egypt is planning to license exploration.

But politics, as always, intervenes. All countries involved have maritime disputes and political disagreements. The Turks are working with Northern Cyprus, whose independence only they recognize, and regularly make threatening noises about Israel’s drilling with the Greek Cypriot government of the Republic of Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots regularly hold the EU hostage over any dealings with Turkey, as has Greece. The Turks will not let Cypriot ships into their harbors and have not been on speaking terms with the Israelis since nine Turkish citizens were killed on a ship that sought to breach Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Lebanon and Israel do not have diplomatic relations.

In short, the riches, jobs, and development that would flow to all countries in the region from responsible energy exploitation may well be blocked by the insistence of each on getting what it regards as its fair share and denying access to its enemies.

The vision of a Mediterranean Energy Community thus seems destined to remain a pipedream. Yet July will bring the 60th anniversary of the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, which established the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) among France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg only six years after the end of World War II. During the previous 70 years, Germany and France had fought each other in three devastating wars, the last two of which ruined Europe’s economies and decimated its population.

These countries’ mutual hatred and suspicion was no less bitter and deep-seated than that afflicting the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, with the assistance of his counselor Jean Monnet, announced a plan for the ECSC in 1950, only five years after German troops had left Paris, with the aim of making “war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” Schuman proposed putting Franco-German coal and steel production under a common High Authority, thereby preventing the two sides from using the raw materials of war against each other, and powering a common industrial economy. The ECSC became the core of today’s European Union.

The EU today is on the ropes, but only a few concrete steps by European leaders might open the door to similarly bold diplomacy that could restore EU and Mediterranean economies and transform the energy politics of Europe and Asia. If the European Parliament and the European Council were to take steps to make direct EU trade with northern Cyprus subject to qualified majority voting rather than consensus (and hence veto by Cyprus), the EU would be able to begin trading with northern Cyprus, and Turkey could begin trading with Cyprus as a whole. These steps could lead in turn to a Turkish, Cypriot, and Greek energy partnership that would provide positive incentives for Turkish-Israeli reconciliation.

The Schuman Plan took two years to crystalize and a decade to implement. But it gave war-torn and desperately poor Europeans a positive vision of a new future, something that Greece and Cyprus, not to mention Middle Eastern and North African countries, desperately need. Europe’s leaders will not surmount this crisis by pounding their citizens with bleak demands for austerity. They must take concrete steps, with Greece as a full and equal partner, to create a vision of real rewards from a rejuvenated EU.

The EU does not have a Queen Elizabeth. What it needs is another Schuman and Monnet.

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    1. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      "Are Greeks... really supposed to embrace an austerity program imposed on them.." - What is so difficult to get when financial markets grant bonds junk status? "Carrots without stick" would be irresponsible for all sides, as is biting the hand that still feeds.

    2. CommentedGary Techentien

      This lady of Princeton, this former Director of Policy Planning for the Department of State at the Obama White House, writes blithely of how the traditions of a thousand year monarchy in Britain as manifested in the Queen’s recent Jubilee enables the people of Britain to form a vision of the future and to, as she puts it, “fix eyes and hearts on a narrative of hope and purpose – to uplift, rather than distract.” Without belaboring the point that, from where I sit, parties like the Queen’s Jubilee are very much intended to distract every bit as much as they are meant to uplift, Professor Slaughter gives the illustration to reinforce the point that to lack such a positive narrative, makes “winning” impossible. She doesn’t say what kind of winning she’s talking about, although I find her choice of operative verb to be intriguing. She chooses “winning” instead of, say, “advancing” “developing” “becoming” “building” or “succeeding”. More on the curious word choice later.

      The upshot on her characterization of the Queen’s party as inspirational is that not only does she choose not to call it the obvious propaganda that it is, she writes as if oblivious of the fact that she is invoking a symbol of empire. It never apparently occurs to her that the august monarchy she sees as providing that “uplifting…positive narrative” was—particularly during the years of empire from the late 15th through the mid 20th centuries—wont to beat untold wealth out of its colonial possessions like a brute master beating work out of a listless slave, while on the home front, the people wearing those very crown jewels and riding in those very carriages Professor Slaughter extols colluded with their captains of industry to ruthlessly exploit the labor of the lower classes throughout the dark and smoke palled industrial revolution. By pointing this out I don’t mean to contend that the British people didn’t wind up loving their monarchy. They did and do, the damn fools. So yes, I appear to be one of those cynics Professor Slaughter anticipated might call the Queen’s Jubilee the “old bread-and-circuses routine.”

      I don’t think she’s so naïve as to think the Queen’s party wasn’t propaganda. But I do understand why she doesn’t want to seem so cynical herself. She’s held an important office in the U.S. empire and so she must not mention such things if she wishes to retain her privileged position.

      Still, she says something that it seems might get her into hot water with her official connections at State. She asks, “are Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, and other Europeans really supposed to embrace an austerity program imposed on them because prevailing wisdom in Germany and other northern countries considers them profligate and lazy?” This is a radical thought because, as the Germans are quick to point out, the Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese and others borrowed the money and they need to pay it back and the interest too. Hence, Professor Slaughter’s statement seems a little rad for two reasons: First, she thinks the obligation to pay arises from how the Germans see the southerners as profligate and lazy; second, she thinks the debt ought to be forgiven for that reason. If you’ll pardon me, her take on this seems a little naïve, maybe even a little disingenuous. The German cultural impressions of the debtor countries is irrelevant to what the German's see as the duty of those countries to pay and the debt ought to be forgiven because to enforce its payment would press the debtor countries into too much misery.

      Next Professor Slaughter gets to the point of her article: the Greeks, Turks and Cypriots could all get a mojo going for the future if they got together and developed their common offshore natural gas reserves. The upshot is that these countries could all profit if they’d find some way, through good faith and diplomacy, to work together in their common interest, and who can disagree with that? Not me.

      Still, the essay bugs me. From its tortured imagery through its obliviousness to presence of EMPIRE in everything it discusses to the choice of the word “winning” to describe what the article assumes in the opening paragraph we all want to do. The type of international cooperation the article suggests is essentially the process of working together toward a common good, which I like, and yet Professor Slaughter chooses to characterize that process by applying the word “winning” to it.

      What is being won? A positive outcome. If such an outcome were to happen, wouldn’t the process really be more one of a building, a creating, a crafting? While the word “win” now is often used as a kind of synonym for things like creating, building or crafting something in the sense that the thing created was won from alternative outcomes that were not so positive, it nonetheless has its roots in contests where entities compete and some win while others lose. Professor Slaughter paints a scenario of Greek-Turkish-Cypriot gas development as a win-win situation, although she ignores the obvious environmental costs of extracting and consuming any fossil fuel.

      I can’t help but be made uncomfortable by our culture’s overweening worship of the idea of “winning” and of Professor Slaughter’s use of it in this essay when there were other better words available. It says something about what the deeper problem is in our society, that we compete too much, that we preserve the perquisites of the winner and, to greater or lesser degrees, ignore the difficulties that result to the loser. As a result of that, we get wealth flowing like rivers to the top of our hierarchical society while the lower levels grow pale and anemic.

      Professor Slaughter occupies a position high in the hierarchy, close to the headwaters of power. And yet, she would forgive the Greek and Spanish debt. She probably wouldn't be making statements like that if she were still at State. But maybe so. It’s enough to suggest some hope.

    3. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      A brilliant article and the reference to building partnerships as opposed to playing the same 'austerity' melody harmonized by a 'bail-out' movement looming at large.

      Eastern Coal and Steel Community and the vision of the Mediterranean Energy Community have a lot in common and deference, but a lot to differ as well. The stumbling block for this to succeed, is the lack of vision itself and common sense, which is left in the lurch, for good reason that only time will tell.

      The success of ECSC happened at a time when the world of finance and bond markets had not taken shape and speculation was yet to take root in the annals of forex transactions or even the word 'GDP' was unknown in common language; leadership brought down barriers, whether in trade or in homes and the rules of the market was not hijacked by the powerful for an uncommon good.

      A brilliant attempt to recast our thoughts.

      Procyon Mukherjee

    4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Although I do not think the British monarchy works the way the writer describes, this historical connection probably working for a day or two around celebrations, or soccer World Cups, but I agree with her conclusion that only positive motivation is capable of providing people with the drive that is sustainable, requires no trickery or coercion.
      Moreover the motivation has to come from ground up, and not top down as before, in the forms of "great speeches", great leaders urging their masses into something, but we need a motivation everybody understands, feels, and lives through.
      Otherwise it will not work, but we will continue stumbling from crisis to crisis.
      And such positive, general motivation could unite people and drive them to build a fundamentally different human system, that is moving away from excessive consumerism, making decision only based on self calculation, self profit, where people become capable of considering the whole above the fragmented, polarized details, above individual priorities.
      So what can give us such motivation?
      A global, integral education/information sharing program for all, helping all of us understand that the system we evolved into, this global, interconnected network, where a small change on one end of the globe shakes the whole as one, and that we live on top of finite resources and within a fragile natural system, so based on the general understanding with our undisputed talent and ingenuity we could build our new structure that adapts to our 21st century conditions.