Nation-states are built on ethnic and territorial unity, and their histories and political development are grounded in a sense of collective identity. Empires emerge when a national group considers its existence inside its territorial borders either risky or ineffective, and embarks on a forced expansion that is usually connected with large-scale violence.
Western Europe found another route for its development only after WWII, when Hitlerism lay in the past but Stalinism posed a very present danger. Western European intellectuals realized that both nationalism and imperialism were unacceptable approaches to state-building, and that European stability required a union of nations that could and should expand, but that would never be transformed into an empire.
Western Europe’s political elite was quick to adopt this position, and America’s “Euro-Atlantic” political thinking, together with the Marshall Plan, contributed to it decisively. The Treaty of Rome, together with the establishment of the Council of Europe, embodied a legal, economic, and political – but mostly a philosophical – breakthrough.
A fundamental change occurred in Europe when the failure of Soviet communism opened up entirely new opportunities. But it is impossible to escape the feeling that Western Europeans and the Americans were eager to exchange their strategic Cold War perspective for one focused narrowly on trade and commerce. Those who were ready to consider cooperation with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union in 1990 – the same year that the Charter of Paris aimed to establish a “Europe from Vancouver to Vladivostok” – had by 1992 begun to neglect Russia and the other former Soviet republics, with the exception of the Baltic states. Instead, the West chose to pursue only a tactical relationship with Russia’s post-Soviet bureaucracy.