Europe’s Politicians Are Idealists – But About All the Wrong Things

When it comes to foreign policy, centrists are the real utopians.

by Aaron Bastani

21 November 2023

A man waves a mini Georgian flag beside a woman with a US and EU flag
Georgia extends east of Baghdad but could join the EU. Photo: Reuters/Irakli Gedenidze

“Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution.”

Reading that passage one might think its source was Machiavelli or Montaigne. But it’s actually Alec Guinness speaking as King Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia.

It’s hard to imagine such a statement in a similarly high-profile film today. While the desert landscapes of the 1962 Oscar winner are mesmerising, the real backdrop is Ottoman decline – this offering a microcosm of something far larger: a transformation of the world order.

As with most things made for a mass audience, Lawrence of Arabia crystallises notable aspects of the culture from which it emerged. Firstly, it is a post-colonial film. While the focus is on the collapse of Ottoman power, the subtext is that Britain wasn’t far behind. It’s no coincidence the film was made in the early 1960s. If the first pangs of anti-colonial nationalism were felt during the First World War, then five decades later it was the global zeitgeist.

Equally evident in the film is a generation familiar with the ambiguities of conflict. Peter O’Toole, who plays the lead role, had been a signaller in the Royal Navy; Alec Guinness was involved in the invasion of Sicily; and Jack Hawkins, who plays General Allenby, had served in Southeast Asia. David Lean, the film’s director, had professionally matured as the British Empire disintegrated. His films, most memorably Bridge on the River Kwai, are like the owl of Minerva – outlining a civilisation with the greatest clarity precisely because it had passed into history.

At the time, this collective experience was presumed to have furnished Britain with a certain ethical maturity. That is certainly how the elite regarded themselves – something captured by Harold Macmillan’s quip that the British were latter-day Greeks to America’s Rome: less powerful and boisterous, but all the wiser for it.

A growing recognition of the limits of European power, particularly after the Suez Crisis, was coupled with idealism at home, as retreat from expansive empires was coupled, in part, by generous welfare and full employment. Two great wars had made Western Europe’s elite – at least by historic standards – cautious about foreign adventures. That is why those sentences, of young men fighting wars and old ones making peace, felt so natural when Guinness said them. He and his generation had lived it. 

Yet something bizarre unfolded over the following half-century. Already by the early 1990s, as the Soviet Union collapsed and market capitalism seemingly reigned supreme, the formula of the post-war era had started to invert. Now domestic elites held fantastical ideas about foreign policy, and their role in driving it, while being pessimistic about the capacity for change at home. By the early 21st century this reversal was complete. While public ownership of rail or energy was unthinkably utopian, Britain’s political class believed it was sensible to build entire state structures from scratch in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

For a while, this seemed limited to Britain. But not anymore. Everywhere in Europe, idealistic foreign policy is now the order of the day, alongside domestic decline. The European Union could expand further east than Baghdad if Georgia succeeds at negotiating membership (the country’s capital, Tbilisi, is roughly due north of the Iraqi city). But don’t expect the continent to have a meaningful energy security strategy. Germany’s Greens turned off the last of the country’s nuclear plants, and switched back to brown coal, yet one of their stars, Annalena Baerbock, appears to think Europe can take on Russia and China simultaneously.

This unrealistic idealism is also evident in the ‘mainstream’ view on Ukraine. Namely that Kiev should continue fighting, and reject any kind of negotiation – despite facing an adversary four times larger, with the average Ukrainian on the frontline reportedly 43 years old. British politicians think it is unreasonable to expect free university education, yet moderate to supply endless weapons to Ukraine (even though we don’t have the industrial capacity to do so), subject most of West Asia to sanctions and accept the possibility of millions of Gazans being displaced. Germany is de-industrialising. The answer? Regime change in Russia. Never has anything so difficult been made to sound so easy.

But why has this happened? And why has this bizarre pairing – of utopianism abroad and impossibilism at home – come to be seen as ‘pragmatic’? 

Part of the answer is that a commitment to US foreign policy objectives, across Western Europe, has been viewed as sensible for almost 80 years. This is understandable given such an approach was born in the aftermath of a World War, which killed tens of millions, and a Cold one that followed. Only now it is becoming unworkable – because US objectives are progressively more outlandish.

This is a problem for Europe because it bears the costs of policy failure far more than Washington. The United States is, by virtue of geography, inoculated from the consequences of bad decisions – whether that’s the creation of millions of refugees after invading Iraq and Afghanistan, removing Gaddafi in Libya, or sanctions on Russia – which have led to plummeting living standards from London to Warsaw. The foreign policy choices of the West mean ever-larger flows of refugees, rising oil prices and rampant food inflation. The problem for London, Berlin, Paris and Rome – who must answer to their domestic electorates – is that US foreign policy drives all of this without America enduring much downside. 

It is possible the worst is yet to come. Will Europe have to economically decouple from China – as certain Tory MPs are already demanding? If so, the inflation of the last 12 months would seem trivial. And what if the range of failed states across Asia and North Africa came to include Iran or Egypt? After all the former is close to a strategic objective for the American right. Egypt has a population of 110 million, Iran 85 million – yet the possibility of either going the way of Libya or Iraq is never mentioned by our foreign policy Panglossians.

It’s time to recalibrate the scales towards a pragmatic foreign policy – for both friend and foe alike – while politicians turn their zeal to making people’s lives better at home. That, as always, should be the first job of a democratic government – somehow a generation of European politicians appears to have forgotten that. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.


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