Europe, host to much of the bloodiest fighting during both World Wars, has since experienced decades without a major conflict between member states. Some may point to a pax-Americana- a peace enforced by the weighty arms of the US military, as the reason for this unprecedented era of prosperity. After all, European states became deeply reliant on the security umbrella provided by the American military in the aftermath of the second World War. This was all the more true during the Cold War, when Europe was once again a major front between global powers vying for influence. The idea is that as nations ultimately dependent on the military guarantees of the same foreign power, these states were in no position to wage war against one another, as it would render their alliances with their most powerful benefactor moot. The Americans, would not, after all, fight another war amongst themselves. Therefore, the thinking is, Europe remained at peace. However, this narrative is oversimplified, and does not account for several factors that are important for analyzing European security. For one, although the catastrophic human and financial costs involved in the World Wars entailed the collapse of most European colonial holdings abroad, these formerly imperial states themselves were for the most part intact geographically.
Contrary to the simplistic narrative that Western or Soviet aligned countries were reduced to mere protectorates, capitalist or communist puppet states, then and now, many of the states of Europe sought and managed to pursue their own foreign policy goals. Britain and France, for instance, developed nuclear arsenals soon after the USSR and their military benefactor the USA did. Yugoslavia famously turned to the Americans for aid after falling out with Stalin’s USSR. Poland, currently a member of NATO and the EU (both of which have collective defense clauses) has been building out a capable military force for years. It is clear then, that despite grand narratives about ideological superpowers duking it out for influence across the continent, many individual European states remained relevant if not entirely independent players, especially on a regional level.
What then, would explain the decades of close cooperation and alliance that characterized much of Europe, in the 20th Century after second World War? After all, no one could have known that the War to End War would be followed by another of similar scale a mere twenty years later. Yet since then nearly 80 years have passed, and Europe remains, on its surface, more politically and economically unified than ever. Germany, infamously split in two by the Iron Curtain, was demilitarized, democratized and reunified, undergoing an economic boom in the process. Spain’s dictator was succeeded by a liberal monarch who established a constitutional democratic system. The Baltic people, in a breathtaking feat of coordinated democratic protest, formed a human chain that linked their three Baltic states in defiance of the authoritarian USSR. Portugal overthrew its dictatorship, then removed the military from the political process, though not without unrest and conflict. In each case, the democratization of these systems reduces the state’s propensity for conflict. This makes sense, as democratic states are systems wherein the state is ultimately accountable, legally and politically, to those who have the greatest to lose from war- soldiers, sure, but also their parents, siblings, spouses and children. With such a broad expanse of stakeholders, the societal pressure must be indeed enormous and ubiquitous to move a democratic society into conflict with another.
Peace then, although brought on by force of arms, was maintained by force of will. It was not in the will of the vast majority of European peoples to engage in war for several decades, and Europe has not seen major conflicts for quite some time because of that. However, there are a number of worrying signs for Europe’s future, both in terms of democratic values and security concerns. For one, although democratic states are unlikely to engage in conflict with one another, that is not to say that they are invulnerable to hostile foreign incursion- far from it. Currently, the conflict in Ukraine is a striking example of one possible end for any young democracy: violent suppression by a foreign military. It is quite key to note that despite Russia being the aggressor and most of the fighting occurring in Ukraine, the Russian Federation, too is experiencing its own issue with refugees, as citizens seek to flee an authoritarian empire for ethical, economic or political concerns, with many stranded abroad as the Russian currency becomes worthless. Yet this is in Eastern Ukraine, a former Soviet bloc country with only a relatively young history of statehood, much less democracy. How does this have to do with peace in Europe, where much of the continent lays below a US military umbrella?
If the key to this historic peace in Europe has been the democratic nature of more and more of its political units, then the future for Europe looks gloomy indeed. Poland, for instance, legally a parliamentary republic, has seen in recent years a concentration of powers in the executive and legislative branches to the detriment of its independent judiciary. Yet it commands what may be the most formidable military in the European Union. Victor Orban, the authoritarian-in-making of Hungary, famously declared for an “illiberal democracy” in his vision for Hungary. Even France, whose infamous revolutionary zeal once gripped the continent, could see its Fifth Republic elect a right-wing executive with authoritarian leanings through a plurality, much like what had happened in the Weimar Republic all those years earlier.
This is not to say Europe is destined for war, or that the free world is on the verge of collapse. Yet one would be foolish the currents of nationalism and the weakness of supposedly universal democratic values. A Europe that cannot meaningfully sanction even its own members acting in violation of treaty and international law, such as Poland and Hungary, is a Europe that is not willing, or not able to, defend democratic values on its own doorstep.