By Jonathan Power
Mankind got rid of African slave trading. It got rid of dueling. It got rid of torture. In some European countries it was abolished over 200 years ago. Even in the Second World War the allies did not systematically use torture. Regrettably, when President George W. Bush came to power, torture was reinstated – a reminder that although there has been progress it can slip back. Likewise, slavery has found new life with the rise in child and female trafficking.
As for war it is abundantly clear that since the end of the Second World War the number of conflicts and battlefield deaths has gone sharply down. Some of the most distinguished military historians now think that the age-old connection between war and states may be on its way out.
The European Union has shown the way. The part of the world that used to be the most violent has effectively banned the clash of arms. Between 1648 and 1789 the European powers fought 48 wars. Even when there seemed to be peace, as when no wars were fought between 1871 and 1914, the colonial powers fought both each other abroad and the natives who they colonized. The British army was at war in some part of the world throughout the entire nineteenth century.
Then came the carnage of World War 1. David Lloyd George, the wartime British prime minister, wrote that, “The nations slithered over the brink into the boiling cauldron of war without any trace of apprehension or dismay”.
The seeds of World War 2 were sown during World War 1. The map of Europe had been partly redrawn to German’s disadvantage. Germany was bled almost dry by reparations. The great economist, John Maynard Keynes, argued that the harsh peace imposed on Germany would create “an inefficient, unemployed, disorganized, Europe”. It did. Hitler rose to power.
World War 2, although ending on a positive note with forgiving victors had, as its last act, the unforgiveable and quite unnecessary nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the seventieth anniversary of which has been commemorated during the last week.
Since then there has been no sign of a new world war.
America, however, cannot get the urge for regional wars out of its gut- hence the South Korean, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars. But even in the US the thirst for war appears under the leadership of President Barack Obama to have steadily diminished.
Europe today remains the world’s prime example of peace among nations. (Although perhaps we should include China and India, apart from the time of Partition, where for hundreds of years a peaceful internal unity has been maintained.)
Europe may too often walk in lockstep with American foreign policy, as with its stance against Russia, but by and large it is a very unwarlike body. The European idea among its electorate is, as James Sheehan has written, “not full of national enthusiasm and patriotic passion but of a widespread commitment to escape the destructive antagonisms of the past. Because the European Union does not claim the monstrous capacity, the power of life and death, it does not need citizens who are prepared to kill and die.” Europe has become a super civilian state but not a superpower.
If violence does threaten Europe again it will not come from inside Europe but from outside. To avoid this it means it should return to the first post Cold War days when it was beginning to think Russia’s idea of building together a “single European house” (in the words of President Vladimir Putin) was perhaps a good one.
Regrettably, that moment has passed for now. Putin’s attempt to create a quasi-dictatorship, increasingly repressing independent opinion, and the West’s foolish, ill-thought out, attempt to bolster Ukraine against Russia, have created an atmosphere of geo-political negativity.
As for the threat from extremist Muslims intent on their jihad, they do not threaten Europe, or even America. As one wag wrote, more people in the West have died falling off a ladder than they have from terrorist attacks.
Has Kant’s state of perpetual peace finally arrived? Never before have so many of the Western people lived so well and so few died because of political violence.
But we face another danger, as Timothy Garton Ash has written, of Europe thinking it can become “a gated community of the rich surrounded by poorer neighborhoods and terrible slums”. And we could add, with large numbers taking to overcrowded boats to cross the Mediterranean to seek a better and safer life. This is not war, but neither is it acceptable. We have not lost the capacity for going backwards even as we go forward.
Copyright: Jonathan Power