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Europe as the World's New Moral Center?

Has Europe replaced the United States in setting international standards?

September 14, 2004

Has Europe replaced the United States in setting international standards?

The moral center of gravity in the world today is shifting toward Europe. There are many reasons for this, some historical and some accidental.

Western Europe, for centuries the arena of some of the bloodiest violence known to the world, now has a 50-year record of peace and structured dispute resolution.

After spending five decades in the fitful process of building "the European project," Europe today is the only part of the globe with a successful form of supranational government.

Europe has championed and financed advanced positions on many large global issues, including protection of the environment, peacekeeping and aid to developing countries.

Virtually no nation in the world fears that any European nation will bomb or invade it.

The five largest countries of Europe, plus others such as Denmark, wrestle visibly and painfully with the difficulties posed by the presence of important and growing Muslim minorities.

These countries are thus modern laboratories where both the tensions and the potential terms of mutual understanding between the West and Islam are tested and explored daily in concrete settings.

Europe has supported the United Nations and other emerging patterns of global governance, while over the past two decades U.S. support has been episodic and ambivalent.

It is a curious situation: The continent that generated centuries of violence and bloodshed — from the Crusades to World War II — and that served as the cradle of the sciences that eventually produced modern weapons of mass destruction, is now well positioned to hold the moral balance of power among the community of nations and in global public opinion.

This is a position of immense strength and importance, but one that Europe itself seems frequently not to recognize.

The picture of Europe playing a pivotal role in the future global agenda will surprise both Americans and some Europeans themselves. Many Americans see Europe as divided, clumsy and slow, and plagued by "group think" — long on rhetoric but short on coherent action.

Some Europeans themselves cynically disparage the "European project" and doubt the ability of the European nations acting together to accomplish anything serious at all.

Certainly the run-up to the war in Iraq gave us little reason to assume that Europe could act with coherence and cohesion on a major international issue.

But the picture is both more complex and more hopeful than that. Europe is certainly slow — and, like all governments and public sector confederations, it is often clumsy or divided.

On the question of policies to control the spread of WMD, for instance, Europe has lagged well behind the United States. European governments have remained reluctant to accept any serious role in the effort to dismantle or safeguard those that exist in Eastern Europe and lax in the area of dual-use technology transfer (the transfer of technology with both commercial and military applications).

But in many arenas the United States is even slower. Two of these are environmental policy and economic equity, including efforts to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor.

And, last but not least, compare contemporary European and U.S. performance in the following areas:

Access, cost and coverage of health care.
Management of free trade obligations
Effectiveness and scope of international development assistance
Investment in, and sound management of, public infrastructure (transportation, water, sewage, etc.)
National energy policies
Campaign financing standards
National environmental policies
Human rights policies
Support for the elderly

It is hard to run one's eye down this list and conclude that Europe is vastly more "clumsy and slow" than the United States.

And over the past decade, the United States has frequently been immobilized by internal divisions over issues ranging from economic and quality-of-life questions — like health care and social security — to ideological hot-button issues, such as gun control, abortion and capital punishment.

These internal divisions are profound, even with regard to self-evident needs like overseas assistance for family planning and women's health rights.

By contrast, the Europeans have acquired the practical experience and internal political latitude over the past five decades to lead in the building of the kind of new institutional arrangements that are necessary to meet today's global challenges.

What is not clear is whether — or how quickly — they will do that.