Flashpoints and When the Facts Change

By George Friedman
By Tony Judt

Things aren’t going very well in Europe these days. And by “Europe” what I mean is the European Union, the organization of states (currently sitting at 28 members) that has slowly grown and evolved over the last nearly sixty years.

That union has been tested by economic downturns, high unemployment, demographic challenges brought on by aging populations and increasing immigration, and, following on all of this, political instability. The recent election in Greece is just the latest bit of bad news for unionists. No doubt there’s more on the way.

Such problems should not come as a surprise. The European Union came about as a product of a unique historical circumstance (the Cold War, which kept the peace) and economic good times. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed those good times were going to keep on rolling.

But these ideal conditions are now threatened. As the geopolitical forecaster George Friedman notes: “Peace depends on prosperity, and that prosperity is waning.” Fighting has already broken out in Ukraine. Other “flashpoints” that Friedman identifies (mostly borderlands with a history of conflict) are easily identified. Might things fall apart?

They might. Friedman is convinced they will. Any collapse of the middle class in particular will be the testing point, and one that the EU will be hard pressed to deal with. In Flashpoints he locates various hot spots where fracture is most likely to occur.

Not surprisingly these are places, like Eastern Europe and the Balkans, that have a history of conflict. Flashpoints spends a lot of time going over that history because Europe is a continent with long memories, and it’s those memories, more even than economic realities, that Friedman sees as the driving force behind the emerging crisis.

The late Tony Judt specialized in this history, and was equally concerned about what the future holds. When the Facts Change is a collection of essays looking at the past and future of Europe, the UN, Israel, the United States, and what’s come to be known as the New World Order.

He is no more optimistic than Friedman. Already in 1996, referring to the “grand illusion” of European unity, Judt remarks that “the European Union cannot realistically promise even its existing members a future as secure and as prosperous as its past.” The light has failed. “The cold war is indeed behind us, but so too is the post-cold war moment of hope.” Nor is there anywhere else to turn for help. America’s leadership is compromised. The UN can only do so much, and that not enough.

What led us to this pass? Judt sees a lot of blame to pass around, but much of it boils down to a failure of historical memory. Europe may have long memories, but they aren’t always true ones. America, meanwhile, with far less history to draw on, has still managed to forget most of that.

“What is significant about the present age of transformations is the unique insouciance with which we have abandoned not merely the practices of the past but their very memory.” Without such a grounding in a common culture and experience, what, Judt asks, will hold us together? Market forces? A global economy? But there again the memory of earlier failures should put us on our guards.

This is why history matters, providing both a warning and a guide that will be of use in dealing with tough times ahead, in Europe and around the world.

Review first published March 28, 2014.

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