Europe’s Union of Mediocrity: A Perfect Match for the State Department, Missing the Boat on Ukraine and Poland

The Western political classes of the last fifty years have been, with a few notable exceptions, abject failures. Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl — these are the exception to the rule. Nowhere has this been more on display than in Europe for the last twelve months, as a series of internal and external crises have demonstrated again and again that most of Europe’s leaders are not capable of grasping those critical, even fleeting opportunities that come along once in a generation.

The foremost example of this is the eurozone crisis, which has been on everyone’s radar screen for some time, and which has accelerated into a full-blown cataclysm-in-waiting these last six months. Every “solution” that Europe’s political class cobbles together (usually after long and late-night meetings, with lots of stiff coffee) never solves the underlying problems, it simply puts a band-aid on the slow-rolling catastrophe; the band-aid flies off, and then every last European leader is shocked to discover that the crisis has come back yet again.

Realpolitik (obviously a German concept, and not just because of the horrible traffic-accident quality of its consonant combination) holds that states must be pragmatic and act within the incredibly tight barriers of the real world. Great leaders seize these moments, and even work to bring them about.

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and most of the European politicians of their generation imagine that they are masters of Realpolitik, unlike those terrible Bushies and the neocons who sought to change the world. Because they do not have a fine and detailed understanding of their own policy problems and goals, they cannot deal with the world as it really is, and so they charge dutifully on, surprised when problems blow up and opportunities are lost.

Though stunted by his recent electoral losses, Vladimir Putin is driving hard to reconstruct Russia’s Lost Empire, knowing that beyond its creaky military, it still has two great natural resources — population size and fossil fuel — and both limits and possibilities to its foreign policy because of its rapidly shrinking demographics and Europe’s profound inability to control its own destiny. European foreign policy has become a de facto struggle between Europe’s voluntary European Union and Russia’s attempt to recreate an involuntary one: the pre-election Putin idea of a “Eurasian Union” which is essentially the USSR-redux.  This is the real world, and busy with their own eurozone problems, and absent the American leadership that brought so many former Soviet slave states into Europe’s orbit — leadership now lacking — Europe is unable to deal with it.

Two examples will suffice: Poland and Ukraine.

Poland has been an eager participant in the European project, having learned how friendly the Russians can be from the Katyn Massacre through the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s response has been to bungle Poland’s entry into the eurozone (and indeed, almost everything about the euro) so badly that Poland’s population is now in revolt against becoming part of this essential element of European identity. Far worse, when the Obama Administration sacrificed Polish and Czech security concerns to advance its foreign policy — long a tradition of the West’s greatest statesmen — by withdrawing the proposed missile defense shield from those countries, the European response was not to rise up in anger and demand that America remember why NATO was created in the first place. It was to breathe an extremely loud of sigh of relief. A critical opportunity to remind Poland that it was part of Europe, and not a re-emerging element of the Russian empire, was lost.

Bungling Poland, and indeed, leaving the Poles to die, is sadly nothing new for the West. It has all too many roots back in the 1940s.

Unhappy with missing old opportunities, Europe has now turned to new: Missing opportunities with Ukraine.

Ukraine is desperate to express its “European identity” (they, too, have some experience with Russian friendliness and warmth).  They have modeled their significant and recently-enacted electoral reform law on Council of Europe norms; they have undertaken economic reforms — unpopular economic reforms — at IMF direction. Ukraine’s leadership has, time and again, made clear that it views its identity as European more than proto-Russian, and has made clear its desire to be part of Europe’s future, time and again.

Ukraine offers a new (and established) market for the European Union with $40 billion of annual trade, an educated populace, a pipeline for natural gas, a valuable agricultural heartland, and the chance to further staunch Putin’s attempt to reconstitute a Russian empire — new and old foreign policy goals for Europe’s constituent states. It is also poised at a unique moment, in which its desire to escape Russia’s orbit and its opportunity to do so is at a high-water mark. Great statesmen would see the opportunity to accomplish a raft of policy goals and leap at it.

Europe’s response has been to tease and then rebuff it.  To criticize it for reforms, real reforms that aren’t quite good enough.  To attack the President of Ukraine for standing back and allowing the judiciary to convict its former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko of violating a law that predates her prosecution by years.

Europe’s response has been to almost waste an historic opportunity. (The American response is to look puzzled and uncertain about what to say.  This is at least a consistent pose by the State Department.) Instead of acting on a chance to show Europe’s ability to aid and integrate former Soviet states — a project with implications along the entire former Eastern Bloc, in the European Union and out — Europe insists on seeing the glass as half-empty, and demanding a full glass.

Instead of seeing the President of Ukraine state that he would not oppose Tymoshenko’s release if the law under which she was convicted is repealed — as it appears it may be — Europe decries a breakdown in the rule of law. Instead of seeing a series of electoral reforms moving in the right direction, Europe sees only those places in which Ukraine has not made all of the reforms demanded.

But this mistakes an imaginary world for the real one. In the real world, Ukraine has approved an electoral reform law worthy of any European Union nation — both the Government and Tymoshenko’s Opposition voted for the law. Ukraine and the European Union have actually completed their negotiations for an historic Association Agreement, and it is ready to be signed.

Billions of euros are at stake in trade terms for the Europeans. Strategic energy partnerships are at stake for the Europeans. Geo-politics are at stake.  But the Germans, those authors of the word Realpolitik, are wishy-washy about the opportunity because Madame Merkel is worried about left-wing critics in her Bundestag.  So we will wait and see when the Ukraine-EU agreement is finally signed, in a month, two months, or a year?

Poland and Ukraine are of a piece inside the wooly world of Eurocrat-driven diplomacy: Subsidized by decades of American military protection, cut off from understanding the harsh realities of a world of powers not looking for just economic but military advantage, mistrustful of popular sovereignty, and caught in a world without economic or political dynamism, Europe’s constituent states have chosen mediocrities for leadership. Those mediocrities have the luxury of demanding the perfect and eschewing the good. They have the luxury of failing and not even knowing they have.

It is a sad day when even China’s in-house propaganda organ Xinhua understands the stakes and Europe’s leaders do not.

The Obama Administration is not without blame here. We have vital interests in the former states of the old Soviet Union, and in a peaceful Europe that trades and pointlessly debates itself into quiescence while it collapses demographically. We should rightly fear a revanchist Russia — an off-and-on enemy long before the Cold War — and we should encourage every former Soviet state state possible to look to Europe over Russia. We should be pounding on that door for all that we are worth.

Instead, we get indecision and drift from the European Union and the State Department.

A rare moment is making the real world, with its real limitations, open to incredible change. Great leaders and great states would leap at this chance to achieve great things. Ukraine’s and Poland’s partnerships with the European Union represent these rare opportunities.

The West is without great leaders today.