In the post-World War world, the American and European outlooks on foreign policy have increasingly diverged. In particular, the dispute over Iraq and the difference in proposed strategy over the United States’ aggressive “War on Terror” have highlighted Europe’s more pacifist outlook. Stanford Professor James Sheehan, in Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe, digs into the root of these differences, examining the origin of the European “civilian state,” one which emphasizes domestic and economic affairs over militarism. He analyzes European history from the age of the violent preservation of national power to the peaceful creation of the European Union (i.e, from the end of the nineteenth century to the present).
Sheehan emphasizes that European states “were made by and for war,” and that throughout history, “war was as much a part of life as suffering and death.” In fact, the peace that came to the European mainland at the end of the nineteenth century was often seen as a cause for complacency and cultural decline, symbolic of the end of heroism. The vicious colonial wars seemed far removed from every day European life. At the same time, pacifist movements emphasized the destructive power of new weapons and mass armies, and states recognized that war would harm both the victors and the vanquished by destroying the global economy. Sheehan summarizes that while “all denounced wars of aggression” at the outset of World War I, “all were convinced that not going to war would risk their great-power status.” European states saw violence as an essential component of maintaining statehood.
Even after World War I, violence continued as an instrument of change and as a method to preserve colonial power. As communism and fascism attempted to provide stability in the post-war world, violence continued to remain important as a “transformative instrument,” essential to establishing a new order. The smothering of colonial rebellions suggested European desires to reassert their dominance. Disbelief that another war could arise after the horror of World War I could not mask the fact that “as long as one state stood ready and willing to fight,” war remained a danger. Fifty million dead in World War II and the devastation to the European population represented the final explosion within a violent Europe.
It was only in the stability paradoxically offered by the Cold War that European states could live in peace with one another; the “bipolar order imposed by the superpowers… eliminated the possibility of war among the European states.” World War II removed both the ability and the will to fight and the European empires shriveled; “by the 1960s, grandeur was no longer an important goal for European states.” Instead, Europeans turned to “material well-being, social stability, economic growth” as well as political and economic cooperation. Sheehan suggests that it was this decline of a culture of violence in Europe which helped result in the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union; “Gorbachev could afford to back down because he was confident that neither his foreign enemies nor his domestic opponents would kill him.”
Sheehan argues that the values of post-war European states, “made by and for peace,” prevent Europe from ever becoming a superpower. While in theory European countries could combine their military resources and become a form of federated political union, the priority of Europeans is not to forge a new European identity. The EU “does not need citizens who are prepared to kill and die” but rather “consumers and producers.” As a “super civilian state,” the European Union helps resolve the issues in which Europeans are most engaged—including economic well-being.
While Sheehan generalizes for all of Europe, his trends hold better for some countries than others. In Western Europe, popular opinion seems more often to oppose the United States and its perceived “imperialist” foreign policy, while Eastern Europe, until relatively recently subjugated by the Soviet Union, is more likely to advocate more aggressive policies. Certainly the reemergence of Russian expansionism, witnessed recently in Georgia, represents remnants of an imperialist mindset. In addition, while the “civilian state” is most pronounced in Europe, the United States has also emphasized domestic affairs, even if its foreign policy seems in general more aggressive than that of Europe.
Sheehan suggests that Europe will always be dependent on a superpower, since it will not become one itself. While Europe’s predominantly civilian focus represents a more “enlightened” view of the world, one in which violence has been overcome, such a focus is not necessarily a realistic outlook for countries that have not felt the devastation of two world wars. Not until all countries commit to rejecting the use of violence against each other can a foreign policy dominated by pacifism be justified; until then, diplomacy must be backed by the threat of force. While Europe can engage in international diplomacy, ultimately it relies on a larger power—usually the United States—to provide the forceful backing.