Europe’s post–World War II settlement, an arrangement that has sustained peace and prosperity for more than seventy years, is falling apart. Donald Trump’s forays against NATO and European trade, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, turmoil in German politics, the rise of would-be autocrats in Eastern Europe, and much, much more call into question the future of Europe’s postwar equilibrium.
First, a little history: “The desire to avoid a Second World War was perhaps the most understandable and universal wish in history.” That is the opening sentence of Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement, a brilliant new history of British diplomacy toward Germany in the lead-up to World War II. Ardent wishes notwithstanding, war came. It came because a fatuous British political class was willfully blind in its desperation to avoid conflict with Hitler.
By the end of that war, in 1945, the Allies were determined not to repeat the errors that followed World War I. This time Germany would be bombed, invaded, defeated, and on May 7, 1945, seventy-five years ago, forced to surrender unconditionally. Allied armies, including the USSR’s, took control of Germany’s government, economy, and population. Europe was a shattered continent.
Fortunately, there was a second chapter: Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, together with General George Marshall, understood that the United States could not revert to its isolationist policies. The harsh measures imposed in 1945 were ultimately mitigated by the Marshall Plan. U.S. economic assistance, plus French-German economic cooperation, the founding of NATO in 1949, and the founding of the European Union in 1957, set the continent on a new trajectory. Of course, the Cold War was a powerful impetus in furthering these developments, and when it ended in 1989, Eastern European countries were invited to share in the bounty. The United States had a critical role in this achievement.
In the year 2020, one must stress the word “had”—past tense. The Trump administration is recklessly undermining promises of economic prosperity and guarantees of mutual security that have joined the EU’s twenty-seven members for decades. But there are also new tensions and quarrels among the Europeans themselves. And rather than tackling needed economic reforms, a growing number of nations are succumbing to the lure of populism and nationalism.