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Culture Q&A

George Friedman

George Friedman: Continent in the balance

Europe may appear peaceful now, but the future there is precarious

George Friedman: Continent in the balance

George Friedman (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

George Friedman is the founder and head of Stratfor, often called “the private CIA.” His just-published book Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe (Doubleday) offers the surprising conclusion that the continent pundits view as the least likely venue for new warfare is the most vulnerable.

Why did the Europeans turn on themselves from 1914 to 1945? They were surprised they did—but while Europe conquered the world, it never conquered itself. It remained divided throughout the time it dominated the world. Nationalism became a moral principle, and this romantic notion of the human being’s relationship to his state overwhelmed all other considerations over time. That was the moral dimension: Anything you did for the state, whether you were English or German or French, is justified. There’s also a technical dimension. This slaughter happened because it was technically possible. It was not possible to kill that many people so quickly several hundred years before.

Conventional British wisdom was that war was impossible. In 1912 Europe was extraordinarily prosperous and had been at peace for a long time. Norman Angell said the heavy interdependence of finances and trade made war economically unthinkable. But Angell didn’t see the fear that lurked beneath the money, beneath the prosperity. Brazil and Madagascar are unlikely to go war: There is nothing to fight over. But if you are as interdependent as France and Germany are, then the Germans are afraid the French will do something that’s to the disadvantage of the Germans, and the French are afraid of the Germans.

Interdependence creates vulnerability? European countries didn’t go to war in spite of the interdependence but because of it. They relied on each other so much that each wanted to secure the relationship, and in trying to secure the relationship frightened the other. Angell didn’t see that the very thing he thought prevented a war provoked it.

And today? You have a tremendous interdependence in Europe. Germany exports 50 percent of its products, about half of that to the free trade zone of the European Union. Germany is vulnerable because if it loses those markets it will spiral downward. Countries that are deeply interdependent are terribly afraid of each other. After 1992, the real beginning of modern European history, came one of the most prosperous periods in history, but in 2008 the underlying fears revealed themselves. That led to the crisis we’re in now that is slowly morphing from an economic crisis to a political crisis: from a European Union to an increasingly fragmented Europe. 

‘Europe was very civilized in 1913, yet the following year began a period of savagery never seen anywhere.’

In recent years we’ve seen Germany dominating Europe without resorting to war. Germany has always been, when united, an extraordinarily dynamic nation. It’s also been a country surrounded by enemies frightened by it. France and Russia were frightened by this giant emerging. Germany was frightened about France and Russia because if they attacked Germany together, Germany would get defeated. So the Germans felt they couldn’t wait for this attack: They had to start it. With wealth came fear, and that same sort of fear is emerging again.

A decade from now, will war be lurking? Even in the most peaceful times in Europe over 100,000 people died in Balkan wars and 40,000 people died in wars in the Caucasus. Europe acted as if the Balkans weren’t in Europe. Europe has never been as peaceful as it pretends. Now, with the fragmentation of Europe and the weakness of Europe militarily, Russia is relatively stronger, and a small war is going on in the Eastern Ukraine. We are beginning to see fragmentation turn violent: The fragmentation of the European Union is far from complete, and the tensions are far from mature.

If one country starts to build up its military, will other countries respond? The United States has made it clear that it’s not prepared to guarantee European interests, but it is working with Poland and Armenia to build up their militaries. Germany doesn’t want to get involved with this and does not want to have a crisis with the Russians, but in the end the differences that exist among the European nations and between the European peninsula and the European mainland—Russia—are profound and can’t simply be abolished. They can manage it so we don’t have a re-creation of World War I and World War II or even the Cold War, but the pretense that we have solved the problems of history, learned our lesson, and are wiser than everyone else, is beginning to break down.

Seven decades have gone by since the last one. The area where a really dangerous war could be fought is in Europe. The Europeans are very proud of the idea that they transcended this, but for most of those decades decisions of war and peace were made in Washington and Moscow. Compared to the European diplomats of 1914 and 1939 the Americans and the Russians behaved with utter care and caution not to allow war to happen. Was it because they have nuclear weapons or because the Russians really didn’t know what to do if they invaded Western Europe? The Americans didn’t know what to do there either. Neither country was a risk taker.

Yet Europeans think of Americans as cowboys? In fact the refined diplomats of 1914 and 1939 were the cowboys. Can you imagine if they had nuclear weapons at their disposal they would have acted as prudently as the United States and even the Soviet Union did? The Europeans are utterly confident they’ve put all of this behind them, but since 2008 the unity has been collapsing. European self-confidence is misplaced, given the time frame. We see the old passions rising slowly in an area with a gross domestic product greater than that of the United States, an area that has 50 sovereign nations (not states) crowded together in a tiny space. That’s an explosive mixture. You now see right-wing movements arising, left-wing movements, all the old Europe re-emerging.

Civilization doesn’t stop savagery? Europe was very civilized in 1913, yet the following year began a period of savagery never seen anywhere. Europe has the appearance of magnificent civilization and the reality of barbarism.

What’s the probability of the Russians moving against the Baltic countries? In 1989 the distance from NATO to St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, was almost 1,000 miles. Today it’s about 90 miles. NATO has moved so far, so deep into the Russian borderland, the buffer zone that protected them from Napoleon and Hitler, that the Russians feel extraordinarily exposed. They read the inclusion of the Baltic countries into NATO as not having a possible motive except to make war on the Russians. The Russians are afraid that without space there will be a war.

What’s the basic need for the United States? The United States for the past century has wanted to make certain that no European power dominates all of Europe, because Europe united under one power is the only thing that can challenge the United States. The United States has a fundamental fear of anything that particularly brings Russia and Germany together because those two countries together—Germany’s technical and capital capabilities, Russian resources and manpower—represent a serious challenge.

For additional excerpts from this interview, please see “On the U.S.-Iran alliance: Is the Iranian nuclear threat overblown?,” “George Friedman on a China under stress,” and “The Russian bear’s grumbling.”