Chances are you went to sleep yesterday without having celebrated Bastille Day. Even more probably, you did not expect to read today that the most important country on the planet is France. For most Americans, Europe is passé and the French are cliché — the epitome of all the old-world weakness, self-indulgence and irrelevance that the U.S. compares itself so favorably against.
But the U.S. is not in an existential crisis. Europe is. This is the second-most important feature of the contemporary world. The most important is that France will determine Europe’s fate. In fact, only France can do so. Sweeping worldwide consequences — which America cannot sidestep — are hinging upon what the French will and will not do over the next ten years.
This stark situation is the product of many colliding factors — some power-political, others historic and cultural. But it is only a surprise because almost all Westerners have fallen prey to one or another deterministic view of Europe. Pessimists and optimists argue interminably over whether the dominance of Islam or the transcendence of the nation-state is the real historical inevitability. Their chatter hides a quiet fear: that an open European future means we cannot rule out the possibility of another war of Continental conquest.
A new war within Europe would mean the West is cursed — that post-industrial economics is unable to break us free from the “tribal” identities that seemed to ensure us such violence in the past.
Conrad Black took to The Financial Times on Wednesday to observe that Rupert Murdoch, “like Napoleon, is a great bad man.” But Murdoch’s type of mastery is utterly unlike Bonaparte’s. Rupert Murdoch is the kind of great man that a culture produces when money is the measure of all things. In such a culture, Napoleons are as irrelevant as they are impossible. With Europe, we fear that current demographic and economic trends could cause the atavistic environment that produced Napoleon to burst uncontrollably back into our world.
But France does not hold our future in the balance because Corsica has another conqueror up its sleeve. Europe, simply put, wants unity, as it has since the Roman emperors or Charlemagne. And only France can supply it.
Europeans’ enduring longing for unity cannot be satisfied by the economic and legal integration fostered by the Euro and the EU. Yet integration by force of arms has always failed. Napoleon came closest to succeeding where Hitler did not — but why? Because, then as now, only France offers Europe a philosophy universal enough and an identity particular enough to support the new political founding of a single European nation-state.
Not coincidentally, these two elements — the universal philosophy and the particular identity — are what came together so powerfully to ground and orient the United States of America. In a democratic age, no political founding can succeed without them. Democratic citizens must be able to use their country to connect their traditions, habits, customs and history with their abstract or general ideas about the nature and purpose of humanity.
Despite the Terror, despite Napoleon, despite the rise and fall of republics and empires, Liberté — égalité — fraternité remains a phrase with nearly as powerful a resonance in Europe as We the people enjoys in the U.S. For Europe, liberty, equality and fraternity are quintessentially French — but simultaneously, of course, they are far more. They can orient the soul and define a regime. Where else on the Continent, past or present, are Europeans to find a comparable resource? The antique patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Not in contemporary Brussels, to be sure.
It’s no surprise that France is now alone on the Continent in its combined will and ability to function as a significant power. Consider the remarkable landscape. The Mediterranean nations cannot govern themselves. Scandinavia and “New Europe” are nearly defenseless. Germany fends for itself, but will never lead Europe again. And Britain’s foreign policy is now most notable for its growing reliance on defense-sharing arrangements with — France.
Meanwhile, it is the French embassy in Syria that is assaulted along with America’s. It is the French government that now fights the war in Libya and negotiates its end. These and related developments prove the French to be in a class of their own in power as well as authority.
Yet it would be a calamity if France poured its vigor and influence into the chaotic and crumbling Arab world just at the moment that Europe is becoming capable of realizing the political unity it has pursued so failingly for so long. A French turn inward, whether for socialist or chauvinist reasons, would be equally ruinous. Now is the time to begin the task of uniting the Europeans — not when Spain is in anarchy, Greece is under occupation by peacekeepers and paramilitary gangs clash with Islamic militias from the Rhine to the Danube.
If France is unwilling to lead Europe into a coherent, confident and secure future, the task will fall, as you’ve guessed, to the United States. This time, however, an America chastened and drained by Iraq, Afghanistan and its own challenges may well hesitate, or do what it can only at arm’s length. But even an impressive show of resolve and commitment by the U.S. cannot cure what ails Europe.
Without a visionary new French policy aimed at leading the Continent to a new political founding, Europe faces the most uncertain of futures — decades in a dangerous wilderness of conflict and division. No degree of dynamism in China or India will upstage that eventuality. A power vacuum in Europe that no single nation can fill would be an event unprecedented in modern times.
So, of course, would be the replacement of Bastille Day with Europe Day.
Your move, mes amis.
James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.