ONCE, in less enlightened times, Americans interested in international affairs devoted the bulk of their energies to Europe. To study the continent was to enjoy a level of prestige and relevance unavailable to those concerned professionally with the Third World, or even the Communist bloc. But in the wake of the Cold War, established opinion agreed that America should de-emphasize Europe for a diversified interest in the non-Western world. China, the Pacific Rim, and the Middle East came into vogue. Understanding Europe largely meant tracking the mechanics of its economic, and then political, integration.
Setting Europe securely on the path of predictability seemed to validate the hopes of a class of scholars for whom embedded liberal institutions held the promise of shifting competing states away from worrying about relative gains and toward appreciating their absolute ones. Repeat the right kinds of exchanges, and relationships of trust would form around self-interested commitments to peace and prosperity. Postwar, postindustrial, postmodern Europe would be postproblematic, too.
Today, that dream looks more dubious than it has in a generation. Europe is a problem again. Unless American scholars and policy thinkers begin to rethink and relearn the history of that problem - and train the next generation of foreign policy leaders accordingly - we may find ourselves standing idly by as Europe changes in ways we are unprepared to handle or comprehend.
The European problem is one with a long pedigree. Americans typically see it as an old-world longing for divisiveness, but, in reality, Europe's problem is its longing for unity. The great hope of the European Union, unwieldy bureaucracy and all, is that all Europeans could share confidence in the path to unity - and the kind of unity that it would provide. Realizing this "European project" meant less achieving a superstate than a state of mind. As that psychology grew more important than the policy details that bolstered it, the fate of Europe became increasingly dependent on confidence itself.
Thus the crisis in confidence that now threatens to undo the idea of Project Europe is more than the sum of its parts. When Ambrose Evans-Pritchard warns in the Telegraph, for instance, that neither Western European banks nor the IMF may be able to salvage Eastern Europe's calamitous balance sheet, more than euros are on the line. The salutary limbo within which EU members once reaped the psychic benefits of retaining some kinds of sovereignty while surrendering others now raises the specter of an everyone-for-himself attitude in a three-legged race. Europe's big challenges - including immigration, unemployment, and resource dependency - contribute to the rising fear that even a patchwork or spiritual unity is a hopeless dream.
Restoring the European problem to prominence in American thinking about foreign affairs allows us to confront urgent questions about the future of liberal democracy that were swept aside in the optimism of the post-Cold War world. Is Europe's longing for unity greater than its appreciation for political liberty? How different are the ends Europeans and Americans pursue through democratic liberalism? How much, if at all, can America help Europe restore - and ground - its self-confidence?
Though the ordeals of Iraq and Afghanistan have contributed to pessimism about the ease of spreading democracy, a new and deeper awareness of the divergence among existing kinds of liberal regimes is needed. If Europe falters and fractures under the stress of economic disintegration and a psychology of doubt, America must expect the longing for unity to clash violently with the heightening of ethnic, class, and religious identities that will result.
Even if Europe recovers its ability to pursue unity confidently, European political regimes are likely to depart further and further from liberal democracy American-style - especially if European confidence is restored by the victor in a struggle for order after the failure of foundational European institutions. Though some in the United States fear the adoption of "European-style socialism," Americans who think seriously about the future of our foreign policy should understand how the two halves of the West are in fact most likely to grow less similar.
At a time when US alliances outside of Europe remain embryonic, fragile, or lopsided, rethinking the Europe we know and the Europe it may become is paramount to rebuilding a successful grand strategy in the wake of the Bush years. Treating the future of Europe as a safely settled question will guarantee bad surprises and worse misfortune for global American leadership.
James Poulos is the former political editor of Culture11.