Decisions and Consequences

112

An Impossibly Beautiful Dream

I.

Essentially, there is a poor world, a rich world and one world between the two. In the really poor world you do not see stray dogs running around the cities: even people there go hungry. In the rich world, there are no running dogs either: citizens tend to care about animals one way or another. It is in the zone between rich and poor where there are starving, exhausted dogs with dangerous eyes roaming the metropolis.

It is not pleasant, living in the zone between, yet much depends on the dynamics. You may be on the way up. You may be on your way down. You may be stuck, with no dynamics at all. The postcommunist world abounds with the inbetweens. The visuals of such places are unmistakable; the decay of concrete structures covered in primitive graffiti, the omnipresent kiosks and stalls on the broken pavement of sidewalks, the stink of urine in underpasses, the pawn shops and gambling dens, the dilapidated buildings, the police occupied with crime in the wrong way, the dour faces on buses and trams. On a bus, people dream of utopia beyond their frontiers.

Utopia? Here is how I recently pictured a utopia, going for a jog in one of those inbetween loci, Belgrade. It occurred to me on a bridge over the Sava, a mighty—but, curiously, not the largest—river in the city known for the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. My utopia goes like this:

In the distant future (because when else than in the future do utopias happen?) there is a lottery. To save precious resources, it is organized as a mind game. The lottery manager invites online participants to guess which number (from one to one thousand) is on his mind. Everyone has a minute to think about that number. The manager then reveals his choice— 534. All of those who guessed the number will claim the prize online. The manager will immediately transfer the amount in bitcoin to their bank accounts. Yes, in the distant future we shall be perfect. And we shall use bitcoin, the landless, governmentless currency without a central bank. How else can you describe perfection than as a complete honesty and truthfulness?

Some people have no use for utopias. They point to communism, a utopia of a kind, as a source of immense suffering. Others sneer at the idea of unified Europe and see in it a dangerous, counterproductive way of provoking dormant furies of Europe’s wars. That is unfair to utopias because they have no say in how we use them. They are best understood as impossibly beautiful dreams against which we measure our aspirations. Just because we are incapable of telling the truth does not mean that honesty should not be taught to children.

II.

We need the unified Europe, the superstate, the one Kissingerian telephone number to be one such impossibly beautiful dream. In the inbetween places of Europe amidst urban decay, surrounded by gloom and stray dogs, we grasp more thoroughly the importance of this dream. Political dreams, however, require institutions and it is important to keep the two concepts separated and approached differently. This is a mistake we make here in Europe: while in our eurodiscourse we lack true vision, we approach the EU institutions in an imprecise and dreamy—rather than pragmatic and realistic— manner.

There is no unified goal to European politics. More accurately, the only vision to be found there is among those who wish to destroy the dream. They have advanced in the recent European elections, albeit less than was expected and feared. Still, subsidiarity does not count as a vision and a tobacco directive is no calling. Single-issue activists who wish to throw regulation at everything they perceive as problem have captured many bureaucratic bastions in Brussels and we, the Europeans, allow them to do so, because we just do not care enough. On the other hand, the European energy policy, which would be a useful step towards the dream, is nowhere in sight, not even in the face of the greatest energy crisis ever.

We have it exactly backwards. We treat our current European institutions in a softhue manner whilst the dream is substituted by tangential technicalities. Take the Ukrainian crisis. The reigning view holds that Europe has failed to deal with it properly and Vladimir Putin is laughing at us. Such criticism originates in exaggerated expectations and unrealistic demands put on our current institutions. One swift, clear, smart and unified European foreign policy towards Russia is simply not yet feasible. The French, Italians, Poles and Fins just cannot see eye to eye on all required variables. Seen in that light the European—and American—game in Ukraine is successful so far. Moscow is intimidated by the impact of the crisis on its economy and by the prospect of an even bigger hole into which it might be slumping. Putin was taken aback by the strength of revulsion towards him that he incited among politicians and citizens in Europe, and despite the knowledge that the West will not go into war over Ukraine, he seemed to be backpedalling. Meanwhile Ukraine has a legitimate president determined to rid the country of the armed subterfuge in the east and lead his people on their (admittedly long) way to the EU.

III.

With the advent of a strong adversary: Putin’s Russia, Europe has reluctantly reentered history from which it took a leave in the magical year of 1989. People are often forced to make uneasy geopolitical decisions in the course of history. One cannot simply continue with the flow. Europe and—to some extent—also Obama’s America still refuses to acknowledge the depth of the problem. There is no decisive agreement regarding the obvious: for the first time since the end of the Cold War we have a regime in Russia that directly challenges core values of the Western liberal democracy. Europe also houses a vocal political constituency looking sympathetically at Russian mix of nationalism and cultural bigotry. The challenge facing us is extraordinary.

Let us recall the Cold War years. The West knew its vision by heart and has rolled out policies adequate to the task, from strong military forces to international financial bodies and investing in research and development. Neither the United States nor Europe is eager now to be as strong as they were then, to revisit the ethos of those years, but nothing less would do. I am not calling for another Iron Curtain and containment of Moscow, but hoping for the best is no policy.

The lesson is clear: Let us dream big and loud in Europe but approach our institutions realistically. Let’s build them one careful step after another. Let us pause in the federalist drive lest we counterproductively strengthen the demolition brigade. And let us instead focus on the basics:

  • Let’s finish the integration of the markets
  • Let’s advance and implement the free trade zone with America
  • Let’s make NATO the zone’s stability guarantor. It will emphasize defense as a cornerstone in the current crisis and reinvigorate the Atlantic military alliance’s mission. It may force the Europeans to take defense seriously at last.

All political dreams require right political decisions to be useful. In Belgrade, Chisinau, Kiev and other postcommunist capitals of the past 25 years people made different choices than in Prague, Warsaw and Tallinn. It cost them dearly. Once a bridge over the Sava River became the casualty of a poor choice, next time it might be worse. The decisions Europe needs to make are largescale, geopolitical, and they will have momentous consequences.

Decisions and Consequences

I.

Essentially, there is a poor world, a rich world and one world between the two. In the really poor world you do not see stray dogs running around the cities: even people there go hungry. In the rich world, there are no running dogs either: citizens tend to care about animals one way or another. It is in the zone between rich and poor where there are starving, exhausted dogs with dangerous eyes roaming the metropolis.

It is not pleasant, living in the zone between, yet much depends on the dynamics. You may be on the way up. You may be on your way down. You may be stuck, with no dynamics at all. The postcommunist world abounds with the inbetweens. The visuals of such places are unmistakable; the decay of concrete structures covered in primitive graffiti, the omnipresent kiosks and stalls on the broken pavement of sidewalks, the stink of urine in underpasses, the pawn shops and gambling dens, the dilapidated buildings, the police occupied with crime in the wrong way, the dour faces on buses and trams. On a bus, people dream of utopia beyond their frontiers.

Utopia? Here is how I recently pictured a utopia, going for a jog in one of those inbetween loci, Belgrade. It occurred to me on a bridge over the Sava, a mighty—but, curiously, not the largest—river in the city known for the confluence of the Sava and the Danube. My utopia goes like this:

In the distant future (because when else than in the future do utopias happen?) there is a lottery. To save precious resources, it is organized as a mind game. The lottery manager invites online participants to guess which number (from one to one thousand) is on his mind. Everyone has a minute to think about that number. The manager then reveals his choice— 534. All of those who guessed the number will claim the prize online. The manager will immediately transfer the amount in bitcoin to their bank accounts. Yes, in the distant future we shall be perfect. And we shall use bitcoin, the landless, governmentless currency without a central bank. How else can you describe perfection than as a complete honesty and truthfulness?

Some people have no use for utopias. They point to communism, a utopia of a kind, as a source of immense suffering. Others sneer at the idea of unified Europe and see in it a dangerous, counterproductive way of provoking dormant furies of Europe’s wars. That is unfair to utopias because they have no say in how we use them. They are best understood as impossibly beautiful dreams against which we measure our aspirations. Just because we are incapable of telling the truth does not mean that honesty should not be taught to children.

II.

We need the unified Europe, the superstate, the one Kissingerian telephone number to be one such impossibly beautiful dream. In the inbetween places of Europe amidst urban decay, surrounded by gloom and stray dogs, we grasp more thoroughly the importance of this dream. Political dreams, however, require institutions and it is important to keep the two concepts separated and approached differently. This is a mistake we make here in Europe: while in our eurodiscourse we lack true vision, we approach the EU institutions in an imprecise and dreamy—rather than pragmatic and realistic— manner.

There is no unified goal to European politics. More accurately, the only vision to be found there is among those who wish to destroy the dream. They have advanced in the recent European elections, albeit less than was expected and feared. Still, subsidiarity does not count as a vision and a tobacco directive is no calling. Single-issue activists who wish to throw regulation at everything they perceive as problem have captured many bureaucratic bastions in Brussels and we, the Europeans, allow them to do so, because we just do not care enough. On the other hand, the European energy policy, which would be a useful step towards the dream, is nowhere in sight, not even in the face of the greatest energy crisis ever.

We have it exactly backwards. We treat our current European institutions in a softhue manner whilst the dream is substituted by tangential technicalities. Take the Ukrainian crisis. The reigning view holds that Europe has failed to deal with it properly and Vladimir Putin is laughing at us. Such criticism originates in exaggerated expectations and unrealistic demands put on our current institutions. One swift, clear, smart and unified European foreign policy towards Russia is simply not yet feasible. The French, Italians, Poles and Fins just cannot see eye to eye on all required variables. Seen in that light the European—and American—game in Ukraine is successful so far. Moscow is intimidated by the impact of the crisis on its economy and by the prospect of an even bigger hole into which it might be slumping. Putin was taken aback by the strength of revulsion towards him that he incited among politicians and citizens in Europe, and despite the knowledge that the West will not go into war over Ukraine, he seemed to be backpedalling. Meanwhile Ukraine has a legitimate president determined to rid the country of the armed subterfuge in the east and lead his people on their (admittedly long) way to the EU.

III.

With the advent of a strong adversary: Putin’s Russia, Europe has reluctantly reentered history from which it took a leave in the magical year of 1989. People are often forced to make uneasy geopolitical decisions in the course of history. One cannot simply continue with the flow. Europe and—to some extent—also Obama’s America still refuses to acknowledge the depth of the problem. There is no decisive agreement regarding the obvious: for the first time since the end of the Cold War we have a regime in Russia that directly challenges core values of the Western liberal democracy. Europe also houses a vocal political constituency looking sympathetically at Russian mix of nationalism and cultural bigotry. The challenge facing us is extraordinary.

Let us recall the Cold War years. The West knew its vision by heart and has rolled out policies adequate to the task, from strong military forces to international financial bodies and investing in research and development. Neither the United States nor Europe is eager now to be as strong as they were then, to revisit the ethos of those years, but nothing less would do. I am not calling for another Iron Curtain and containment of Moscow, but hoping for the best is no policy.

The lesson is clear: Let us dream big and loud in Europe but approach our institutions realistically. Let’s build them one careful step after another. Let us pause in the federalist drive lest we counterproductively strengthen the demolition brigade. And let us instead focus on the basics:

  • Let’s finish the integration of the markets
  • Let’s advance and implement the free trade zone with America
  • Let’s make NATO the zone’s stability guarantor. It will emphasize defense as a cornerstone in the current crisis and reinvigorate the Atlantic military alliance’s mission. It may force the Europeans to take defense seriously at last.

All political dreams require right political decisions to be useful. In Belgrade, Chisinau, Kiev and other postcommunist capitals of the past 25 years people made different choices than in Prague, Warsaw and Tallinn. It cost them dearly. Once a bridge over the Sava River became the casualty of a poor choice, next time it might be worse. The decisions Europe needs to make are largescale, geopolitical, and they will have momentous consequences.

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