The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

What the hell is going on in Europe?

April 7, 2011

So I spend a few years writing a book on American foreign policy and stop paying attention to European politics, only to return and find the whole thing in chaos. I am finding three developments going on in Europe fascinating (if despicable and disgusting).

First, the Financial Times recently ran a story on Sarokozy’s plan to launch a debate in France on the importance of secularism, which is really just a way to pick on Muslims and draw votes from the National Front, who have been doing very well lately under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter. (As an aside, how much of a right-wing badass can you be with the first name Jean-Marie?). OK, this is cynical but it is also really interesting for anyone who knows anything about French history. Secularism was one of the, if not the, central political and social cleavage in France for a long, long time, tied up in divide between revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. And of course there was the Dreyfus affair. But this time it is right that is pushing for more secularism, an issue which has historically belonged to the left. Of course this is not really genuine. It is a way of picking on Muslims and trying to force them to assimilate. It is the intolerance of tolerance. But it shows you how in France, secularism is so firmly established that PTJ might call it a “rhetorical commonplace,” and it can be picked up and twisted in new ways.

In other countries the question of how forgiving we are of other cultures that do not necessarily embrace Western values, the tolerance of intolerance, seems to be a real one. And it makes for curious alignments of left and right, like happened in the Netherlands with the Pim Fortuyn movement. I can imagine being on the left and taking a strident line against forcing women to wear headscarves. But I can just as easily imagine thinking it is none of our business if we are truly living up to our democratic principles. In fact I am thinking both of those things right now.

Second, how can it be that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is still in office when he is ON TRIAL for PAYING FOR SEX from an UNDERAGE girl? Seriously?! Isn’t just one of these things enough to get canned? It is one thing to say, “Oh, the Europeans are forgiving of politicians and their mistresses, they’re just not as puritanical as Americans” and quite another to account for how this guy can stay on. Don’t get me wrong, I am not morally appalled. (Well, the underage thing is a bit much.) But really I just want to understand how he manages this politically. Someone who really understands Italian politics please explain this to me. As for the bigger picture, I really want someone to write a book or an article on scandals and when or whether politicians resign. Just recently they kicked out the German defense minister for plagiarism. There was a grass-roots national revolt. For plagiarism! This is an academic gold mine. Someone has to figure out what Larry Craig and Berlusconi have in common. Do they like public humiliation?

Third, what on earth is the German government doing? I don’t know if I have every seen German foreign policy so badly managed. Well, this side of the Third Reich, I mean. Not only are they not providing some token support for the NATO mission in Libya, but they are making a fuss about it. These are the normally loyal Christian Democrats, not the anti war Greens and SPD, who are a bit fed up with more military interventions. The CDU was more supportive of the Iraq War than this, which was much more controversial in Germany. I don’t think it is ideological. I am sure they don’t like Qaddafi, and they have no real problem with force. There is a UN mandate. It just seems like craven domestic political pandering, which is marking their entire foreign policy, and domestic policy too. Everytime there is a deal on a new financial mechanism to bail out future euro members, the Germans renege after forcing the discussion in the first place.

Well, I have to go. I have to go find an underage girl to pay to write my next book. Seriously?!

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Rathbun is a professor of International Relations at USC. Brian Rathbun received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 and has taught at USC since 2008. He has written four solo-authored books, on humanitarian intervention, multilateral institution building, diplomacy and rationality. His articles have appeared or are forthcoming in International Organization, International Security, World Politics, International Studies Quartlery, the Journal of Politics, Security Studies, the European Journal of International Relations, International Theory, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among others. He is the recipient of the 2009 USC Parents Association Teaching and Mentoring Award. In 2019 he will be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar by the Diplomatic Studies Section of the International Studies Association.