By Wolfram Eilenberger
Anyone who now wants to talk about the future of Europe must first grasp the fact that we are -- at this moment -- experiencing a European utopia that has been cultivated for millennia.
The dogma-free, democratic marketplace of ideas, for which Socrates gave his life in Athens, is today a communicative reality in which hundreds of millions of citizens are actively taking part. The spirit of scientific methodology and veracity embodied by Bacon, Descartes, and Newton as a measure of the collective interpretation of the world is driving a community of researchers that is unique in its diversity. The federal confederacy based on fundamental human rights that Erasmus and Kant envisaged as the "kingdom of ends" is now our political order. The collective safeguarding of physical and intellectual basic rights that Aristotle recognized as the foundation of every polity, and the ethically concerned liberalism of Adam Smith are guiding the logic of our economic activity. And finally, the vision of a secular, active, multilingual life elevated by Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Goethe as the core of what it means to be human accurately describes our cultural existence today as nascent Europeans.
We are not dealing here with poetry or philosophical pipe dreams, but rather an empirically demonstrable reality. The European Union in the year 2009 represents a world-historical optimum. Never before have 500 million people united under a single political order been better off. Never before have they been as free, as healthy, or as well educated; and never before have they been as peaceful. To be sure, it is the systemic improbability of this state of affairs that lends a certain credence to the current pessimism about the future.
A World of Autarchic Zones
To formulate a prognosis for European development within the global context we must reconsider two common assumptions about the future of globalization. First, the process of the compression of global time and space as the formative feature of recent globalization will not continue. Recent decades have been marked by a compression of global time, within which each event can be chronologically observed, communicated, and evaluated at any location throughout the world in real time. This panoptic process is now complete and is irreversible. However, it is difficult to see what technologies, except maybe teleporting, could contribute to a more connected and synchronized world.
The last thirty years have also had a world-historical significance with regard to the compression of global space: international mobility has become a mass phenomenon; the globe has become circumnavigable within 36 hours for every citizen and commodity of the industrialized world. This process will not just slow, it will be reversed. By 2030 the social, political, and economic significance of spatial distance will have increased. Put simply, the world will become bigger again.
This bigger world is the result of the second factor that will shape the future. The past thirty years have been a period of perceived resource abundance, particularly with regard to oil as the main resource of the global economy. It is oil that has greased capitalist expansion. By contrast, the coming thirty years -- an uncertain transitional phase away from the oil economy -- will be marked by a deficit of resources and a logic of scarcity. This will apply not only to oil and gas but also to more elementary resources such as food and, in particular, water. The ominous, globally shared perception of scarcity will allow an economic logic of protection to appear rational. Together, greater spatial distance and no smaller temporal distance will lead to a partial reversal of globalization.
Instead of a globalized world economy that crosses continental barriers with ease, we will see continental autarchic zones being formed that will be shaped by the military defense of the basic resources available in each zone. We will thus see the logic of imperial expansion replaced by an aspiration to autarchic inclusion (already the EU strategy). The internal market of each zone will reassume economic primacy. This process does not have to end in war. It could well take an ordered course and lead to a multipolar equilibrium, the stability of which -- like that of the Cold War -- is guaranteed by an awareness of what military options are not available.
Based on these assumptions, two conclusions can be drawn for Europe. First, strengthening the EU confederation remains the only rational way forward, although this only makes sense if it entails the formation of a (nuclear armed) European army. Second, no comparable state formation is better equipped and structured to deal with the new era of autarchic zones than Europe.
In cultural terms, Europe is equipped with a plurality of languages that lends itself to innovation as well as a global lingua franca: English (though by 2030 Spanish will be the European Union's second main language). It is not burdened by any politically effective fundamentalisms, and Europe's communications and transportation infrastructure leads the world. The thesis of a relative optimum also holds in demographic terms. Overall European demographic decline is not critical. Shortages can be supplemented -- because Europe can afford it -- by highly selective immigration policies. And European children born today, who will constitute the core of our labor force in 2030, are the world's healthiest.
Furthermore, Europe is optimally suited to the autarchic era in ecological-economic terms. As an internal market, Europe has the capacity to establish an equilibrium that ensures relative prosperity. It has an agricultural system that has been sustainably diversified over millennia (again, as an exclusive autarchic zone) and that will continue to have access to sufficient water. And whatever the concrete effects of climate change prove to be in the coming half-century, a united Europe will as a whole be the least disadvantaged by them. Not even Europe's cultural self-characterization as one world power among many will need adjustment.
The Lives of Others
For the United States, the former transatlantic guardian, things look very different. It faces the prospect of decisive and painful adjustments. The world in 2030 will be distinctly multipolar. The necessity of abandoning the oil economy will also have a serious impact on the United States in terms of both infrastructure and, above all, habits. An entire way of life, including the country's suburban landscapes, will have to be fundamentally restructured. Today it is estimated that this inevitable process of economic and infrastructural renewal -- one that will certainly also present new opportunities -- will take at least twenty years to complete and, as is already becoming evident, will follow the process of reorientation to internal markets characteristic of autarchic zones. Furthermore, the already irreversible linguistic and cultural Hispanicization of its southern regions means that the United States will face greater integration challenges than will Europe with its smaller Muslim minorities.
Put in more positive terms, the way the United States develops will depend crucially on its readiness to consciously Hispanicize itself and -- together with Brazil -- to see itself in the long term as the strongest link within a pan-American community. From 2030 onwards these processes will initially take the form of an EU-like dissolution of the borders to Mexico and Canada and the formation of a confederation of Latin American states -- South America being the only continent for which the next 30 years will mark a period of unequivocal ascendancy.
Since future US foreign policy will be focused on the Pacific -- particularly due to China's demand for influence throughout Asia -- the transatlantic alliance will lose the last remnants of its binding force. It follows that the world's politically volatile regions will no longer lie on Europe's borders but on those of the other autarchic zones.
Russia as Bogeyman
This applies particularly to Russia, the currently assertive and completely overrated bogeyman of Europe. It makes little sense for Russia to contemplate a reactivation of its zone of influence (its demographic development is a disaster, and in structural terms the potential of the last decade of luxury has been squandered on nepotistic petro-politics). On its eastern borders it is already seeing a creeping Sinicization that it is helpless to combat, and it will remain fully occupied with maintaining the status quo on its Muslim borders in the south. By 2030 at the latest (probably after surrendering territory in the east) Russia will at best be able to hope -- like Ukraine und Turkey -- for inclusion in the European Union, thus developing its market according to the latter's rules. This will prove a liberating solution for both sides.
It is not possible to envisage a positive developmental scenario for the intermediate Muslim world (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia). By 2030 internal population pressures will have reached a maximum at the same time that oil revenues are drying up.
With no plausible option for expansion available, militant internal aggression will provide the only outlet, and the non-Arab nuclear power Iran and a likewise nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia -- both overpopulated and therefore willing to make sacrifices -- will be the main actors. None of the dominant autarchic zones will show any interest in involving themselves in the conflicts of this "league of the desiccated." India, however, will be unable to avoid being drawn in.
Whichever way one looks at it, if Europe can maintain its federation of states (and if it can include Russia and gain Turkey as a comprehensive buffer), it will remain the continent of the relative optimum-the best of all possible future worlds. Indeed, the scenario outlined here recalls the end of the first truly critical story of globalization, Voltaire's Candide, ou l'Optimisme.
After the adventurous hero Candide, inspired by the notion that he lives in the best of all possible worlds, has circled the globe and thus directly experienced the deep "misère du monde" in all its conceivable forms, he returns to a fenced garden, the fruits of which at least guarantee him and his own an agreeable livelihood. Now and again dreadful news from other parts of the world penetrates the walls and leads to discussion about responsibility and the possibility of a new departure, to which the now wise Candide responds, "Cela est bien dit, mais il faut cultiver notre jardin." (That is well said, but we must cultivate our garden).
Tending to one's own garden, ensuring its sustainability, and continuing to cultivate it innovatively: this is Europe's future -- behind walls.
Wolfram Eilenberger teaches international studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. His most recent book is "This is not America -- Philosophen sprechen über die Lage des Landes." He is also a correspondent for the German political magazine Cicero.
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