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By Domhnall O'Sullivan


The Montréal Review, September 2016



It is always tempting, especially if your job involves wielding words, to announce the epoch-changing nature of an event. Sweeping narratives capture more attention than nuance, and in the 21st century attention is money. There is also the small question of the construction of history: we all (at least in the West) struggle to place ourselves within a personal and wider narrative, and it is psychologically understandable that we decorate the winding path of time with the occasional brightly-coloured traffic cone.

Yet, at the risk of falling into my own argument, it feels that the super-charged nature of the current era makes achieving a real perspective more difficult than ever. When everything is superlativized in the great war for attention, what is important and what is noise mushes together. Brexit, one of the most monumental periods of recent European history, sometimes felt like a transient game show. The ‘post-factual’ debate not only drove the frankly baffling result, but also made the lead-up (and initial aftermath) feel unreal. It was difficult to avoid the suspicion that, once over, we would simply roll onto the next crisis while Brexit would join the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts (still ongoing, it seems).

In this thankless search for historical reference points, I recently came across a 1994 volume of the cultural journal Dædalus, still published today by MIT. What initially attracted me was the cover, a colourful oil sketch of Muscovite cupolas, and the catchy title of the special issue: ‘After Communism: What?’ However, the contents were even more worthwhile as a historical time capsule. Academics and politicians of the time try to make sense of post-Communist Europe in a collection of essays analyzing the particular historic moment of the early 1990s: the last time the continent underwent such a sudden, wide-ranging shift before now.

We hardly lack an abundance of writing from this period, and on this precise topic: but seeing on paper the thoughts of contemporary Europeans somehow made me feel like I was holding a historical insight. Being six years old in 1994, and yet to develop an interest in geopolitics, it was revealing to learn how this period of unprecedented change was viewed by people who were actually living and thinking through it. Not just to see how history can change over time, and how previous versions and narratives are discarded; but also to somehow re-evaluate how we are interpreting the current context of European disarray.

Shifting borders and new divisions

‘Europe’s New Frontiers’, the geographical divisions which emerged following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, have largely remained intact. But the problems and paradoxes associated with them, as Jacques Rupnik outlines in his essay, have worsened. Europe has always been an imagined entity based on tenuous geographic borders, but it was at least easier to imagine pre-1989. Just as the end of the USSR messed up the neat bipolar division of international politics, the Communist collapse also opened a Pandora’s box of regional, national and ethnic aspirations which we still struggle to solve.

The ‘dual impact’ which he suggests will emerge has exploded into the open in recent years: no longer able to define itself in opposition to the Soviet Bloc, he says that a ‘European identity vis-à-vis non-Europe’ (Islam) will take shape. Increasingly, as the nationalist and Christian-tinged reaction to the arrival of millions of migrants from the MENA region has shown, such a perception has flowered. Despite efforts at the EU level to bridge the divide during the 2000s, the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory still lingers over interactions between Europe and the South. In search of a definite border, the far side of the Mediterranean has been de facto designated the other, with the interim waters becoming a morbid no-man’s land. Then, as now, Germany seems to hold the key: the early 1990s saw it open its borders to millions of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, before scrambling to shut them again when national stability was threatened. ‘The change in Germany’s attitude to borders provides a metaphor for the whole of Europe’, Rupnik writes. In 2016, the same could be said about the response to the current migration crisis.

The second impact of this ‘new geography’ is even more revealing. Rupnick writes about the intra-European divides rooted in ‘ancient East-West and North-South cultural and religious antecedents’, many dating back to the Roman and Byzantine eras. Now, as some Eastern European states (whose appetite for Western integration was already fingered as shaky by many of the authors in this volume) begin to backslide on liberal freedoms, the issue of a painless return to the West European bosom is far from settled. And what was the aftermath of the financial and euro crisis if not a battle of philosophies between the protestant, austere North and the profligate, Latin nations to the South? Just as the terms ‘West’ and ‘Global South’ have taken on qualitative value on the world stage, the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ in Europe have become loaded with symbolism. The South seems increasingly barren; both humans and capital fight gravity to move northwards.

The centre cannot hold?

But moving north no longer means moving to Brussels. If finance seeks the safe havens, politics has become entrenched closer to home. The ‘European idea’, as Tony Judt labels it in ‘1989: The End of Which European Era’, is no longer the utopian attraction which was reflected by and refracted over the Iron Curtain. Rather than the centripetal force which it represented following 1989, the EU project has become a centrifugal force to be rejected. Both the chauvinistic nationalism and radical regional self-determination which Rupnik talked about have come face-to-face with the logic of the European project; and the populism which both promote has attracted legions of followers in a difficult time.

Brexit was the culmination of this, if it wasn’t just the beginning. It is difficult to say what the essayists in this collection would have made of it. Though some foresaw the regional identity battles which would lead to possible referenda and secessions in places like Scotland or Catalonia, none predicted a European country would attempt to leave the EU. Judt recognizes already that for many the European myth is simply ‘a screen behind which national interests could be pursued’, something which the British were always quite happy to exploit. But the Brexit campaign, and the hollowing of the idea of ‘ever closer union’, means that not only the project but the narrative itself has changed direction. How long it will be before academic departments of European Studies complement their theories of integration with theories of disintegration?

Beyond the concrete, Judt does notice how the wider phenomenon of myth-making was starting to ebb and struggle. He worries that ‘[t]he crucial building blocks of international moral institutions in our era - human rights, social justice, national autonomy - are philosophical and sociological epistemes which contemporary thinkers have difficulty grounding in universally acknowledged propositions’. We are in a position where the cement of continental cohesion has been deconstructed and any attempt to lift it up as a lofty ideal is pooh-poohed by an ironic generation. In 2016, the rise of Donald Trump and the paucity of the Brexit campaign - both symbols of a broken epistemological social contract in which fact becomes fiction and fiction becomes fact - show that we have not come up with a credible alternative. ‘Who in Europe today has the authority (moral, intellectual, political) to teach, much less enforce, codes of collective behaviour?’ Judt asks. His question remains unanswered.

An era can only be defined in retrospect

What also remains unanswered is the title question of his essay: which European era saw its end in the collapse of Communism? Was it the post-1945 period of Cold War stalemate? Or the end of the nation-state system which had begun in 1870? Or maybe the end of the progress-oriented movement which had begun with the French Revolution, and before that, the Enlightenment? For Judt, all and none is the answer: the only certainty would be the advent of uncertainty following the collapse of the two-pole period. Any historical naming of eras could only help us to conceptualize but not to grasp the essence of what is coming next.

Elemér Hankiss finds a similar problem in his attempt to define the coming zeitgeist, in ‘European Paradigms: East and West’. For him, looking back at the Cold War period is easy. The Eastern Bloc sustained itself in a desperate ‘Paradigm of the Prisoner’, with passions and history locked in a Communist-enforced cage. In the West, a ‘Paradigm of the Missionary’ allowed a sense of self-important pity, with all attention focused across the wall. But the end of this ‘Manichean simplicity’ spells trouble: what paradigm will replace these and direct the course of a reunited Europe? Like Judt, he fears a spiritual emptiness brought about by the ‘end of the grand narratives’ and the proliferation of deconstructionist and postmodern relativism.

Two decades later, not much has changed. Western society and thinking has not reoriented itself any profound organizing principle, and its self-regarding cynicism has worsened, if anything. It often seems that we have reached a point where irony itself has disappeared: not due to us transcending it, but more because it has become reality itself. Many are predicting the death of fiction as reality takes its place. Again, Brexit provides an enlightening stage for this. But the question of whether it represents a paradigm shift or the end of an era is as blurry as the hyperbole which surrounds it. It may represent the end of the grand institution-building project which began with Maastricht, progressed through the single currency and culminated in the Lisbon Treaty. It may represent a new paradigm, the ‘paradigm of the narcissistic nation-state’, driven by voter dissatisfaction and opportunistic politicians across Europe.

Ultimately, it may represent nothing more than a continuation of old practices through a more attuned eye. In this case the shift takes place on the side of the observer, us, and our new methods of interpreting the world through media and communication. Dædalus, though a fascinating time-capsule of the post-1989 intellectual landscape, is out of its depth when it comes to new media. Are Twitter and Facebook reshaping how politics is conducted, or are they the logical outputs of a new type of politics? Much research still needs to be done on this, but whatever the answer, what seems evident is that these new tools have profoundly changed how we view political figures and global issues. Demands are more instantaneous and less reliant on ‘expert analysis’. This also means, of course, that there is more hostility towards discussions around ‘new paradigms’ and so on: this kind of topic is too slow, too wonkish, for social media.

As an academic snapshot of a momentous time, Dædalus provides two major lessons which may help us to take a better perspective of historical moments. Firstly, the lack of a common myth, or paradigm, can only lead to (spiritual) crisis as citizens scramble to find the common reference points which can bind them together. This resonates largely with our own time, where Brussels and Europe run from financial crisis to migrant crisis to Brexit crisis in search of the next raison d’être. Secondly, as we try to place our current struggles in the march of time, we should recognize that it is human nature to exaggerate our own importance. As Stephen Graubard wrote in the preface to this volume, it is indeed an overworked cliché, but ‘we live in historic times’. We always have.


Domhnall O'Sullivan is a global governance associate with the think-tank Foraus, in Geneva, Switzerland. He previously worked for the World Economic Forum and is a former fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. Domhnall O'Sullivan's most recent publications have been with the New Statesman and European Geostrategy


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