185 Comments
Apr 13, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

I agree with the sentiment of this but the Ming/Qing China comparison is way off base. Those are a story of overly strong central governments mandating stasis and isolation. Europe is fragmented with the EU subordinate to the member states. Many of the issues raised in this piece are symptomatic of that, e.g. German gas policy or French technology transfer to China. These make sense for the individual member states but not the EU as a whole. This fragmentation also precludes long-term stasis. The EU isn't able to force Denmark to burn the Maersk fleet nor get all 27 states to close their borders. Some kind of local-optimum temporary stasis is all you get.

"Someday someone will show up on Europe’s doorstep who can’t easily be bought off, and the era of harmonious stasis will come to a nasty end." This is a prediction of something that already happened - Russia/Ukraine. The process of military renewal has already begun. Yes, the EU will probably not be a 'third superpower'. Even if it re-arms and re-industrialises so will other areas of the world at as great a rate.

Europe won't be a superpower, nor will it's individual states be superpowers again. However, greater military power is very likely (and will have unpredictable effects in the region). As for technology, Europe has not meaningfully fallen behind yet, and re-establishing industries in already advanced economies may prove to be easier than establishing new industry in developing economies. Under the current system of trade most industry in Europe simply doesn't make sense no matter EU or state policies. But if that system is upended by China/USA conflict then that calculation would change in an instant.

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He didn't mean it that literally. Of course the EU is not exactly like Qing China.

What Europe has in common with those historical dynasties is an aloof sense of superiority, resulting in stasis. I was born in Vienna and live in California now. So many of my euro friends will kinda shake their heads and tut-tut about how America has too many guns or not enough weeks of vacation.

They all seem unaware of and unconcerned by Europe's fundamental issues. Germany has a lower per-capita GDP than West Virginia at this point. The whole continent is dependent on the US for military support. The exchange of technological inventions between the EU and US has become a one-way flow. It's striking how little the EU has participated in the digital revolution post-1990, except of course as consumers.

And even without a unified centralized empire, Europe does a pretty good job of "mandating statis". Based on how my euro friends talk, I am unsurprised that the continent's main response to new technologies (always from elsewhere, at this point) is skepticism, bafflement and the occasional ban.

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I don't think Vienna is very representative here, being the capital of probably the most decadent and hardest-fallen empire on the continent. I don't think there's much of "aloof sense of superiority" in current hotspots of innovation like Stockholm, Amsterdam, or London/Oxbridge. Neither is there much of that in upcoming powerhouses like Poland. Yes we don't have mass shootings, but I don't think they're necessary for innovation and economic growth. Neither is not having mandated vacation weeks, reducing call/SMS spam, standardising USB-C, or pushing car manufacturers to reduce emissions with Euro standards.

Between ASML, ARM, Nokia, and Ericsson (from the top of my head) I don't think you're being fair talking about "little participation in the digital revolution". Yes there are structural problems, but they can't be explained away by the simplistic narrative of the entire Europe being the same old empire.

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You sound very defensive.

Look I like europe too. Amazing cultures, amazing cities. I just want us to be live players again.

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I don't think civil replies to "you sound very defensive" even exist, so I'll just ignore it.

I'm not sure which "us" you mean. Austrians? Dutch? Polish? Britons? Live players in what, biotech? UV lithography? Ad-driven social networks? Space? Consumer protections? Military force? Good actors? Big pickup trucks? You are using the warped US-centric mental framework, conflating the EU (a very young and loose confederacy that is barely capable to agree on superficial laws) with particular countries (some of which are old fallen empires like Austria), and B2C hype with the full depth of innovation, no wonder you come to that conclusion.

In practice many EU countries punch above their weight. Netherlands is a tiny country that birthed ASML, NXP, Booking, Philips, AkzoNobel, and maybe others that I can't remember from the top of my head. Sweden has Ericsson, AstraZeneca, NCC, Skanska, and Spotify. Sure, you can average them out with war-torn Balkan countries, call the whole thing "Europe", and conclude that it's a "non player", but it's not very close to reality.

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Do you really think a list of 9 companies is quite enough to generate GDP/capita growth or GDP growth overall? Yes, the Netherlands is doing well. I'll note though that ASML is certainly helped by its US subsidiary Cymer in EUV for instance. Europe could try being more of a partner and less of a regulator and Germany could sure try moving away from ICE automobiles before the transition engulfs them.

The EU has a big problem with its voting requirement of all or nothing. It seems to me that as a result, they can only agree on mostly status quo and lower common denominator results.

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No, but I'm not collating the list of all economy movers, do I? Neither are we talking about pure GDP growth, otherwise we should also talk about Norway that is doing very well with its gas and oil.

For sure the EU has a lot of problems, it's just 30 years old, not even an adolescent for a political entity of that size. However, applying the "old empire" narrative to it is about as useful as talking about a toddler in terms of old age frailty. Yes both can barely walk, but the reason is very different.

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What innovation is coming out of Stockholm, Amsterdam or London? If there's a lot going on, shouldn't we see globally-significant new tech industry in those locations, building new things that everyone uses? The ARM CPU architecture has been hugely influential, but all of the rest of the things you need to build computing devices are invented and built elsewhere, so the UK's role in tech hasn't benefited much. I can't think of anything even that significant from Sweden or the Netherlands.

Maybe this is because I'm in the US and see a US-centric view of the technology industry? Is the next batch of unicorns going to be from northern Europe?

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

Does ASML ring a bell (like, the only company making EUV lithography machines crucial for modern CPUs)? Ericsson (the main non-Chinese player in 5G base stations)? Booking.com? BioNTech the mRNA vaccine company? AstroZeneca? DeepMind (one of the forerunners of the current deep learning wave, a British company bought by Google)?

Innovation doesn't equal unicorns. Innovation can be done by small companies licensing the tech (and not growing to unicorns), or it can be done by old established companies like 3M, again not resulting in flashy unicorns. It's probably (but not definitely) nice to have unicorns, good for private wealth and taxes, but linking *all* innovation with unicorns is wrong.

It's indeed a very US-centric view of the technology industry.

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I'm trying to be careful and objective here, and question my own priors, but your examples feel like exceptions proving the rule. They're real enough, and important, but isolated and collectively still too small to counter Noah's claim that Europe isn't demonstrating the kind of innovation and growth needed to build or maintain superpower status. Yes, small companies can innovate and license, but that doesn't produce the sort of influence or power that a superpower needs.

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Sure, I'm not trying to exhaustively list all innovative companies in Europe, I'm listing random examples from the top of my head. You are right that there're a few trends though: they tend to either be on the "back office" of society, or bought by American/Chinese companies, or be big companies. I tried to list some challenges here: https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/europe-is-not-ready-to-be-a-third/comment/14617982

But you can notice that they have little to do with the narrative of Europe being "the old empire in decline". In fact, I think the moment you remove the nebulous "Europe" and start looking either at particular countries (that might be old empires and might have some of the problems Noah postulates), or at the EU as a very young and loose confederation, the narrative falls apart. The EU is just too young and weak even if it does have a massive potential, and particular countries might be delusional or over-regulated, but they're not "Europe".

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founding

Given that a small backwards nation like Ukraine was able to blunt a massive Russian blitzkrieg and stabilize their font lines *even before* Western involvement, I don't see how you can say that the whole continent is dependent on the US for military support. If the Russians invaded Poland, don't you think that the combined forces of NATO would be able to stop the attack, even without US help? The US Navy keeps the sea lanes open, but we would do that regardless.

Russia has been shown to be a paper tiger. There are no other serious threats. The main benefit of the US forces in Western Europe during the Cold War was to protect it from Russia. The other main benefit was to allow Europe to pull itself together. Given the long history of internecine warfare between European powers, this seems like the main risk to me.

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This is an excellent addendum to Noah's article. Europe may struggle though if/when the China/USA struggle begins. Without American sea power, Europe lacks the ability to keep sea lanes open, and to get its energy imports. The German and Italian manufacturing economies are particularly vulnerable.

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

Europe will be far short of being energy self-sufficient in 20 years, unless it absorbs Russia.

Europe ex Russia lacks enough oil and gas, and even willingness to extract what it has in most cases. Solar and wind can be nowhere near sufficient. New hydro is mostly negligible. Being self-sufficient in 2043 would require a wholesale change in outlook on nuclear power and coal in several countries, and I don't believe that will happen.

With the end of US interest in maintaining the post-war American order, and given European demographics, the major European economic powers in 20 years will be France and Turkey. Those two will be (or easily could choose to be) largely energy self-sufficient. But Germany, Italy, Netherlands, UK, Poland, no dice. Maybe Spain, certainly Norway.

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Really.

A lot can happen in 20 years, but oil and gas isn't formed in that time, and it takes nearly that long to build nukes. And my caveat was that Europe doesn't absorb Russia, which is the quickest and most likely method to energy self-sufficiency.

Of course Sweden is already a net exporter. Given the increased demands of electrification, it might not remain so - I'm not up on Sweden's aims for building up capacity for the 2030s and 40s.

Southern Europe has lots of sun, but most of it is still not in the sweet spot for solar in winter, and you can't cover the entirety of it in solar panels. Solar power will have to be imported from North Africa.

You may not count Turkey as a European country, but it doesn't care. Turkey will become an economic power dominating that end of Europe regardless.

France's birthrate isn't much higher than Germany's now, but it was, and that is key for the 2030s and 2040s, but not in the 2050s. The question was about 20 years from now, not 30 or 40.

Demographics doesn't determine everything, but it does determine about 2/3. Europe is in demographic crisis, except Turkey. Granted, it isn't feeling it yet, but it's already here.

An alternative is to start importing people like Canada - 1.5-2.5% of population per year. But that's improbable, likely politically impossible in most of Europe. Sweden is tops in Europe at 1-1.5%, and it's not exactly received smoothly, from what I understand.

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

Indeed, the delusions about green electricity from our European neighbours have me smiling wryly (as a Frenchman): when we need electricity the most is Winter, and European Winter has both little wind (except near the coastlines), and quite obviously much fewer daylight.

I wouldn't bet on our recent favourable demographics either: the discrepancy in level of education in the OECD is nowhere near as big as in France, with the average level dropping fast as a result over the last 2-3 decades. A true catastrophe, whose outcome will soon be coming into play.

As for Turkey, I doubt it'll become any more significant than it is now in the years to come. It's undergoing political turmoil, surrounded by troubled or at-war countries all over but on the EU side, and its economy hasn't been doing so well either.

Lastly as for immigration, we're already failing to integrate virtually all of the considerable influx from the last 2 decades with many cultural conflicts, steep rises in crime across W. and N. Europe. If it keeps on being masses of lowly-qualified paupers from Africa, Afghanistan or anywhere in-between, as it has been, we're not likely to progress much.

It only leads to more conflictual societies here as forming up communities living in parallel (as in Northern America) isn't in the European ethos. It's not happenstance that populist, anti-immigration parties are on the rise, or even in power, all over Europe. Sweden was over the French news a few months ago about that, and the League of Champions fiasco of late 2022 in my own country was also very much linked to populations of recent immigrant background.

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A shame the UK stepped away from the project, we could at times push the French and German axis forward on some matters.

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This was much of the logic behind my remain vote. Britain needed to be in the EU to tip the balance a bit towards free trade and Atlanticism and away from protectionism and isolationism.

Leaving gives France undue influence when German is still unable to fully act in its own interests.

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Obviously it would have been easier inside the EU, but it's not like we suddenly have zero influence over other European countries. No point in just wringing our hands, we should knuckle down and make the best of a bad situation.

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True but the external threat has brought us back together on what matters. In the end this arrangement may better reflect the U.K.'s heritage - part of both Europe and of the AUKUS that dominates the world still.

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I think the UK will head back to the EU in 10-15 years time. Might be false optimism on my part.

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I think it is more likely the EU will split between a Eurozone core focused on common governance and a more liberal, less statist periphery focused on trade ( Nordic countries. E Europe, UK, Ireland) that will be closely aligned with the US and Canada: The statist/corporatist anti-competitive roots of Spain, Italy, France and Germany (all of whom embraced fascism for a time) are just different from the UK and Skandis, while the E Europeans have learned the lessons of communism.

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I guess it depends on security and other fear factors. That could push these groups closer together.

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That's not realistic...as long as countries like Czech Republic or Hungary depend on Germany for their economic well-being, and are poorer (in terms of GDP per Capita) than Germany, I do not see how they could be more closely aligned with Scandinavia or the UK than Germany...maybe the Baltics could, because of their links to Scandinavia, but for the rest of the Eastern Bloc it's not realistic...

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Eh, and I think it's more likely that within 10-15 years there will be a consensus that it was a great move and it'll be surprisingly hard to find people who admit they supported Remain. Already I see that sentiment expressed more and more, though sometimes it's by Americans who didn't understand it at the time but have started to sympathize as they learn more about the nature of the EU.

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Never without joining euro. Means never.

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I don’t think many of us Brits have thought of UK either as a great world power or likely ever to be so in future. This is a common misunderstanding of why UK chose to leave the EU. Noah has analysed the EU beautifully, and it explains two of the main reasons people voted to leave: first, to escape the static mindset of the European bureaucracy; and second, to escape the mishmash of a democracy in which neither nation state nor continental union has the power to act with firm decision.

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Think this is an adjacency and personal prejudice. IMF ranks UK as the fifth largest economy globally, I think "tiny" might be an exaggeration on your part. My point is UK worked as a third way solution to help deal with the misalignment at the core of the project.

Germany and France are rarely aligned on many key matters, yet dominate the EU due to economic power. It's why other countries tend to group together to have influence. When the UK was part of the project they helped ease this.

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Most would agree UK should join only if serious about the common future, common home. No one seriously disputes UK is geographically Europe, most important regional NATO member, economically interconnected with Europe with bonds that can never be untied. After fifty years of clutching the door knob ready to leave...a referendum: Get in or get out.

If one day UK seriously decides to get in....

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The only people who ever talked about the British Empire being relevant to Brexit were salty Remainers who would rather make up reasons for the decision that make themselves feel good, rather than engage with the actual drivers of it (e.g. the EU being deliberately set up to be as aloof, remote and uncaring about citizen's priorities as possible).

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A marvellous assessment. Although I am not of the view that the ongoing war in Ukraine is in Europe's best interests or any positive interests at that, it is true that in many ways, Europe is becoming a sclerotic society whose first instinct to new technology is to regulate it out of profitability in an approach I can only describe as that of a jealous older brother.

I suppose this is mainly due to historical tendencies. History fades away but the necessities which shaped that history often remain. The United Kingdom, and Britain in particular, has never felt comfortable with a strong and powerful Europe. Britain, insulated by its geography and its pride, never adopted the Euro and has pulled out of the EU altogether. Its recent trans Pacific trade alliance is a desperate attempt to grasp at the glory of better days long gone.

France and Germany, in contrast, want a unified Europe but for different reasons. France, motivated by its long history of anti Americanism and firmly attached to its former colonial outposts, would prefer an EU which pivoted towards the global south and Asia.

Germany, on the other hand, would benefit from a deeper and closer relationship with Russia ( there's a good argument that Gorbachev's ill-fated perestroika and Glasnost policies were aimed ultimately at rapprochement with Germany.

The rest of the European states want different things for their own selfish reasons. So, the unsolvable problem remains: Europe is a continent trying to behave like a country.

And while the analogies with the Ming and Qing dynasties paint a striking resemblance, what Europe really reminds me of is the Soviet Union.

There are substantial differences of course: the Soviet Union was dominated by Russia while the EU is a more equal partnership, the Soviet Union unlike the EU had extensive military capabilities, and it was of course communist.

But the similarities, given the context, are even more telling: a patchwork of different states with different interests knitted into an uneasy whole, facing a deep demographic crisis, further and further behind on technological innovation, and unable to put aside its political gridlock.

In the case of the Soviet Union, there was at least a centripetal force in Russia pulling everything at great cost to itself and the others towards the centre and maintaining an unstable coalition. In the case of the EU, there is no such centre, no large magnet to attract all the little magnets to itself. Instead, all that is left are smaller magnets of varying size, delicately polarized between attraction and repulsion, and consumed with too much of its past to realize it increasingly has too little of a future.

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

The comparison with the USSR is useful, though, of course there are major differences with limit the insight. The USSR wasn't, as you say, in any way an equal partnership with much of any sovereignty decentralized from the Russian imperial core. The EU, by contrast, is quite the opposite, for better or for worse.

Perhaps an even better comparison is the nascent United States under the little discussed but fascinating period when it was governed under the 1777-1781 Articles of Confederation, before the ratification of the 1789 Constitution and its more centralized order. The United States then was a total mess, in far more dire shape than the European Union of today. And the European Union of today is really more a *confederation* of nation-states than a "United States of Europe," so it shares a lot of the same elements of the divisive gathering of former American Colonies that had won a war and now found themselves a country without a real, unified government. Quickly, the newly minted Americans of the late 18th Century found that they were totally broke, vulnerable to attack (the foreign menaces of England and later France still very much threatening its very existence), and slow to act in a crisis (a popular Whiskey Rebellion almost brought the whole thing under!). Circumstances forced a closer marriage.

The United States, in some ways, still shows the original weaknesses of that Confederation period, since the 1789 Constitution continued to decentralize much power and sovereignty to the states. Given the opt-in nature of the whole thing and the wide range of opinion on various divisive matters, they couldn't really have done otherwise. The mechanisms of federalism haven't always been so elegant, since, with principles like "interstate commerce" pressed into service by necessity to assert centralized power over the states in ways arguably well outside of the original Constitutional design. As much as we've striven to create "a more perfect Union," Americans are only really "United" in comparison to Europeans. The political divisiveness and stasis of today seems extraordinary to people used to the relative calm of the late 20th Century, but it's certainly not unusual in the history of the US. So maybe Confederations of all kinds are just a little bit doomed?

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I appreciate the long and thoughtful reply. I will try to reciprocate in kind.

Yes, you are right. The nascent United States shares a striking degree of similarity with the EU. Both are, of course, first and foremost western civilizations with the benefits and demerits which follow from that. They also are/were - an unwieldy choice of words but it will have to do - confederations of some sort. Indeed, to this day, American states enjoy surprising amounts of autonomy.

But the differences, I think, are more crucial. The main similarity between the EU and the Soviet Union ( and the Ming dynasty of China which the article referenced) was that of great powers long past their prime but stubbornly refusing to take this into account. In contrast, whatever the flaws of eighteenth century United States, it was a nation on the ascendancy.

Europe also faces a demographic crisis, similar in degree, although different in cause, to the population decline the Soviet Union faced in the eighties. In contrast, population growth in the nascent United States was strong, with immigration playing an important role.

In fact, the nation which reminds me most of the United States( twentieth century America in this case rather than the eighteenth) is China.

Early twentieth century America was already the world's most important manufacturing power but it had a lot of catching up to do in military terms. The same as China.

The belligerence towards its neighbours is the same, so is the increasing technological competence, sustained by a large inflow of immigrants ( In China's case, Chinese coming back home).

There are also many cultural parallels. Indeed, both are more alike than they know or care to admit.

In that regard, I see Xi Jinping as a Theodore Roosevelt without any of the charisma. A president, keenly aware that his country needs to play a larger role in global matters, cracking down on strong monopolies to entrench political power, and building up military capacity at a rapid pace.

The difference is unlike America's rise in the early decades of the last century which occured largely in the context of 'friendly' European powers content to spend themselves into oblivion through world wars, China is rising in a world where America, for all of its many weaknesses, is still formidable and quite unfriendly.

But then again, history is an inexact game and these amount to little more than an educated reading of tea leaves. Analogies depend on the factors we wish to emphasize and those we want to overlook.

To round up and answer the question, yes, confederations of all kinds are just a little bit doomed, perhaps for the same reason that empires are generally short lived. The dynamics are unfavourable for survival. If the centre is weak or non existent, you have a diverse number of people looking out for their own interests alone as with the EU. If it is too strong, you have deep-rooted resentment and repeated military expeditions, with all the waste that necessitates, to put a lid on rebellions as with the Soviet Union. The balance, as political theorist Amy Chua often points out, can be hard to figure out. History's own verdict is clearer: it is impossible.

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It's very interesting to see how common the idea that "EU… [is a] great [power] long past [its] prime but stubbornly refusing to take this into account" is among Americans, including Noah. The EU is 30 year old, how is it a "a great power past its prime"? There is no one Europe, the countries of the EU have more differences between them than the countries of North America.

The original post is a good example of this narrative leading astray. For example, it makes it really easy to misattribute of relative sparsity of B2C startups in Europe. You start a business in the US tomorrow, how many people can you market and sell it to? The entire US, more or less. You start a business in "Europe", how many people are your audience? The entire EU? But then you are actually in Austria, do you chose to promote in Greek, German, French, English, Romanian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Finnish, Swedish, or some other language? How do you account to local cultural sensibilities? The EU is *widely* more diverse and disjointed than the US, which affects its domestic markets.

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Of course the Common Market idea was born in the post-War period and traveled a straight path to the EU and the EZ. Try being less dismissive and leaning so heavily on EU rather than the whole era.

Let's take a look at say 500 years of European history about when Charles V and other dynasts tore the place up. Lots and lots of ethnic, linguistic and especially religious cleansing that has led to a highly fragmented continent so often separated by language and religion and far too often suffering from what my grandmother would call false pride. Maybe it's foolhardy to fancy that despite tearing the world asunder twice in the 20th Century it hasn't really learned as muc as we hope.

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There are Europeans in replies here talking about their European identity being elusive and vague, even now, being from the generation that grew up in the EU. It just reinforces my point that European identity is extremely new and is being formed as we speak, the fact that millennia of history happened here has very little relation to it. There is no one people that you can refer to talking about "European history" before late 20th century, it's just a name for the place events are happening, not an identity. As for Charles V, it's hard to even talk about national identities before 19th-ish century, much less continent-wide identities.

I'm also a bit lost on why do you think Charles V or two World Wars are connected to my point that the European market is way more disjointed than the American, which makes it a bit hard to talk about Europe as a single economic entity and compare it to the US.

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I certainly didn't cite national identities. I cited linguistic and religious features. Certainly it's instructive that the vast majority of Polish speakers live in Poland, similarly for French in France, Swedish in Sweden and so on. Of course it does make sense to speak of European history, one people or not. It is filled with countries and especially dynasties that sought to conquer other countries and that confrontation created a lot of European history. You know, like Napoleon or the Hapsburgs.

I am referring to long historical influences that dating things from the EU forward fails to recognize. Certainly the EU's failure to create a single market, polity or set of laws is one of its major problems.

The US, much like China, Russia and India are basically continent-sized nations and it makes little sense to compare with smaller states. The EU was founded to address these problems, individual countries just can't bring themselves to give up enough sovereignty to make it work. That affection for their sovereignty is born out of wars, losses, gains, irredentism and the like.

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Of course one can talk about a common European history since the late antiquity...this is just as one can talk about a common Indian History for the past two Millenia, despite no unified India existing till ca. 75 years ago...

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"the countries of the EU have more differences between them than the countries of North America"

In which sense? Certainly not economically (e.g. compare Haiti to the USA) or demographically (The US and Canada differ greatly from both Mesoamerica and the Caribbean)…only in terms of language (as the official language in North American countries is either English, French or Spanish)…but then the vast majority of European countries speak an Indo-European language as their official language, and English is becoming something of a Lingua Franca in most of Europe...It just seems to me that many people overstate the differences between the various European countries, but IMO they are more comparable to Indian States in their variety than to different nation-states in Asia...

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China reminds me more of 19th century Germany than 20th century US, but neither comparison fits perfectly. The crucial difference is that China (like Germany) is an energy and food importer, and Japan (like Victorian UK) is likely to remain the stronger naval power, just offshore.

America is not relatively unfriendly to China. America's friendliness is astounding - it has facilitated China's rise to become a true geostrategic competitor. This is not just through trade, but by continuing to extend the American order around China (although that is soon ending). China is utterly dependent upon that order, because it is surrounded by actual hostile states that can block its energy and food imports, and quickly bring it to its knees. In this, China is much more brittle than Russia.

And so, if there is conflict, it will be existential for China, and it will lose. I think Xi knows this, although I'm not 100% sure.

Fortunately, it may not come to that, because of demographics. China went through the entire industrial revolution in less than one lifetime, and is now more 'advanced' than almost anywhere else, in terms of its aging demographics. And that is sealing its fate to decline relative to the US, having not managed to surpass it.

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I appreciate the reply. I will address each point distinctly

Because of the size ( both in land and population) of both China and the USA, and their relative superiority to all of their continental neighbours as opposed to nineteenth century Germany which played second fiddle to the UK and sometimes was even third, at least before 1870, to France, I don't think that's quite apt.

There are similarities too between China now and Bismarck's Germany, - there are similarities throughout history because people don't change - most notably in the rapid industrialization and impressive buildout of infrastructure, but this is something China already shares with all of its successful Asian counterparts.

China and the USA have also maintained a cultural paternalism towards the rest of the world right from their very inception. In America's case, that paternalism is expressed as "we'll try to make you better and that means being exactly like us" and in China's case, it's more "we are so much better that you are not worth bothering with."

Although either nation has tried each other's preferred tactic( arrogant American isolationism a la Trump has a long history and China has waged a centuries long cultural subjugation of its neighbours and minorities, with the most recent victim being the Uighurs)

Second, America is presently very unfriendly to China, much more than China is to America, although China's reluctance to be similarly hawkish is for strategic reasons. And I don't see that as likely to change: foreign policy positions tend to be sticky.

America's friendliness was not astounding. It was the benevolence of power that had nothing to fear. Carried away by silver tongued economists extolling free trade, rapacious corporations seeking larger profits and weaker regulatory oversight, and the optimism born of the Soviet Union's Collapse, America created the very environment China used to prosper.

But it was a beneficial relationship, at least for the American elite, who as some demonstrate with continued investment in China( Elon, Apple, etc), still like things that way. And American consumers benefitted too.

Third, it appears that you are an avid reader of Peter Zeihan. His analysis presents serious problems although that's a suitable topic for some other time. But the claims made here are not backed by evidence.

There's no way to know if China will lose a conflict or if the loss will be existential. I also consider that unlikely: Chinese and North Korean troops fought a sizable number of American troops to a standstill in the Korean war. And that was over seventy years ago.

Any such war will most likely occur in Taiwan where there are significant advantages in China's favour. And the demographic problem, while serious, ignores China's extremely large population, which means even a decline still leaves China better off in absolute terms.

It also ignores that America and its allies have similar demographic problems of their own. And while it is serious, it is not existential. After all, the world's poorest and weakest countries have the most positive birthrates.

China is dependent on America. But America is also dependent on China in many ways. Outside of the semiconductor policy, decoupling has been mostly talk for the simple reason that any serious attempt will cause serious economic damage to both sides. The arrogance displayed on both sides is not backed up by the reality of their positions.

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I have read Zeihan but disagree with much of his thesis. He's on more solid ground when it comes to demographics than geographic determinism. He seems to be betting on the end of the American international system (I prefer the term "American order", like Zeihan), but I believe it will continue to wither rather than taper quickly. The most logical next retreat is to stop being China's guarantor.

I was never hopeful that American businesses would decouple, but I think it is now resigned to the necessity, much to my surprise. Yet I don't think it's irreversible yet either.

Sure, size of China makes a difference, but available options are determined more by age structure. And anything beyond nominal growth in absolute terms for China is increasingly unlikely past 2030.

Yes, America is much less friendly today, although far more friendly still than its strategic interests warrant. But America's friendliness to China in 1992-2017 was astounding. Yes, it was congruent with America's approach to others, and supported by the factors you mention - absolutely true.

But it was astounding in the sense that no dominant power in history had ever worked as hard to create a rival. By 1997 it struck me as profoundly illogical and naive, but I was certainly in the minority in believing that. There was a little opposition within the US in the 1990s. Americans administrations post-1992 were breath-takingly blind to the degree of risk they were taking.

For the record, I don't think there will be conflict, but China's leadership is isolated, and might blunder into one. I was much more worried about that possibility 2 years ago than today.

If there is a conflict, it won't be on land, except, obviously, for the Taiwanese. Which would be an unwise choice for China. However, the existential conflict for China (or perhaps, just the CCP) is not over Taiwan, but over trade access into the Indian Ocean, so it can retain access to food and energy. This means control over Malacca and a couple other choke-points. China will have to project power over a long distance, which it is unlikely to be able to do before serious limits to growth and credit catch up with it.

I could be wrong. America might continue to protect Chinese shipping and let Chinese power meet its zenith unhindered, crushing enemies at will. America has, so far. But I doubt it will continue past 2030.

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Very thoughtful analysis. I generally agree. I have enjoyed the back and forth.

A few points:

I am not enthusiastic about America's chances if there was ever a war on Taiwan. The Taiwanese situation reminds me deeply of the conflicted and complicated relationship Scotland and Northern Ireland have had with Great Britain over the course of their histories In like manner, as China continues to develop, more and more taiwanese will see the wisdom in a closer alliance. Economic considerations always take precedence eventually.

You are right about America's free trade own goal, although it was masterful of China to play its cards so adeptly. The real problem with free trade isn't even the debt and the trade deficits. The real problem is the skill and knowledge deficits it leaves in its wake. It operates on assumptions that do not hold in reality. There is an intriguing book by Ian Fletcher released in 2010 on the subject which does justice to the matter.

With regard to Malacca, the strait is so geopolitically important that a compromise will be made between the powers of the region if America withdraws. After all, it is not only China at risk but Japan, South Korea, and India as well. The compromise will not be as peaceful but it will happen. The Chinese navy requires a lot of catch-up but if 2030 is the cutoff date, that is enough time.

The response I'd like to see from American policymakers, beyond the befuddled missteps they seem intent on making, is a return to bipartisan collaboration which focuses heavily on America itself. America simply has so many durable advantages that if the sole focus were on American growth and prosperity rather than curtailing China's, it would maintain preeminence anyway.

Consider, as a recent example, the frighteningly misguided RESTRICT Act which ironically makes American Internet policy a fascimile of China's. The point should have been to strengthen America's own internet privacy laws and not to create a digital fence around itself in the name of foreign enemies.

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I don't think one can compare china to any individual European country (Russia only in a geographical sense)…China, and India (and the US) are just too large (both in terms of population and area) to be compare to European nation-states...basically China can only be compared to the EU as a whole (or a counterfactual Europe in which the Roman Empire managed to unify much of Europe just like the Han did in China)...

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I think it is insane to say that America is more unfriendly to China than China is to America. You mistake the fact that America is simply a more open, transparent country.

While I do not read Chinese (nor do I speak any of the dialects), my understanding is that if consult Chinese language sources they are considerably more hawkish than public pronouncements (which are not exactly unicorns and rainbows). China wants cooperation (by which it means reaping the benefits of WTO membership and being part of the global community but not living up to those responsibilities.

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Of course, the same can be said about the U.S. reaping the benefits of WTO membership and being a part of the global community but often not living up to those responsibilities. I am not sure "my way or the highway" is popular with the global community. Meanwhile, the WTO is dominated by U.S., Germany, and China and it seems the members "responsibilities" are vague and self centered.

https://globaleurope.eu/globalization/welfare-effects-of-the-wto/

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This is a very superficial analysis...obviously, from a geographic perspective, Europe is not a continent but a peninsula (or subcontinent) at most...also, the rest of the analysis just strikes me as very superficial...I am not sure that France really is more Anti-American than Germany, for example...I agree with your last sentence though, IMO the EU countries need to realise that they need to pull closer together, at least militarily and economically, so as to keep their high living standards...

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Apr 13, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Great article, thanks. two comments: 1- US is giving a lot of military aid to UKR, which is coming back in high % to the US military industry with orders - so it's not like this money is "lost entirely" for the US - the dominance of US military industry is undisputed. 2- I believe there is a cynical calculation from most indebted EU governments which is a bit like "if the US is giving zillions of dollars anyway, what's the point in contributing more ourselves". This might be shortsighted of course.

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In that way, American defense aid is very different from, say, Poland donating old Soviet tanks and other materiel that will be backfilled by Polish orders from American companies. This isn't "recycling" public money into domestic defense contractors, in their case. American defense aid and transfers are more of a stimulus for domestic defense industries. This makes much more sense for countries like the UK, Germany, and Sweden, with sizeable domestic defense industries.

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Also, the "aid" the EU provides Ukraine is primarily social services aid to refugees now including many fleeing Russians. The U.S.is the world's largest manufacturer of military hardware and emptying warehouses is much easier than finding shelter for millions of humans under the most dire of circumstances. While supplies of military hardware may be critical in the short-term, it will be the social services software that will keep the soul of Ukraine alive in the long term.

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Very true. Though the EU is laser-focused on the “rebuilding” contracts that Siemens, Lafarge et al will be getting. They want to stay closely enough engaged with Ukraine to control that gravy train. Yes- there will be some American fixers and scions of political and donor families who also get to skim their slice as will the Ukrainian oligarchs (about half of America’s $100 bill in aid has gone to fixers and training and consultants- only about half of military hardware), but American companies won’t be leading the rebuilding.

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Hey Noah,

An insightful post, thanks! Broadly, I agree with your analysis and also what could and should be done. I would just like to leave a couple of notes because often such survey’s of Europe’s position tend to gloss over certain aspects. You’re actually much more clear-sighted on the topic than most of Anglo media (kudos to that!), but I still think there are some things that could be put in some context.

I’ll try to keep each point brief:

GDP gap between US & EU:

– Yes, that’s the case, but the crucial context is that the US population grew by well over +50% since the late 1970s – Europe’s practically stagnated. Europe was (and is) much more densely populated, so overall that makes sense. And as you rightly note, birth rates have been converging lately and immigration to Europe is (and has been) very high. So the gap is really for the most part one due to past population growth in the US, which was exceptional for a rich country – and is now slowing down a lot.

Growth of GDP per capita:

– Lots of good stuff has been said by you on the topic regarding living standards (work hours, public goods, different choices etc.). As you rightly note, the real worrying laggard here is southern Europe – and that’s partly due to the self-inflicted austerity, partly due to not enough reforms or entrepreneurial zeal, partly demographics. Reversing that would be very important for Europe. The south also has lots of potential when it comes to renewables.

Military capablities:

– The French military is almost certainly superior to the Russian one in almost every aspect. Numbers don’t do this justice. The Russians have lots of old equipment and what their performance in Ukraine shows is that they can’t even do much with that (except sow destruction). The Italians are quite capable too, as are most of the CEE countries and the Nordics. Europe could and should do VASTLY more if it acted together, on everything from procurement to training and deployment. But Europe is almost certainly militarily stronger than Russia.

Military aid to Ukraine:

– However, and that’s true, due to the much smaller amount of gear which additionally is spread out across many countries, it’s much harder for European countries to donate lots of military hardware to Ukraine. That’s a big problem in and of itself. One note, though: The picture you linked to is quite a bit outdated now already. Germany has become the second biggest donor of military gear after the US by now and has just committed another €12 billion, which is substantial, even compared to America (https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-ukraine-military-support-russia-war/32340550.html). Europe taking together has donated substantial amounts – but I agree, ideally it should be capable of doing all of that alone and more.

Humanitarian aid & refugees:

– You don’t mention it, but I feel its bears mentioning that on humanitarian aid and when it comes to welcoming refugees, the EU has been a giant – and not just now on Ukraine, also before on Syrian, Afghanistan or simply in general. The EU takes in vastly more refugees per capita than the US, UK or almost any other rich country and does so consistently. I just think it’s worth mentioning that, too.

Technology & Manufacturing:

– Yes, Europe has missed the boat on digital tech and social media. And it seems to fall behind on AI. *BUT* you’re underselling Europe’s ongoing technological strengths and prowess in a lot of areas. Europe hosts ASML, the world’s only producer of EUV lithography systems without which modern nanometer chips (such as produced by TSMC and designed in the US) would be impossible. Europe’s factories produce the machines which in turn produced PV panels, windmills and EVs – in China, the US, Europe or elsewhere.

European companies are leading in renewables. The French startup and tech scene has been booming as of late. Lots of hidden champions in crucial sectors dominate their markets and niches. Airbus and the aviation industry is not just an also-ran, but actually out-competed that of America (Boeing) lately – there’s a China risk, yes, but there’s also deep strengths. Europe buys lots of EVs, but it also builds lots of EVs and is ramping up quickly.

The “Pfizer” mRNA vaccine really was developed by BionTech in Germany and tested and marketed by Pfizer, so Europe is also genuinely at the cutting edge when it comes to medicine and pharma. There’s also luxury goods, tourism and so on, which are good for the economy, but admittedly not high-tech. And Europe’s economy is much less carbon-intensive and energy-intensive, while still producing a high GDP per capita and living standards.

So yes, there are genuine challenges and Europe has missed some big opportunities lately (especially on software & tech), but it also has deep strengths that it often undersells or that observers tend to gloss over. I think we shouldn’t. By building on these strengths, Europe can also get better in other areas.

Ming China & stuff:

– And this brings me to the last point: Your warning of becoming too much like Ming China is prescient – as we know, some scaremongering is how to get societies moving sometimes – but just analytically, it’s imho also overblown. Growth per capita in Europe and the US has been surprisingly similar over the past decades, especially given some big policy mistakes Europe made (on tech, austerity, dependence on Russian gas) and Europe has genuine high-tech strengths in many crucial areas. They are not to be sniffed at.

It has also taken big steps to improve its policymaking in many essential areas (common investment in renewables & research after the pandemic, a united stance on Ukraine & a rapid energy transition, boosting startups etc.). And even Macron’s discourse – for whatever one thinks of it – is imho a sign that Europeans are not just looking inwards but are actually acutely aware of their situation and trying to figure out ways to do something about it.

Plus, the simple fact that Ukrainians are fighting for their independence, freedom, democracy and the right to be part of the European Union is an incredibly potent reminder of how important the idea of a united Europe still is, far beyond its current borders. That too counts for a lot, in a very similar way to the attractiveness of the American dream around the world.

So yeah, I think your point is important and well taken, but I also think there’s a lot of nuance that can be added.

Hope I added constructively to the debate :)

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You’re absolutely right, Scandinavia has done pretty well in these areas. But it’s small in the European context. We should have several tech giants, not only Spotify and “founded in the 1970s” SAP. The European startup and tech scene has also changed a lot in recent years, in a promising direction – especially in France and partly also in CEE. So that’s good. But American tech is just so huge and successful that I think it’s right to say that Europeans overall missed the boat in that sector (maybe they can catch up, though, we shall see).

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Ericsson often gets overlooked in those discussion with their dominance in 5G space.

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They don't dominate 5G. Huawei dominates in 5G, or does when they aren't banned. Ericsson did very well with the prior generations though.

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You are absolutely right, I forgot to qualify that, it's their dominance outside of Chinese suppliers.

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Superb.

Plagerism, in the manner of adopting best practices, can be allowable with attribution.

I offer Europe something fundamental they are missing. A Mission Statement. A raisoin d'être

"... to provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity..."

Preamble United States Constitution

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Clever!!

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The EU actually has a mission statement. Unfortunately it is "ever closer union".

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I am European and I feel a much stronger allegiance to Europe than to my home country of Austria. Having lived in various European countries and in the US for the last 10 years has given me a very different perspective of Europe. I agree that Europe lacks cohesion and unity to act as a military superpower, but for that its major countries are members of NATO. Economically Europe is a superpower already. As a consequence, Europe will remain a superpower that depends on the United States to fully function as a superpower. Nothing wrong with that.

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I'm both an American and a European (and a Swede) who has lived in more than one European country. That creates some nuanced feelings when it comes to patriotism. But it is pretty hard to feel "European" when that's such a quicksilver thing lacking a very coherent identity. Or showing much resilience in a crisis. I don't see very much real evidence of solidarity between Northern Europe and Southern or Western and Eastern in Europe. And that's been increasingly obvious through the various crises of the last 15 years. This makes me sad and disappointed, to be honest. I really believe in (my own) impression of "The European Dream." So, I expected (and expect) better.

If we are to be like a continental European "nation," we cannot have such a fractious and selfish attitude the minute anything gets a little difficult! Germans will need to share with Greeks. Swedes with Poles. The Dutch with Spaniards. Etc. Your success must be my success, and vice-versa. And that's a matter that goes well beyond what % GDP everyone is (or mostly, isn't) spending on their common European defense. What about really coordinating migration, instead of leaving it to the border states? What about coming up with money to help in fiscal crises? What about common and equitable procurement of both vaccines for COVID and weapons for Ukraine? What about supporting the balanced and healthy growth of every country, and not just a few in the core? These are hard things to do. But it isn't easy being a nation or a family or a household. We need to believe that the mutual benefits are worth the cost, and be willing to actually pay it.

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I'm an American who was a research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence in 1981. It's a graduate school in law, economics and political science set up after WWII with a goal of promoting European integration, and during my year there there was lot of talk of Europe becoming a United States of Europe. Bear in mind this was before the breakup of the Soviet Union and the EU absorbing a lot of poorer East Bloc, ex-Soviet satellite countries. The students there came from all over the EU, which then included Great Britain. What struck me as an American was, while all had a strong feeling of European solidarity, their primary identity was to their home country. By contrast, no American thinks of themself as, to pick an example, a Kansan first and American second. That said, the EU has been an enormously helpful constitutional grouping of states that had been at each other's throats for centuries and no longer are. Russia and Ukraine are a different situation complicated by the dissolution of the Soviet Union (or Russian Empire if you like) and further complicated for the EU by its enlargement to include many former countries from the Soviet Bloc, which were long part of the Russian Empire, and perhaps Russia's sense of diminishment and desire to regain its former role in the world.

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I think that this feeling of Europeanness has grown a lot since the 1980s, especially in the younger generations - most young (and urban) Europeans feel politically European and only culturally German/Dutch/Czech/Italian. I also think non-Europeans greatly underestimate that even though politically European countries are disunited, the economic and cultural convergence in the past 20 years has been enormous, and the cultural/social/economic differences are now probably much greater between Oklahoma and Massachusetts, than between Spain and Netherlands, or Sweden and Poland. Just 2 generations ago, Spain and Netherlands were two completely different worlds. They feel very close now, especially if you are young and speak English well. I think we often forget that Europe as a nation is still a very young project, very much in the making. And I would not understimate the impetus it got by the Russian war against Ukraine: nothing unites quite as well as invasions. We might see the effecg of this greater integration in the future...

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There are obvious cultural differences between Oklahoma and Massachusetts, but the citizens of both would think of themselves as 'nationally' Americans. That's not the same thing as 'politically' Americans. My French wife thinks of herself as 'nationally' French, not a generic European, and only culturally French. Now, she's of an older generation, and maybe, as you say, younger generations feel differently.

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I agree. I think people mistake the partisan rancor of politics with everyday normal people. Americans overwhelmingly think of themselves as as American. Oklahoma and Massachusetts might be different politically but the day to day lives of people are pretty much the same.

I think you see the difference especially when it comes to business; it’s significantly easier to scale up in the US because it’s a largely similar internal market. Its significantly harder to scale in Europe because each country has its own set rules, employment structures, etc

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To pick another minor but illustrative example, my wife recently renewed her passport. To do so she went to the French consulate here in NY and was issued a French passport. She didn't go to the EU consulate for an EU passport, because no such thing exists.

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I couldn’t agree more and the same can be said about the United States

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It is impossible to maintain economic supremacy and forgo military supremacy, a point the EU is insistent on forgetting

This is for several reasons: the unfortunate tendency of governments to only take an innovation seriously and thereby fund if it confers a national security or military advantage, the fact that countries which cannot defend themselves will lose their best and brightest to the countries which can, and the sheer amount of crossover between military technology and consumer products.

For both Europe, and to a lesser extent, Japan, regaining and investing in their military capacity is a necessity. Their current positions are unsustainable.

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You don’t think it’s complacent to rely on an external partner to guarantee your security? However hard it may be to imagine changes to the status quo, nothing stays still for long. Circumstances change. Maybe the US will stop providing Europe’s security, maybe China will become a lot more militarily aggressive towards Europe, maybe aliens will come down to steal all our cathedrals. We need to be able to defend ourselves without outside help, or else we run the risk of losing everything that makes Europe great.

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Apr 13, 2023Liked by Noah Smith

Phenomenal article. Macron and co should take note. If only

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I can't follow the point about "buying off the Russian barbarians". The most impressive feature of the Western response wasn't military aid to Ukraine, it was the speed with which Europe reversed course on economic integration with Russia, most obviously by shutting off Russian pipeline gas as well as most oil and coal.

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Gas is still flowing, via Ukraine. Gazprom is exempt from sanctions. Oil was redirected as it is is easily traded. Russia is still selling oil, but often at a discount. Overall I think EU consumers have provided more money to Russia since the war started than the US has provided to Ukraine.

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They still purchased and are still purchasing Russian gas, but by tearing up long-term contracts, they now purchase them at higher prices, so that was a fantastic own goal.

With regard to military aid, Europe should have taken the approach of offering more than they have done but making it conditional on negotiations in good faith between Ukraine and Russia ( and a few concessions if necessary).

Ukraine is not going to win this war- that much is certain, and it is Europe which has already absorbed and will keep absorbing much of the economic fallout as well as the millions of Ukrainian refugees.

War tolerates only the most simple emotions. But once the feelings of brotherhood wear off and as the war drags on, the refugees will pose serious political problems in Europe.

It is likely that middle and lower class citizens in Eastern and Western Europe will rethink their magnanimity and start to protest at the certain consequences of migrations on such a massive scale( Poland in particular will be a place to watch in the coming decade).

All of these can be averted in time if the war ends and the rebuilding of Ukraine can begin in earnest. The longer it drags on, the more untenable the final situation will be.

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European consumption of Russian gas declined 85% in 2022, which is impressive given the war didn't start until nearly 2 months, or 15%, into the year. In 2023 imports of Russian gas into Europe will be about 3% of pre-war levels. So yes, Europe is still importing Russian gas, but hardly any.

I agree with the GP that the transformation was impressive, but 22% of the reduction in 2022 was weather-related, and 12% from curtailing production. Production curtailment will be cut by more than half in 2023, but still be present.

Europe got really, really lucky on the weather. It has not been complacent, but more progress is needed before next winter.

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I'm very interested in seeing the sources of that stat. You are, of course, generally right: European dependence on Russian gas has been cut severely and I notice a reluctance on China's part to take Europe's place and build pipeline infrastructure that links the two instead. China, it seems, is also not interested in giving Putin a potential weapon over itself.

But it remains an own goal: sky rocketing energy prices mean waves of popular and political dissent. Germany's industrial centre is slowly being hollowed out( BASF in particular has announced forced layoffs and restructuring). Coal is back, hence why the Indonesian coal company PT Adaro was the best performing stock in the world last year. This puts a big dent on Europe's climate change policies( it is interesting to note that Europe has taken climate change more seriously, at least in terms of words, than every other continent).

And Europe is now a captive customer of American oil and gas which has resulted in a bonanza of profits for American energy firms.

This is before we add in the weather which nobody can predict( it was always a little arrogant to merely assume this on the part of many pro Russian analysts).

More progress is needed before next winter. But that progress will require relaxing on either Russia or the Climate. Europe cannot wage two wars at once

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IEA is the source for the energy figures. They're generally pretty reliable.

I don't remember which IEA document I read, but this IEA document is similar, only 2 months out of date:

https://iea.blob.core.windows.net/assets/227fc286-a3a7-41ef-9843-1352a1b0c979/Naturalgassupply-demandbalanceoftheEuropeanUnionin2023.pdf

It's pretty clear that Russian long-term goals are more than Ukraine, and that's non-negotiable for Europe. So yes, ending Russian energy imports is an own goal in that it has big negative consequences, but not in any net sense, in the full context. The longer the fantasy went on, the messier the divorce was going to be. Of course the weaning period benefited Russia, but with that largely behind, the trashing of Russia's balance sheet has begun, and much worse is to come. Russia won't be able to financially entertain a military campaign reaching into NATO, and that's priceless to more than just the Europeans.

As for BASF, it was on borrowed time. I remember telling their C-suite this after Georgia and again after Crimea, but the Germans were adamant about enjoying their delusion with Russia.

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Yes, the IEA is pretty reliable. I'll look the document up. I generally agree. Hmmm. BASF is pivotal for Germany though.

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I would never countenance against their ingenuity, but the portion of German industry that can't transition this year away from gas is likely unsustainable.

BASF has no choice but to diversify.

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Also useful to look at https://www.russiafossiltracker.com/

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I appreciate the reply. All right I'm definitely going to look through all these and possibly get back.

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We need the EU to become a third superpower as long as this iteration of the Republican Party exists, as America can no longer be trusted to be a bulwark of freedom and democracy

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As a proud American and European, this is where I'm at. I no longer feel safe in believing that the United States will be a pillar of freedom in the 21st Century. I do sincerely hope that we look back on this period of political unrest and Republican embrace of far-right illiberalism as a "growing pain," but hope isn't a strategy. So, there needs to at least be an alternate who can pick up and carry the torch and be a counterweight to China and its decidedly authoritarian vision of the future. But Europe isn't united or assertive enough to do anything on its own at the moment, and that's very worrisome. France and Germany would both, clearly, prefer to just get on with business-as-usual and "trade with the barbarians," rather than show any leadership.

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Countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada need to start coming up with strategies of how to operate in a world where America are clearly the bad guy (to put it crudely)

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I don’t think Europe exempt from having a surge of right wing borderline fascism.

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Honestly, I've been hearing this "demographics is destiny" argument made by Democrats for two decades now. And, still, we await the inevitable, permanent Democratic majority. It ain't gonna happen. Republicans will keep winning enough elections to spoil things, and not just because they've mastered various forms of legal cheating to secure minority rule.

Firstly, demographics aren't as simple as Democrats seem to think. Republicans a generation ago managed to notice something that Democrats seem oddly blind to: minorities and young people aren't a monolith. There is no such thing as "The Hispanic Vote." There never was. Nor can you group Asian-Americans into a coherent political or demographic group, given that Asia is half the world, and has sent future Americans of wildly different circumstances to the United States for a long, long time.

This is not to say Identity Politics doesn't exist. Clearly, Black Americans have been a core and key constituency for Democrats at least since the Johnson Administration. But, perhaps less remarked upon is how much Identity Politics have also gripped white Americans in an equal and opposite way. They are and long have been reliable voters for Republicans. Including white women! And also white young people, too! This matters because it will still be some time before white Americans are in the minority.

And race isn't the only salient factor affecting voting decisions. There's also gender. Mars and Venus: Men vote Republican and women vote Democrat. Trump ushered in an age where that was even increasingly true for Black men. It was certainly the case for pluralities of Hispanic men in key districts. There are more female Americans than male ones, but a lot of swing districts and states have more men (most impactfully, Nevada and Colorado).

Age is more complicated, as Noah has discussed here. Young people do, overall, vote Democrat. But they also haven't, historically, voted much. That's improved in recent cycles, since Obama. A big change that might really have an impact is how Millennials and younger Gen Xers have just not changed their Democrat-leaning politics with age. It used to be the case that as you got older, you got more Conservative. Now Millennials are pushing 40, and they aren't more Conservative. Gen Xers seem to be split based on whether they had formative years earlier, under Ford/Carter, or later, under Reagan/Bush. The older ones are more "Boomer" in their politics, having seen the late 70s discrediting of Liberalism (and cratering of their early careers) and then the triumphalist rise of Reaganism. The younger Gen Xers ones got pulled along by Clinton's magic in the 90s, followed by the big mess that was the Bush Era. So, maybe demographics is political destiny there.

Lastly, you have education, which also has a strong predictive effect. Trump "loves the uneducated." Because they vote for him. It used to be that educated Americans (like my Ivy-educated grandfather) voted Republican. Now they vote Democrat. But that doesn't much matter because 2/3 of Americans don't have a college degree. And those college-graduate Americans who do are clustered in cities and their metro-regions, which is a disadvantage in our electoral system.

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They need to be repeatedly defeated in such a way they have to change but sadly the electoral college gives a minority party a real shot at Presidential power while the senate lets them prevent the other side from governing while the 2016 election (thanks Bernie) and RBGs narcissism has given them a 20 year lock on the court allowing lawless judges to override the will of the majority

After 3 big defeats in the 80s the Dems moderated through the DLC and elected Clinton, there are no signs so far of the GOP doing anything similar

Finally demographics will not save you if the progressive left keep tarring the Democratic Brand with things like Defund The Police and LatinX just look at south Texas, Latinos hate that stuff and even though the ppl who push these stupid ideas are truly a fringe when it comes to Democratic elected officials, there are way too many loud voices on TV & Online who average ppl see as ‘speaking for Democrats’ who toxify the brand especially among the often quite socially conservative Latinos and (thankfully the GOP are too overtly racist to capitalise on it) older black voters

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You need to frame how big the defeats were, though. Democrats didn't just lose elections: they didn't occupy the White House for the *entire* 1980s until 1993. That's a very lengthy time in the wilderness. They also didn't just lose by like 49% to 51%. They lost almost every single state in the country in both 1980 and 1984--and even again in 1988! Also, even with all those presidential defeats, the Democrats had still controlled the House of Representatives for decades before Gingrich snatched it in 1994 as a seeming rebuke to Clinton's more progressive first two years. So, to be a Democrat during the 1980s through the early 1990s was to live in a persistent state of trauma over getting owned so hard for so long.

There's been no such owning for the GOP in recent years. Republicans lost only the House in 2018 (while still holding the White House and Senate), which is a pretty standard thermostatic politics swing. 2020 was an electoral disaster for them, but only by the *slimmest* of margins. And 2022 was a disappointment, but hardly an unqualified victory for Democrats, who lost the House while retaining the Senate. 2024 could go either way, though my bet is that the Republicans take the Senate but lose the White House. Meanwhile, Republicans have been running the tables in the courts and in the statehouses (which they still control most of), getting their agenda done in the majority of the country. So why would they worry?

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This "wokeness" stuff is such an artificial panic, drummed by by Republicans to serve the needs of adversarial politics because they don't have great, popular ideas themselves.

However, one aspect of the criticism does have potential merit, as Noah has discussed by way of Matt Yglesias : how the internal dynamics of the Democratic coalition force "Everything Bagel Liberalism." Governments (and companies) that try to please everyone at the same time and try to fulfill multiple, overlapping social agendas will end up just doing everything badly. If it's "woke" to want to support minority-owned businesses, ensure employer-provided childcare, reduce carbon emissions (and push Buy American and union-friendly procurement policies), then big Democratic policy wins like the Inflation Reduction Act are very "woke" and are already suffering the cost in effectiveness for it. Why not just build stuff and trust that the societal betterment will come? Every American benefits from cheaper healthcare and drug prices, lower energy costs, greener energy, and more domestic manufacturing in the industries of the future. But, inherently, these benefits will already flow disproportionately to the most vulnerable groups! So no need to explicitly mandate it, which adds inefficiency, frustrating red tape, and needless zero-sum politicization. If anything's going to last politically, you need people to notice the obvious benefits quickly and to all feel like they have a share.

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Very cool article, thanks Noah.

These weaknesses are very real. In the last couple years, we Europeans have had a hard wake-up and throwback to what we thought was well past - modern economies that use war and threats of it against their neighbours. And as many times before, we should be grateful to the Americans for saving our ass.

That being said, the concept of a voluntary union of countries, that accept to pay some 1% of their GDP to the union, seems like more promising for the future than nations states with a unified military. The looseness of the union and tribalism within it is a weakness but also quite a guarantor that unlike the U.S., Russia, or China; the E.U as whole is unlikely to want, or be able to, periodically invade other countries. This is also less fragile to some wannabe dictator taking over the whole thing, as I think many Americans were/are concerned about, perhaps with reason. Here, no single-point failure to forever tyranny.

The E.U. is a concept that can obsolete the nation-state unified around a military. In fact it is the only workable alternative that we know of. It has proven its peacemaking value, and it has also proven its attractivity - neighbouring countries want to join, which as far as I know, is not the wish of most Canadians or Mexicans towards the U.S. - so there.

The best future that looks achievable at the moment is one where other parts of the world also make their own voluntary, non-military, non-tribal unions - with at least a modicum of solidarity, to some 1% of their GDP. But, this future is not there yet, and it's a good thing that our allies saw that.

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

The Canada/Mexico point is interesting. Certainly, most Canadian provinces and northern Mexican states do more trade with the US than their own countries. But key differences from European states likely deter this:

- Canada and Mexico are geographically large, continent-spanning countries, and in that way more like Russia than European states. They are federations that are already both highly difficult to govern.

- They are almost invulnerable to invasion, except from the US.

- the US is too powerful to contemplate incremental political union for Canada and Mexico. That differential also dulls US interest too. That's why there isn't even a customs union in NAFTA

- maybe most critically, the political elites of European states are attracted to the EU as a place where numerous semi-retirement sinecures are available. As already-existing federations, that would not have much incremental benefit for Canadian or Mexican political elites in a "United States of North America".

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An elegant argument for federalism you've put forward here. I'd agree in many ways. Especially given the unprecedented nature of a lot of the future challenges we will face. Perhaps centralized, unified control will lack resilience and flexibility, even at the price of efficiency and force concentration. If Sweden and Spain, England and Estonia, and Germany and Greece had to agree upon every aspect of our responses to Climate Change, you'd see (and do see) a lot of acrimony and confusion and lowest-common-denominator initiatives.

Also, as you say, it's harder for a dictator to rise in our midst. It's regrettable that Hungary and Poland have gone the way of "illiberal democracy," but they're just two countries and not Europe's most important ones by a long shot. Even the degradation in both politics and economic strength seen in as core a country as Italy doesn't totally threaten the entire European project. And Macron's "quirky" neo-imperial grandeur couldn't be more out of step with Germany's staid (non-)leadership next door, but that's a good thing. Everything's maybe just balanced enough to not accomplish much ambitious, but also not to fall apart completely.

By contrast, I wish that the Trumpian contagion in the United States could be limited to just the likes of Florida and Texas. But the ambition (and means) of the American far-right are larger. It only takes a single presidential election to change everything. No doubt, residents of Utah and Arkansas also resent being told what to do by people far away in distance and lifestyle on the East or West Coasts. It often feels like a more devolved Articles of Confederation-style decentralization could actually have utility in the future for such a divided United States.

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What’s really wrong with Macron’s comments is that being a superpower is a sucker’s game. Europe had superbly positioned itself in the U.S./ Russia conflict, getting getting its defense subsidized from the U.S. and cheap oil and gas from the Russia. The Ukraine War has brought that to an end, but it the arrangement subsidized European living standards for generations. Well played sir! Is the fact the the EU hasn’t produced a Facebook, a Twitter, or a Tik-Tok a critique or compliment?

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I agree there seems to be an unexamined assumption that being a superpower gets you something useful. What are the citizens of Australia or Canada or Japan lacking that they'd have if they were superpowers?

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"having a second pole committed to democracy and human rights"

Is Europe actually committed to democracy? It doesn't look like it based on their treatment of Hungary (no money until you bring your laws into line with our views instead of your own peoples') and Greece (you will alter your spending or we will let you go bankrupt, to hell with what your population thinks). The EU is committed to secular liberalism -- both economic and social -- and is perfectly willing to use non-democratic (even authoritarian) means to get there.

"even though Europe now lets in tons of immigrants, a[n] issue is slow growth in per capita output."

Perhaps all immigration isn't created equal, Noah? When your immigrants are millions of uneducated and culturally incompatible refugees, this is what happens. Were Europe to choose their immigrants based on skill sets and needs (like Canada does) they would get a different outcome. Canada has also allowed in a lot of people in recent years (as a percent of population), but their productivity hasn't suffered.

"in wide body aircraft... in robotics... in high speed trains... China uses this opportunity to appropriate technology and eventually outcompete Europeans"

What a shock. Mercantilism works!

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This isn't a very interesting argument. Every "democracy" has guardrails and limits to it. The US frequently has federal laws that trump state laws, state laws that trump city laws. The US doesn't allow individual states to vote in favour of allowing slavery, or even to allow a minimum wage under the federal limit.

It's not particularly useful to point to limitations of absolute, unchecked democracy and pretend some point has been made.

Pretending that the EU isn't one of the largest sources of democracy on the planet, and anything short of Platonic perfection is useless might be a fun way to comment on the internet but doesn't seem useful in the real world.

To have any kind of meaningful argument you'd need to compare things like the EU commission's legislation on political advertising, on funding political parties, on SLAAP lawsuits, on electoral integrity, on journalist safety, and whatnot to what every other country on the planet is doing.

And I'm not sure what Greece's situation has to do with democracy. That's just regular old lending covenants. Is my "democracy" being violated because my mortgage provider requires me to carry house insurance?

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Hungary passed a law that says kids can't be indoctrinated with gender ideology or given pornography in school. And you compare that to re-enacting slavery? Seems a little over the top to me.

Also, millions of EU citizens (at the time) voted for Brexit precisely because they did not share your belief that "the EU is one of the largest sources of democracy on the planet." Looked at from outside, it appears to be a highly technocratic and electorally unresponsive institution. But I don't live there, so I could be wrong about that.

Despite these quibbles though, you're making my point perfectly. The EU describes itself as a "liberal democracy". This is an oxymoron, since democracy's claim of "the consent of the governed" conflicts with liberalism's claim of "universal human rights". When do you defer to popular will and when do you force your fellow citizens -- at the point of a gun if necessary -- to live under "liberal" laws the majority of them would not choose for themselves?

Here's a simple example from outside Western politics:

When polled, citizens in Muslim countries overwhelming support some form of female dress code that includes a hajib. The views of Middle Eastern men and women on this subject are nearly identical -- if anything, women prefer a slightly more restrictive dress code. However such a strict Islamic dress curtails the freedom of the minority of women in these countries who want to wear miniskirts.

Data: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/01/08/what-is-appropriate-attire-for-women-in-muslim-countries/

My question is this. Is the Muslim dress code a valid expression of the popular will even though it is illiberal and curtails the rights of some members? Or would you (and I do mean you personally) attempt to overturn such dress codes -- for example, but withholding NGO aid until the country removed them -- in the name of "liberating" Muslim women from a sexist standards of dress, despite the fact that the vast majority prefer those standards?

I choose this example since it's not one of our Western political disagreements, which makes the tension between liberalism and easier to see. And I am legitimately curious how you would handle that situation and what basis you would use to decide it.

BTW: Since I think giving a challenge without being willing to accept the same is rude, as an essentially Burkean conservative, I am naturally skeptical of universal liberationist crusades. So I don't have any problem with Egypt not accepting Western dress codes or with Hungary not accepting Western LGBT views or with Brazil not accepting Western neo-liberal economic policies. Are there limits to my belief in democracy? Sure. I wouldn't be OK with legalizing slavery or murder or rape. But in general, I come down in favor of democracy and popular will instead of universal liberationist ideals.

What about you?

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Interesting and enjoyable post...I think your point about uneducated and culturally incompatible refugees is off base however. The US has taken in (Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese) and continues to take in (Mexican, South American and even a sizable number of African) immigrants. Right now hundreds of thousands are coming into the country without documentation.

While I do support a greater degree of control over the boarder I am not too worried overall. The people coming generally want to work and better their lives and if you look at past groups (European immigrants are did well, my father-in-law was a first generation American (family was from Sicily) who had to change his first name from Pasquale to Pat). His parents and grandparents where uneducated and the later never learned English. He ended up being a high-level CIA supervisor and his kids all have advanced degrees and did well. Chinese and Japanese immigrants, both subject to horrific treatment, are now (when lumped into the Asian subgroup) the most affluent Americans on a per capita basis (by a huge margin). Hispanic Americans, despite decades of unskilled immigration that dramatically lower their median income, are catching up. They have also been essential in helping America avoid a falling population and added hugely to American culture.

The US problem is the groups that were either here first (Native Americans) or brought here against their will and enslaved. Both groups constitute the US's biggest shame and failing. That said, immigrants have generally been pretty good after a couple generations. Yes Hispanics have not caught us, as a group, as quickly, but that demographic has continued to immigrate in huge numbers for decades. This makes most measures, that often rely on things like median income, more difficult to gauge. It also probably makes integration harder as speaking (this is just a guess and I could be completely off base).

I just wanted to point this out as I have had a lot of contacts with European police and researchers at academic conferences and have been struck by how negative they are toward immigration. It almost feels like being at a Trump rally or similar.

Hopefully Europe can be smarter about how it handles immigration/refugees and turn it into the positive. Europe (just like the US) needs the people and dynamism.

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Well, historically the US has done a lot better than European countries in terms of integrating immigrants...a major factor IMO is the lack of a welfare state in the US, so that immigrants have to work to get ahead...I am not saying that immigrants only come to the EU to live off the welfare state, but IMO the welfare state is a major reason why (low-skilled) immigration to Western Europe has been a bigger problem than to the US...

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Apr 13, 2023·edited Apr 13, 2023

To be a "superpower," from purely linguistic analysis alone, wouldn't one need <power>?

Europe is certainly a powerful continent, but all of its power - economic, diplomatic, cultural - is derived from its international security status. That status is contingent and not organic.

"Soft Power" is a mirage based on the fantastical assumption that its physical security (read military capacity to generate kinetic force) is a given, is constant, and secular (permanent). It is not.

A wise man once said, "all of history is governed by the aggressive use of force." That wisdom has yet to be disproven.

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Good piece, thanks. The last paragraph is a stunner. I am not sure who is buying off whom, though. It is as much about China and other nefarious regimes buying off European companies and pols as the reverse (go back to the Iraq “oil for food” deal for examples).

France and Germany are mercantilists, and since the days of fascism their corporate sector has been heavily intertwined with the state. The EU (unlike NAFTA) isn’t about free trade but rather restricting competition and preserving the power of state champions. Innovation would harm state champions and upset the balance of interlocking interests (unions, corporations, political parties).

Macron went to China with dozens of French corporations - it was a trade junket, not a foreign policy trip. Or rather, getting contracts for France’s national champions is France’s foreign policy.

Germany and France’s focus on trade was evident after the 2014 Ukraine invasion. They slow-walked subsidies, backed Nordstream and sold hundreds of millions with of equipment to Russia for military use (violating the weak sanctions regime the EU had set up). The Obama/Biden admin wasn’t much better back then - remember they offered Putin an unconditional reset after his invasion of Georgia, promised Russia more flexibility after elections, invited Russia to take a larger role in Syria and refused to sell arms to Ukraine after 2014, and appeased/entreated the mullahs in Iran whilst they were engaging in sectarian pogroms and destabilization across the Middle East. So let’s not overfocus on what seems to be an American backbone at the moment (at least in Ukraine) but at least America can say it is not in Ukraine or appeasing murderous mullahs for the sake of General Motors (though maybe keep a close eye on the Biden family bank accounts).

Anyway, it is clear the US cannot rely on France and Germany for help with China, though it is Americas own companies (with heavy reliance on Chinese manufacturing) who have likely complicated things in Asia more than France and Germany have or will.

It is also clear from Ukraine that Russia presents zero sustainable conventional military threat to Europe (ex-nukes) which does call into question the utility of NATO (if not the nuclear umbrella). What is the US getting in return for NATO and the nuke umbrella? EU bills of attainder targeting US tech companies? Banning of US ag products? Tax havens in Ireland, Lux, Switzerland and Holland that now hold the bulk of American IP in the tech and pharma industries? Is Europe going to be a help in Asia? It is true that without American backing, much of Eastern Europe will be vulnerable to Russian bribery and meddling (Germany and France seem more keen on punishing Poland than helping it). The E Europeans and the Nordic countries are more trustworthy allies for the US than Germany, France, Italy and Spain, though what these allies can do for the US in return seems minimal.

Europe’s biggest failing is probably in its near abroad and former colonial states in Africa and the Mideast. The US, for all of its faults, has taken a different corporate approach to its near abroad (Canada and Latam), offering free trade without these countries having to conform to US enviro or labor laws at home, nor be subject at home to the jurisdiction of the US Supreme Court.

US companies have gone abroad in the spirit of becoming local companies (who export back to the US) and the US wants to see its neighbors develop and prosper. European corporations, in Africa and the Middle East, want to sell/export stuff. The mercantilist approach doesn’t really lend itself to economic development. Politically and militarily France has taken an active role in the Mideast and Africa but the EU really needs to integrate itself with those regions and develop those regions, using imports into its own consumer market as a driver. This would help keep out China and Russia (and Iran) as well as Sunni terrorist groups. This sort of thing is currently not in the EU’s wheelhouse.

If the EU doesn’t engage with and develop Africa, there will soon enough be nearly 2 billion Africans who might like to live and work in Europe.

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To pic a nit here: not having to conform to US enviro or labor laws isn't much of an issue for trade with Canada. And no one would allow themselves to be subject to SCOTUS.

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I agree with the whole analysis, especially the dumb German policies of closing nuclear plants.

Greetings from Germany

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Unfortunately the German Greens, in their short sightedness and insistence on ideological dogma, remind me of the Republicans in the US...thankfully, Germany has a PR system because if the Greens could get majority power like the GOP in the US that would spell trouble for both Germany and Europe as a whole...

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