15 September 2008

Buruma on the legacy of Munich

Ian Buruma is a thoughtful writer, whom I used to read regularly in the New York Review of Books. He's written an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times on the 'lessons' of Munich. The role of the Munich Agreement in American political discourse is, of course, fascinating. Yet one rarely hears Europeans using its example, unless they are arguing about how their country should be supporting America.
Buruma's general point is that European democracies in particular have reached a point where they ought to make up their minds whether to shelter behind America's shield, or whether the time has come for them to pursue a more independent line and accept the consequences. The problem is that Buruma refers to 'Europe' as some kind of collective entity. While the European Commission would probably like it so, the reality is that Europeans, individually, clearly do not. The British, for example, have a very strong bilateral relationship with the United States. The French less so. I don't see either of these two changing their views in my lifetime.
In fact, the Munich crisis, so beloved of American opinion-formers, was a peculiarly European event, arguably the last gasp of the old Congress System approach to resolving European crises. In the tradition of European diplomacy, it was the formal acknowledgment by all the European powers of Hitler's (and Germany's) leading role on the Continent. By expectation, he should have thereafter played by the rules.
In a European context, opposition to Munich could only be defined in one of two ways. On the one hand, you could be endorsing a common front with the Soviet Union against Fascism, surely anathema to American politicians de nos jours. On the other, you could be demanding the reimposition of the Versailles settlement. This is a bit trickier to reconstruct into an American context, and perhaps I ought to return to it in another post, where I can do the subject justice.

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