A real European army and the problem of historical ignorance

History has been very much in the news of late, and it is the perfect storm of generational and elite neglect and the abuse of history that has led to the still-tepid-but-politically-explosive calls for a “real European Army” by Germany’s pragmatic and ever-tactful Chancellor Angela Merkel.

On Nov. 11, dozens of leaders from the world over converged on France for the centennial remembrance of the armistice that ended the First World War in 1918. Military and diplomatic historians long have associated the failed efforts to prevent a second world war (the League of Nations) with the birth of the system that eventually not only prevented a third world war — and ushered in the steady demise of interstate war — but resulted in the peaceful disintegration of one of history’s greatest failed experiments: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).


The core of those ideas, what was first collective security, and later, institutions to protect against the scourge of tariff barriers to trade, turned the demonstrably lethal precepts of nationalism — “my country first,” and “my country, right or wrong” — on its head. After World War II, its survivors accepted a new understanding of what “my country first” must mean: that the vital national interests of states could be obtained only in partnership with other, like-minded states.

Don’t forget, the United States remained the only advanced industrial economy still standing in 1945. Its isolation from the truly catastrophic destruction that war had wrought in Europe, Russia, China and Japan, combined with its truly unprecedented economic and military power, gave it a unique opportunity to advance its own narrow self-interests in the pre-war sense — the same sense that President Donald Trump fondly (and erroneously) recalls as an ideal.

Yet in 1945, the United States chose to accept a series of limitations on its own power after the war. It agreed to give to both its allies and its fallen foes a disproportionate share of its own wealth, technical know-how and security guarantees. It did so because American leaders recognized that to do otherwise would result in a betrayal of U.S. national interests, not their advancement. After 1945, American nationalism — “America first” — meant working with allies to contain enemies, enhance security cooperation and expand free trade. That is what made America great.

History is a useful resource if you pay attention to it. President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE appears to have internalized a cartoon version of U.S. and world history and has surrounded himself with people who mirror his lethally naive views. Yet he is hardly alone.

Today a generation of young people, not only in the United States but in Europe and in Asia, has grown up with the idea that interstate and global thermonuclear wars are a thing of the past, meant only for the history books and never to return.

If that were true, Trump’s consistent disparagement of the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and other supranational institutions designed to prevent a third world war would make sense. States would be free to return to a narrow, petulant, “me first” domestic and foreign policy without fear of horrific consequences. Democracy itself would not be all that ideal, because even were democracies and authoritarian states to face off in war, the democracies would win; with no fear of war, why bother with limits on absolute authority? Why worry about income inequality and corruption?


Like the United States, President Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation and President Xi Jinping’s People’s Republic of China face no external enemies either capable or willing to assault, invade or conquer them militarily. Is it any wonder, then, that these states have become increasingly autocratic and increasingly corrupt?

But our European allies have not forgotten their history. They have not forgotten the hundreds of years when citizens of France and Germany awoke each day and took for granted that they were existential adversaries. They have not ceased to be grateful for the complex, difficult and long path to the understanding that they no are longer enemies, but partners in a European Union. They understand, as so many of the world’s young people and the U.S. president apparently do not, that collective security and prosperity are not accounts that can be drawn on indefinitely without dangerous consequences, but are values that must be maintained in partnership and at some cost.

Chancellor Merkel’s call for a real European army “one day” to supplement NATO should be considered only in this light. The current administration, leading a popular, even populist, base, has served to wake our allies to the necessity to think through what it would mean for their own futures should the United States abandon its decades-long commitments to collective security and free trade.

So far, what we have seen is mostly hot air on both sides. To the European Union, the Russian Federation is truly obnoxious as a neighbor; a persistent bully. But with the exception of the states of the former Warsaw Pact and the Nordic countries, Europeans have little need, and therefore little interest, in spending more on any sort of national defense, save cybersecurity.

The United States still possesses a sufficient number of besieged public servants keenly aware of the costly, and potentially lethal, consequences of giving the current U.S. president’s ignorance much actual policy traction. But these sandbags can only stop the flood for only so long. The river may rise again. And that is why Europe’s recent discussions about strategic and security autonomy are unlikely to go away, even if the next presidential election in 2020 brings a new leader to the White House.

Monica Toft is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She previously taught at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and spent four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist. Follow her on Twitter @monicaduffytoft.