Europe’s Options

24 June 2016


Headlines on the BBC

Headlines on the BBC

In the wake of the vote by the British to leave to the EU (i.e., “Brexit”), the UK and the EU both have many options on how to manage the transition, and the vote in and of itself is not enough to predict how exactly British exit from the EU will occur. We have to wait and watch if we are to understand, and to correctly interpret, the subtle clues and telling details in a political landscape defined by a lack of subtlety and a barrage of trivia no item of which is a telling detail. Whatever happens, and however it happens, we are seeing geopolitics played out on a grand scale.

As a divisive political confrontation, the immediate fallout of the “Leave” vote will be accusations and recriminations, short term market fluctuations, dramatic public statements being made, a painstakingly detailed analysis of the demographic breakdown of the vote, and so on. The press will focus on these immediate consequences, and as the press was enthusiastic in backing “Project Fear” it is more or less obligated to report the worst possible news that it can find in order to confirm the narrative that the world will come to an end in the event of a “Leave” vote. The immediate consequences are the “white noise” of political conflict, and must be set aside in order for a more rational assessment of short-term, mid-term, and long-term consequences.

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen Director, Web Policy

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen
Director, Web Policy

In a previous post on futurism I cited the “futures cone,” which depicts the arrow of time flaring outward into the future, with the probable future in the center, the plausible future just beyond the center, the possible future farther yet from the center, and the preposterous future at the outside edge of the futures cone (see above — I have adopted this language from Joseph Voros’ exposition of the futures cone). We can employ the futures cone to distinguish classes of outcomes from the Brexit vote.

Some of the most obvious outcomes neatly fall into the categories of the futures cone:

● Probable The UK negotiates a trade deal with the UN that allows both Britain and the EU to continue to employ the City of London as the de facto banking capital of western Europe, which is overwhelmingly in the interest of all concerned. Very little of substance changes. The press selectively reports on economic problems so that the sore loser “remain” faction can maintain plausible deniability that it was right all along, while the “leave” faction gets what it wants in changes to immigration policy.

● Plausible Eurocrats in Brussels are vindictive and seek retaliation for their humiliation; the EU attempts to economically isolate and marginalize the UK, and both sides erect trade barriers that result in UK and EU growth turning negative. A long recession and a slow recovery ensues. This scenario could well be exacerbated by actions taken by the US, as both major political party candidates for the US presidential election are opposed to free trade.

● Possible The “Leave” vote is set aside (the EU has a long history of setting aside votes that fail to conform to its narrative); endless negotiations drag on for years while the EU and the UK are at best economically stagnant; or additional votes are taken until the desired result is obtained.

● Preposterous There is no end to the number of preposterous scenarios that can be constructed upon the “Leave” vote. For example, the unraveling EU might lead to widespread chaos and disorder, ultimately meaning the end of civilization in Europe. Or a royal coup might set aside the popular vote and reverse the decision by royal decree, suspending democratic process. Or the unraveling of the EU might be followed by the constitution of alternative trade zones, as I once suggested in several posts on a northern trade zone (which I called the “Hansazone”) around the Baltic.

In my previous posts on futurism and the futures cone I emphasized that it is a relatively easy matter to predict what tomorrow will be like, because there are definite limits on how different tomorrow can be from today. However, it is extraordinarily difficult to predict the long-term future, so that between the predictable short term and the unpredictable long term, it is in the mid-term that our predictions go wrong. With this in mind, to get a better sense of the foreign country that is the future (and in this sense like the past), we should attempt to construct plausible paths by which probable and plausible short-term actions issue in implausible mid-term and long-term consequences.

For example, in the short-term there will be conflicting motives, with the EU being torn between cutting a deal that is good for all, or seeking a vindictive settlement that will punish Britain. Why should Eurocrats want to punish the UK for going its own way? Because despite the constant drumbeat in the press of the economic risks to Britain to leave the EU, the EU is much more vulnerable than the UK, partly because it is much less resilient and robust in its institutional structure. The “Leave” vote shows this up, and has the symbolic meaning that is the EU, and not the UK, that is weak, and that states can choose to leave the EU and it is not the end of the world. The illusion of the inevitable triumphal expansion of the EU has been rudely shattered, and some will want the UK to suffer for this, regardless of the cost. Thus the negotiations on the EU departure of the EU will be fraught, and may be in equal parts conciliatory and vindictive.

The kind of sausage-making that will result from mixed motives in the EU departure negotiations could result in radically different outcomes in the mid-term. While I regard it as unlikely, it is nevertheless possible that the EU might drag out its negotiations with the UK while fast-tracking the accession of candidates for entry into the EU, meaning that the UK is stuck and stagnant while the EU is expanding. Under this scenario, the EU grows and thrives while the UK becomes a marginalized economic backwater.

Another example of a mid-term future veering away from the most probable future constrained by concerns for stability and vested interests, is that the departure of the UK does begin the process of the unraveling of the EU (meaning the end of “Eurozone civilization” as was the concern of Donald Tusk). Other nation-states may hold referendums and depart from the EU, which shrinks as more and more parts are lopped off. The EU might continue in name only, as a ghost of its former self, and be remembered as a grand but failed visionary political project, the last gasp of the spirit of Yalta and Bretton Woods.

Under this scenario, the EU becomes economically marginal (sort of like Mercosur in South America), but the unraveling need not stop there. One might see the UK break up also, with Scotland and Ireland holding their own referendums to leave, and possibly even trying to rejoin the EU as independent nation-states. Paradoxically, this degree of Balkanization in western Europe, while it would be met with horror by the chattering classes, would probably result in far more pluralism and democracy than the EU model for pluralism and democracy in Europe. Also, in this pluralistic context it would be relatively straight-forward to constitute new economic zones, and so my “preposterous” scenario above could become plausible in the fullness of time.

The “Leave” vote was just the beginning of a process, and the immediate fallout will simply be theatrics. Only time will tell what the process itself will actually be (the situation is unprecedented, as no nation-state has previously negotiated its departure from the EU), and what outcomes are likely to follow.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Eurozone Civilization

15 June 2016


Donald Tusk

Donald Tusk

How briefly can a socioeconomic state of affairs endure and still constitute a distinct and identifiable civilization? To phrase the question in another way, how finely can we parse the concept of civilization? Though this is a question of some theoretical interest, I ask this question now because of recent remarks by President of the European Council Donald Tusk. Tusk was interviewed by the German publication Bild on the topic of the pending referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union (which latter has been given the unfortunate name “Brexit”). Tusk said the following in this interview:

The leave campaign contains a very clear message: “Let us leave, nothing will change, everything will stay as before”. Well, it will not. Not only economic implications will be negative for the UK, but first and foremost geopolitical. Do you know why these consequences are so dangerous? Because in the long-term they are completely unpredictable. As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.

Business Insider, TUSK: ‘This could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization’

And in the original German…

„Die Kampagne für den Brexit hat eine sehr klare Botschaft: ,Lasst uns austreten. Nichts wird sich ändern, alles wird bleiben wie immer.’ Nun, das ist falsch. Nicht nur wirtschaftlich, sondern vor allem geopolitisch wäre es ein Rückschlag für Großbritannien. Warum ist das so gefährlich? Weil niemand die langfristigen Folgen vorhersehen kann. Als Historiker fürchte ich: Der Brexit könnte der Beginn der Zerstörung nicht nur der EU, sondern der gesamten politischen Zivilisation des Westens sein.“

Bild, Nikolaus Blome und Kai Diekmann, EU-Ratspräsident Donald Tusk über die Brexit-Gefahr „Unsere Feinde werden Champagner trinken

There are two interesting qualifications that Tusk makes to his sweeping pronouncement on the beginning of the end of European civilization: “as a historian” (“Als Historiker”) and “Western political civilization” (“politischen Zivilisation des Westens”). I assume that Tusk is making the qualification “as a historian” in order to emphasize that he is not speaking as a politician, or in some other capacity, in this context. (Indeed, Tusk studied history at the University of Gdańsk.) The other qualification — instead of simply invoking “western civilization” he specified “western political civilization” — is more difficult to interpret. One might speculate that he attaches the idea of politics to civilization as a hedge, suggesting that political civilization might unravel, but that is not necessarily the end of civilization simpliciter. However, one probably shouldn’t try to read too much into this qualification.

Can we speak of a Eurozone civilization, or has the Eurozone been too ephemeral in historical terms to qualify as a civilization? I would have no hesitation in referring to a Eurozone civilization, and, in so far as there is a Eurozone civilization, the unraveling of the Eurozone project that could follow from British withdrawal could well begin the unraveling of Eurozone civilization. But let us take a closer look at short-lived civilizations.

I have previously written about Soviet Civilization (cf. Addendum on Failed Civilizations and The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus), which only endured about seventy years, and unraveled when the Soviet Union fell apart. I think that one could, with equal validity, speak of a Nazi civilization, though this endured less than twenty years. In the case of very short-lived political entities like Nazism, it might be more accurate to speak in aspirational terms, i.e., in terms of what the nascent political entity hoped to achieve as a civilization.

In the case of both Soviet civilization and Nazi civilization, we have examples of failed civilizations due to failed central projects; when the central project of these respective civilizations failed, the civilizations failed. Thus if one defines a civilization in terms of a viable central project, the Soviet and Nazi experiments do not constitute civilizations, but rather failed attempts to found civilization de novo. However, this poses additional questions, such as whether a civilization founded on a central project that ultimately proves to be non-viable, but it takes hundreds of years for the civilization to well and truly fail, is a civilization. Should we deny that such failed civilizations constituted civilizations? I think there is a certain bias toward longevity that would make us hesitate to deny a long-lived failed civilization to be a civilization. So should we deny that short-lived failed civilizations are civilizations?

In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I defined civilizations in terms of economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure: where we find both, we have a civilization. I would now amend this, and add that a civilization is an economic infrastructure and an intellectual superstructure joined by a central project. This definition of civilization does not take longevity into account, so it can equally well apply to short-lived or long-lived civilizations.

The Eurozone has all the elements of civilization as I define it. There is an economic infrastructure, which might be identified with Rhine Capitalism; there is an intellectual superstructure, as embodied in the legal and political institutions of the EU, as well as the older ideas of European civilization and western civilization that transcend the specific context of the Eurozone; and there is a central project, the idea of Europe itself, transformed into a political idea.

Superficially, Eurozone civilization would seem to be a highly stable and viable enterprise, as many of the economic institutions and intellectual institutions are mutually supporting. For example, the free movement of populations, now being tested as a central pillar of European integration, is both an economic doctrine and a doctrine of personal liberty. However, despite these apparent virtues of the Eurozone, the project seems doomed to failure in its current incarnation, which, of course, does not mean that the Europeans cannot try again. There have been many movements to unify and integrate Europe over its long history, and we can expect that, if the current template for unification and integration fails, there will be future attempts.

A final thought: Europe has long been unified and integrated as a cultural and intellectual entity, and even as an economic entity. In other words, the unity of Europe is the same as the unity of our planetary civilization: unity in all relevant senses expect political and legal unification. But this legal and political unity has become a kind of fetish, so that we seem to be unable to recognize planetary civilization for what it is simply because we lack a planetary political order (cf. Origins of Globalization). In the same way, Europe has made a fetish of legal and political unification, and this has obscured the extent to which Europe is already one, single European civilization. The transformation of the idea of Europe into a political project may be the essential problem with the Eurozone. The motivation of this project — to prevent any future conflicts on the scale of the world wars of the twentieth century — primarily addresses the Franco-German rivalry that has characterized Europe since the death of Charlemagne. In so far as Britain has always been the “offshore balancer” to this continental rivalry, it is no surprise that Britain is the first powerful nation-state to seriously pose the question of its exit from the EU.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Pricing Political Risk

25 February 2016


David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

David Cameron wants to keep Britain in the EU, and negotiated a deal with the EU to this end, but the deal undermines the EU, so that the EU is weakened regardless of the referendum outcome.

The inability of the financial sector to price political risk is being made painfully clear by the “Brexit” situation and what it portends for Europe, for the EU, and for global finance. Now, “Brexit” is an unlovely neologism — much like “Grexit,” from which I believe it derives, both being conjunctions of the names of nation-states with the word “exit,” meaning an exit from the Eurozone, and, symbolically, ouster from Europe, the European project, the European idea — but I will employ it anyway, as it has rapidly become the convention.

It is important to observe that there are no good outcomes for the Eurozone in the wake of the British referendum on Brexit. If Cameron gets his way and Britain retains its EU membership, it will maintain this membership under specially negotiated terms, which demonstrates unambiguously that all members of the EU are equal, but some are more equal than others. If the British people vote against the deal and Britain voluntarily secedes from the EU, it will mean that one of the strongest economies in the EU, including the fabled banking center of London, have chosen to leave the EU, like the first rat leaving a sinking ship.

It isn’t just Britain and Brexit, of course. There is the lingering aftermath of the financial crisis, which began with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US, spread contagion-like to Europe, but was never resolved satisfactorily because of the financial difficulties of southern European nation-states like Italy and Spain, but especially Greece. Decisive and definitive action to reform Europe’s banking sector could not be pushed through under these circumstances, and now these unresolved problems are manifesting in unexpected and unintended ways due to the refugee crisis in Europe.

I am not predicting financial collapse in Europe, nor I am predicting social collapse in Europe; nor I am predicting large scale social turmoil. Europe is a very civilized place; the Europeans, by and large (and after spending hundreds of years killing each other), understand that it is in their interest to maintain economically, politically, and socially stable societies in which as many citizens as possible can live stable and prosperous lives. The approximately 500 million people in the EU are not going to suddenly shutter their shops, close their businesses, and stop buying things. Business as usual will continue, with interruptions and disruptions. Europe is, however, facing an existential crisis every bit as momentous as the Civil War that tested American unity as a nation-state. The basis of unity is distinct, and the test is distinct, but the danger is parallel.

We all know that, in cases of warfare, violent revolution, or even extreme social turmoil, that a financial position can unwind with shocking rapidity, leaving investors (typically, those investors slowest to respond to the crisis) holding the bag. The combination of financial ruin and the suddenness of its occurrence can be too much for some, and this is when we see people jumping out of windows rather than facing life as impoverished has-beens. It is no surprise that financial traumas of this kind, that emerge not from predictable market forces, but from human, all-too-human events, driven by emotion, passion, and and what Keynes called animal spirits, are put behind the market as quickly as possible, as the survivors go about the again-predictable business of picking up the pieces and going on with life.

Investment advisers like to tell potential investors that “market timing” is irrelevant, and that a prudent and long-term investor will consider market spikes and dips as somehow too petty to notice, almost beneath contempt. But if you invest your life’s savings in something as stable as bonds (like the investors in WPPSS, the Washington Public Power Supply System) or even in the very corporation that employs you (as with Enron employees who were actively encouraged to invest everything in Enron stock), and these apparently stable investment vehicles go sour due to reasons that have little to do with investment strategies, there is nothing left over to get back into the market. Yes, of course, the market will recover again, in time. By that time your retirement may be long over and you will have lived your final years in poverty before dying penniless. In the big picture such instances of individual suffering are unimportant and irrelevant, but to the individual who loses everything, it is everything.

This investment advice to disregard market timing is a rationalization and justification of the inability of the financial sector to price political risk. Political risk is a blindspot for finance capital, and as the world becomes more economically and politically integrated, this blindspot is becoming a serious stumbling block both to understanding and to action.

We have good economic models to describe how even complex industrialized economies function. But an economic model of a society is only a partial model of society. Sometimes business as usual continues even as a society is disrupted by political and social unrest (like the growing US economy despite Civil Rights protests in the 1960s and Vietnam war protests in the 1970s), but sometimes political and social unrest can cross a threshold beyond which business as usual ceases and the political and social unrest become the focus of all attention and business as usual does not recommence until the turmoil is resolved and business begins again under changed circumstances, sometimes even under changed institutions (as happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union).

A more complete model of society would include social and political factors in a way that the social sciences have not yet been able to pull off. At the end of this process would be a model of civilization itself, including economic, political, social, religious, and other factors. I have often pointed out that we lack a science of civilization, and the financial blindspot in pricing political risk is a perfect practical example of what it means to be without a model of civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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European People's Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

European People’s Party leader Jean-Claude Juncker.

A great deal of contemporary political stability — much more than we usually like to think — is predicated upon the careful management of public opinion and the engineering of consent. The masses that constitute mass society in an age of mass man have the vote, and as voters they play a role in the liberal democracies that populate Fukuyama’s end of history, but we must observe that the role the voters play in democracy is carefully circumscribed. (A perfect example of this is the lack of transparency built into the US electoral college, adding layers of procedural rationality between the voters and the outcome of the process.) There is always a tension in liberal democracies predicated upon the management of public opinion of how far and how hard the masses can be pushed. If they are pushed too hard, they riot, or they fail to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. If they are not pushed hard enough, or if they are not sufficiently fearful of authority, again, they might riot, or they might not work hard enough to keep the wheels of industry turning.

So political elites don’t push, they nudge. The nauseating paternalism of the “nudge” mentality among contemporary politicians (which, instead of being called “engineering consent,” which is a term that carries unfortunate connotations, is now called, “active engineering of choice architecture”) derived the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, seeks to apply the findings of behavioral economics to public policy decisions — with the proviso, of course, that it is the people in charge, the people who make public policy, who know best, and if we want a better world we need to give them a free hand to shape our choices. Unfortunately, the working class masses are not in a position to actively engineer the choice architecture of political leaders, although it is at least arguable that the political elite need an engineered choice architecture far more than the masses.

The European Union has been testing the boundaries of how far the European masses can be pushed (or nudged) to cooperate in bringing about the vision of a unified Europe, and with the Euroskeptics winning in many different regions of Europe, it appears that the European masses are pushing back by failing to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. The political class of the European Union has just been handed a sharp rebuke that is a reminder of the limits of engineering consent, and they have been remarkably open and honest about it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on the BBC on the need for economic development, “This is the best answer to the disappointed people who voted in a way we didn’t wish for.”

This European openness about the failure of Europe’s political class to effectively engineer the consent of the governed for the political and economic programs planned by the political elite is an important corrective to the American tendency to see conspiracies and secret cabals behind every unexpected turn of events. In Europe, the politicians have been honest that they wanted one result, and the people gave a different result. French President François Hollande was quoted as saying he would, “reaffirm that the priority is growth, jobs and investment.” Why are Merkel and Hollande united in seeing the need for jobs and economic development? Because they know that workers making good wages and who see a future for themselves and their families will mostly let the politicians have their way. It is when times are not good that voters push back against the grandiose dreams of politicians that seem to have little or no practical benefit. Europe’s political class is well aware that if the European masses have growth, jobs, and investment that they will be far more compliant at election time.

However, Hollande also said of the Eurozone financial crisis (now apparently safely in the past) that Europe had survived, “but at what price? An austerity that has ended up disheartening the people.” This latter statement demonstrates the degree to which Hollande fails to understand What is going on even as the ground shifts beneath his feet. One must understand that when European politicians talk about “austerity” what they really mean is resisting unchecked deficit spending, which would then be justified on Keynesian grounds. (I earlier called this the Europeanese of the financial crisis.) It isn’t “austerity” that has disheartened the people; it is Europe that has disheartened the people, the Europe of the European Union, but this realization is almost impossible for true believers in the European idea.

The tension between the masses in representative democracies and their putative political representatives has become obvious and explicit with this EU election in which “Euroskeptics” have been the most successful candidates. This tension can also be understood by way a very simple thought experiment: If you really had a free choice to elect whomever you liked as your political leader(s), are the political representatives you have now the ones you would choose? I think that any honest answer to this question must be, “No.” And this leaves us with the further question as to how these “leaders” came into power if they are not the choice of the people. The answer is relatively simple: these where the leaders that the political system produced for the consumption of the public. The public isn’t happy with its leaders, and the leaders aren’t happy with the public, but they are stuck with each other.

There is a limit to the extent to which the disconnect between rulers and ruled can grow before a social system becomes unworkable. Early in this blog in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that two paradigms for the social organization of industrial society had been tried and found wanting, and that we are today searching for a further paradigm of social consensus to supersede those that have failed us. The mutual alienation between political elites and working masses in the liberal democracies of today is a symptom of the lack of social consensus, but in so far as these classes of society feel stuck with each other we have not yet reached the limits of the disconnect.

However, this mutual alienation tells us something else that is interesting, and this is the continued role of mythological political visions in an age of apparent pragmatism. The alienation that lies at the root of what Eric Voegelin called “gnosticism” in politics is here revealed as the alienation of the leadership of a democratic society from the people they presumptively represent (Hollande said of the EU that it had become, “remote and incomprehensible”) and of the people from its “leadership.”

Gnosticism is a worldview in which secret knowledge is reserved for initiates into the higher mysteries. Here is one of Voegelin’s definitions of gnosis:

“…a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special quality of a spiritual and cognitive elite.”

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Vol. 34, Columbia University, 2006, Glossary of Terms, p. 160

How does the claim to gnosis reveal itself in our pragmatic, bureaucratic age? Gnosis is necessarily distinct for each of the political classes, each of which has created its own political mythology in which it is an unique and indispensable historical actor on an eschatological stage. For mass man, gnosis takes the form of “consciousness raising,” whether being made aware, for the first time, of his status as a worker (proletarian), his race, his ethnicity, or any other property that can be employed to distinguish the elect. Access to official secrets is the special privilege and the secret knowledge of the elite political classes — the elect of the nation-state — so that to compromise these secrets and the privilege of access to them is to call into question the political mythology of the elites.

The creation of universal surveillance states is part of the this development, since the efficient management of mass man is predicated upon knowing the masses better than the mass knows itself — knowing what the mass wants, what will placate its tantrums, how hard it can be pushed, and, then the masses push back, how they can be most effectively distracted, mollified, and redirected. The extreme reaction to the revelation of official secrets as we have seen in the hysterical responses on the part of the elite political classes to Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks are the result of challenging the political mythos of the ruling elite.

In Europe, residual nationalism, ethnocentrism, and communism still resonate with some sectors of the electorate, and all of these can be be the focus of a purported gnosis; it is precisely the fragmented and divided nature of these loyalties that has kept Europe a patchwork of warring nation-states, and which threatens to torpedo the idea of a unified Europe. In the US, the intellectual lives of the workers have evolved in a different direction, which has resulted in an entirely new political mythology born out of a syncretism of conspiracy theories. (Political conspiracy theories also play a significant role in Africa, Arabia, and parts of Asia; perhaps they will yet come to the European masses.) The elite political classes are contemptuous of the conspiracy theories that excite the masses, even when these conspiracy theories verge uncomfortably close to the truth, but they are jealous in the extreme of their own “secret” knowledge obtained through surveillance. Thus we experience what Ed Snowden has called the Merkel Effect, wherein a member of the elite political class is subject to the very surveillance to which they have subjected others, and it is regarded as a scandal. The masses, on the other hand, are often defiant when their conspiracy theories are subject to rational examination, calling into question their own “secret” knowledge of how the world functions.

It is important to note that both the rise of conspiracy theories on the part of the masses and the rise of surveillance on the part of elite classes are parallel developments. Both classes of society are seeking forms of secret knowledge — that is say, this is the perfect illustration of Voegelin’s thesis on the role of gnosticism in contemporary political societies.

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Some past posts in which I have considered Europe, the European Union, and the Eurozone…

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

The Economic Future of Europe

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

The Evolution of Europe

The Idea and Destiny of Europe

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Grand Strategy Annex

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