The Perils of Wishful Thinking: On Europe and the Middle East

Forecasting political events is always risky because chance plays such a decisive role in what becomes history. Given its inherent weaknesses, the breakdown of the Soviet Union, for instance, may have been inevitable. But if instead of Mikhail Gorbachev, appointed as General Secretary of the Communist Party as a sort of accident in 1985, a hard-liner had been chosen by the Politburo and if he and like-minded comrades had managed to hold onto power for another twenty years, what would we have witnessed? As the price of oil went up exponentially (from two dollars a barrel to as much as one hundred and fifty), the Soviet economy would have prospered, the empire would not have fallen apart, and the wisdom of the Communist Party and its leaders who brought about these gigantic achievements would have been praised.

However, if there are no certainties in world politics, there remain probabilities that can be ignored only at great peril. In the case of the troubled European Union and the darkening Arab Spring, it is highly probable that, from the beginning, the optimism of even expert journalists, academics, and diplomats was misplaced, and that the odds against European progress toward a united and prosperous continent, and Arab progress toward liberty, peace, and democracy, were very heavy indeed. Why were these heavy odds ignored?

Among European unity’s outspoken and influential proponents was Jeremy Rifkin, author of the 2004 book The European Dream, which stressed that the European vision was not based on the accumulation of wealth but on respect for human rights and the social market economy, social justice, and the welfare state. Such a model, based on the respect for law, would be far more attractive in the twenty-first century than the American way of life. It would make for greater happiness than the radical individualism at the heart of the American model (which would mean, to give one euphoric example, a more civilized and humanitarian society with less crime, no capital punishment, and so forth).

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There was some evidence for this enthusiastic vision of the European future. Europe was becoming an economic powerhouse. True, it had ignored the military dimension, but soft power, which it did cultivate, was what would matter in the new century. Stanley Hoffmann, a prominent reviewer in Foreign Affairs, welcomed the Rifkin book as an excellent riposte to Robert Kagan’s vision of America as Mars and Europe as Venus. In Hoffmann’s view, so much the better for Europe.

An even more extreme case of praising the European model was provided by Mark Leonard, an expert prominently involved in a variety of British and European think tanks who argued that the European model was not only preferable to the American on the level of ideas, but on the level of practical politics. Its advantage there, Leonard argues in his 2005 book Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, gave it a leg up on the future—not as a dominant economic superpower necessarily and certainly not in the military arena, but simply because the evolving “European way” was uniquely relevant to the era of globalization. It showed a way to overcome the limitations of the nation-state, to collaborate on issues of paramount importance. Europe was performing a revolution in international relations as it was showing the whole world that relying on international law was more decisive than relying on military intervention and the balance of power. In Leonard’s view, the European century would come about not as a result of imperial power but simply because the European way of doing things in terms of social arrangements would become the world’s way of doing things.

More recently Leonard’s views have undergone a change. His November 2011 position paper “Four Scenarios for the Reinvention of Europe,” published under the auspices of the European Council on Foreign Relations, starts as follows: “Looming behind the euro crisis is a larger and more fundamental challenge; the near collapse of the European Union’s political system.” He now believes that the root of Europe’s political crisis is the necessity—and impossibility—of integration.

The late historian Tony Judt, a native of London who moved to New York and became a highly respected political essayist, went in the other direction—from doubt to hope. While considering himself an enthusiastic European, Judt originally had grave misgivings and, in his 1996 book A Grand Illuision?, wrote about Europe as a myth. He also asserted that the survival of the nation-state’s political and cultural credibility was necessary if Europe itself was to remain afloat. Thirteen years later, in “The Future of Decadent Europe,” his views about Europe had changed. He took issue with the idea that Europe was economically and socially dysfunctional and that the European model was unrealistic. While not saying so directly, he too seemed to think that we were edging toward a European century.

The writings of Steven Hill offer another example. His 2010 book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, was written with great confidence. Despite the economic crisis, Europe was still fostering the types of innovation that point the way toward a better quality of life for the world. Europe’s social capitalism (a delicate balance of free enterprise and government regulation) was still a better development model for the twenty-first century than America’s Wall Street capitalism or China’s communist capitalism because it was rooted in an awareness of a need for sustainability. Hill wrote in the Guardian that American crystal-ball gazers had a terrible track record on Europe, so no attention should be paid to reports of an imminent fall. The European appetite for union remained steadfast, “old Europe” was in fact very young, and the tensions facing it were nothing on the scale of those that had bedevilled the young United States of America.

These Europe watchers sometimes became sadder but wiser without ever explaining why their first thoughts were wrong. For example, Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown professor who was in charge of European affairs in the National Security Council under President Clinton, wrote The End of the American Era in 2002, in which he argued that the European Union was bound to be more powerful than America in future. But Kupchan begins an August 2010 Washington Post op-ed as follows: “The European Union is dying—not a dramatic or sudden death, but one so slow and steady that we may look across the Atlantic one day soon and realize that the project of European integration that we’ve taken for granted over the past half-century is no more.” (When The Last Days of Europe, my own “epitaph” for the continent was published in 2007, the Economist thought it unduly apocalyptic. But articles in recent issues of that periodical have had titles such as “Staring into the abyss,” “Into the storm,” and “Is this really the end?”)

The mistakes were not limited to foreign observers, of course, but part of the European ideology, even on the highest level. In March 2000, for instance, the presidents and prime ministers of the countries of Europe met in Lisbon to outline their common strategy for the coming decade. The general consensus was that Europe would become the most competitive and dynamic economy in the world, able to sustain permanent growth with more and better places of work and greater social cohesion. Subsequently it appeared that this optimism was based on the assumption of permanent growth and mistaken demographic projections—a Ponzi scheme of sorts, although the assumptions underlying it were certainly not dishonorable.


Demonstrations in Tunisia and then in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in late January 2011 brought a large influx of correspondents from the US and Europe. The tone of their coverage generally reflected Wordsworth’s famous euphoria at the advent of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven.”

At long last, the hated dictatorships had been overthrown and the road was open to freedom and democracy. The young freedom fighters on Tahrir Square, who had rediscovered dignity and were willing to sacrifice their lives, were showing the way not just to the Arab countries but the world at large; they were the harbingers of free and just societies, of a new world order. The dictators had not only been corrupt (Mubarak and his family were said to have stolen some $70 billion); they had been holding back their countries from developing and were responsible for the backwardness of the entire Middle East.

The reports from Cairo and other capitals described the Arab awakening as an event perhaps unprecedented in the annals of mankind, a beacon showing the way ahead to all. The general mood was accurately reflected in the dispatches of Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, which deserve rereading (and perhaps reprinting) even now. For so long only negative news had come out of this part of the world. Now, finally, there was something very positive to report and comment on, something that would counter negative stereotypes about Arabs circulating with particular virulence since 9/11.

A few voices, it is true, murmured “Remember Tehran,” noting that the regime of the hated Shah had been overthrown in 1979 only to be replaced by the far more repressive rule of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successors. But such doubts were dismissed as misplaced, if not ridiculous. When Kristof raised them with women and members of minorities, they had looked at him reproachfully. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies would get at most twenty-five percent in free elections. One American correspondent announced, perhaps not entirely seriously, that if this revolution failed he would drown himself in the Nile.

Summer came and then autumn, the Arab Spring turned into an Islamist winter, and the reports and comments became more muted. Revolutions, we were told, were never simple or straightforward things; they needed time to unfold; temporary setbacks were inevitable. Reports in the New York Review of Books by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley covered the counterrevolution, but saw it as the fault of the ancient regime, not the Islamists. Nicholas Kristof, too, saw certain minefields ahead. But there was not the slightest reason to doubt the eventual outcome: the wheel of history could never be made to turn counterclockwise.

Then in December 2011 elections took place in response to one of the cardinal demands of the revolutionary democrats. The Islamists received sixty-five percent of the vote in the towns, more in the countryside. But as Kristof and others explained, this was a moderate movement eager to cooperate with the young, secular revolutionaries (who hardly got any votes at all). This was true even with regard to the ultraconservative Salafi party al-Nour, which got some twenty-five percent of the vote. They were actually good for the women they repressed because they gave them flour and oil. Islamist parties attracted voters for the same reason Christian parties did elsewhere. Thus the Muslim brethren and the Salafis appeared as the Middle Eastern equivalent of the German Christian Democrats of Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, and Angela Merkel—an intriguing comparison. At the worst, in the view of the diehard partisans of Arab Spring, they were like Turkey’s prominent Justice and Development Party (the AKP), combining a moderate version of Islam with the beliefs and exigencies of the modern world.

Where did these commentators go wrong, and why? It is true that the demonstrators they saw in Tahrir Square were brave young people and that the Mubarak regime had been corrupt and repressive (although less so than many other Middle Eastern regimes—and the reports about the stolen $70 billion were clearly exaggerated). But these commentators seemed not to consider the possibility that these freedom fighters, however worthy of our admiration, were a small and isolated elite. Had Kristof and the others gone to Chubra el-Kheima, or el-Mahala el-Kubra, or other towns and suburbs where many millions lived, another picture would have emerged—that of a desperately poor, overcrowded, and conservative society a world away from Jeffersonianism. No outside help, no social media, no Al Jazeera (widely praised for its impact) could revolutionarily have refashioned this world into a second Kuwait or Singapore.

The partisans of Arab Spring failed to consider that under Mubarak the position of women and minorities had been better than under the new regime that would probably succeed him. Women and minorities have been the main losers in recent events—not only in Egypt but in other Middle Eastern countries, even those with fairly strong secular traditions, such as Tunisia and Morocco. Even the moderate Islamists envisage a theocratic regime in which sharia would be the law of the land. But even so, many of those who came to Tahrir Square and felt they had seen a future that worked, as did Lincoln Steffens in the first days of Bolshevism, have not yet produced a reckoning.


Classical decision theory (that people usually react rationally) seems often to lose out to desirability bias in our thinking about foreign affairs. In the case of Europe, it has meant underrating the power of nationalism and exaggerating the willingness to surrender sovereign rights as well as the general feeling of listlessness that has affected the continent. In the case of developments in the Arab world, it has meant mistaking the dissatisfaction with the status quo for an overwhelming embrace of the universalism of liberty and democracy—as Western observers interpreted the events they witnessed and ignored the strength of the Islamists and of nationalism itself.

The misapprehension of the European future has probably less to do with the true state of affairs in Europe and more to do, at least for some, with American intellectuals’ dissatisfaction with their own country at present. At any rate, Europe’s crisis is probably the less decisive of these two events. Europe’s influence in world affairs has very much declined, whatever the fate of its “model.” There are precedents for failed integration. Simón Bolívar dreamed of a Latin American Union, but all that has emerged so far is Mercosur, a common market of sorts. Nevertheless, the countries of the continent live in peace with each other and occasionally collaborate. And even without integration, the influence of Latin America is on the rise.

But in the case of the Middle East, overoptimism is far more difficult to understand, and the orgy of euphemism in early 2011 deserves further detailed study. It should have been clear that the odds against the emergence of a democratic order in the foreseeable future in the Arab world were impossibly heavy: The lack of a democratic tradition, the great and growing influence of Islamism, the weakness of the secular forces and their disunity, overpopulation in a country like Egypt, the inherent poverty that made it so difficult to find work for the cohort of young people—given these and many other circumstances, only a miracle could have led the uprising of early 2011 toward a democratic order of sorts. True, political leaders have to be optimists in their speeches and approach; frequently they have to proceed on the assumption of the “as if.” But this should not turn into self-deception, and decisionmakers must not base their policy on the occurence of miracles.

Prophets of gloom have never been popular. Beautiful Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, is one of the most troubling figures in Greek mythology. Apollo had given her the gift of divining the future, but put a curse on her when she refused to share his bed: She would never be believed, not even when she prophesied an “end of history” for Troy.

The same seems to apply today—better to be mistaken in the right company than be prematurely right in the wrong company. This is the Paris syndrome of a few decades ago—better be wrong with Sartre than right with Raymond Aron. (The “premature” anti-Communists were never accorded much respect in our own age.) This resistance against gloomy predictions deserves further study even though any advance in our knowledge of the phenomenon may not prevent wishful thinking from shaping our perception of the next “epochal” event that takes place somewhere in the world.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English

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