Today’s New York Times Sunday Review section carries a piece entitled in the print edition “Europe Needs a Plan B” by Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and past German ambassador to the United States. His argument is simple. Trump is restructuring the transatlantic alliance that has been the bedrock of the European side of the world order since the last world war. The US is unwilling to keep playing the role of anchor, which all the western European states have taken for granted for more than half a century. And so, Europe needs a Plan B.
When I was a tyke in Frankfurt, Germany, just after the war, my mother had the privilege of working for Eugen Kogon, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Kogon wrote the standard treatise on the Nazi concentration camps and testified for the American prosecution in war crimes trials. He was also a pioneer exponent of the concept of European economic and political unity. He is considered today one of the main “Founders of Europe.”
At the time Kogon advanced his European unity manifestos, France was still bleeding from the German occupation. Britain’s ruins from the German bombing were still smoldering. No country in Europe was free of scars from the war launched by some European powers against others. The idea that these countries could unite and form one economic and political community appeared worse than utopian, it appeared insane. It ran into strong headwinds of national revanchism, paranoia, and myopia. Wasn’t this just a smokescreen for the re-establishment of German dominance of the subcontinent?
But the wounds of war also weighed in the argument. Twice in the 20th century, millions of the young men of different countries marched to mutual slaughter. States destroyed each other’s cities, wrecked each others’ infrastructure, unleashed bloodbaths on the civilian populations. Thoughtful people asked themselves, do we really want to do that again? Isn’t there a Plan B? And so, European integration became a reality. It’s under attack now, but I’ll come back to that.
The biggest bloodbath of the last war in the European theater occurred in the East, what the historian Timothy Snyder has called the bloodlands. My own father, a draftee in the German army, was one of hundreds of thousands of young Germans who left their bones in Russia, or to be exact, in his case, in the Ukraine. The Russian victims number in the millions. Every other country, nationality, and ethnic minority in the region lost people in the slaughter. The statistics numb the mind.
Do we really want to do that again?
The strategists in the Pentagon — the same minds who gave us the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Iraq, the endless war in Afghanistan, the Syrian bombing and many other equally brilliant campaigns — have recruited Eastern European states newly uncoupled from the Soviet federation to join NATO. They’ve sold them American arms, set up missile bases, and trained them for war. They are planning for a rerun of the slaughter in the east.
But, as Trump is making clear now, America won’t become great again by fighting that war itself. No, the Europeans are supposed to fight it themselves, and pay America for the weapons to do it. Plan A since Trump is, “Let’s you and him fight. We’ll sell you the equipment.”
Yes, Europe needs a Plan B. And there is a Plan B, a very obvious and logical one, if only we remove the blinders from our eyes. Plan B is for Russia to join Europe. Yes, for Russia to become a member of the Common Market and the rest of the EEC economic and political structure. The EEC, instead of a narrow confederation of peninsular republics with an almost marginal role in the world, can become a true continental power, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
A flood of objections arises the moment this idea is floated. Won’t Russia dominate the new community? What about Crimea and sanctions? What about nuclear weapons? What about the armies on all sides? What about Putin and the oligarchs? And so on.
Let me start with Putin and the oligarchs. I am no fan of Putin and the oligarchs. Already more than forty years ago, I condemned the Soviet Union’s turn toward capitalism and denounced its leaders. I said then and I double down on it today that the average Russian worker and peasant had a better life under Stalin than they have today. The Russian oligarchs have learned from and surpassed their Western mentors in looting the country’s assets and piling up obscene wealth abroad. They operate with a degree of gangsterism that hasn’t been widely seen in Western democracies since Prohibition. However, the EEC has rules about that. In order to be accepted, Russia will have to clean up its act. Putin, or whoever succeeds him — and we’re talking here about something that won’t happen overnight — will have to make some hard choices.
The armies and their weapons, including nuclear, present problems that can be solved. France, Britain, Germany, Italy and others all had armies, or what was left of them, after World War II. Given the new commitment not to deploy them against one another, the current instruments of hostility along with their framework, NATO, can be scaled back and retired. The main objection will come from the U.S., which stands to lose much of its former European weapons market.
Crimea needs to be conceded. In every negotiation there are concessions and this is not a thorny one. Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, and the large majority of its residents identify as Russian citizens. The Russian move was a defensive reaction to the violent ultra-right wing takeover of the Ukrainian government, sponsored and supported by the CIA. America cannot climb on a high horse about this issue.
Won’t Russia dominate the new, expanded European community? Not likely. In terms of land mass, Russia is huge. But in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the more meaningful measure of economic weight, Russia currently ranks only eleventh in the world. The Russian GDP is smaller than that of Germany, the UK, France, or Italy. It is smaller than that of India, Brazil, or Canada. Russia is not going to dominate the new expanded EEC. Russia will be a good fit. Most of the Western European economies are strong on manufacturing and services but poor in raw materials. Russia is rich in raw materials but needs help in manufacturing and services. Were it not for the ideological bitterness of the Cold War, these two economies would have formed closer and broader ties decades ago.
Under the legacy of Plan A, Russia today sees itself as confronted with a hostile European monolith, armed and remote-controlled by the USA. In this scenario, it makes sense for Moscow to try to cultivate rifts in European ranks, in part by supporting racist, nationalist, anti-European parties and splinter groups.
But what if Europe, instead of hardening its military fronts against the East, were to offer Russia an open door to joining a united Europe? The politics of Russia would undergo a tectonic shift toward the center and the left. The manifest advantages of membership in a united Europe would outshine the yields from the sordid game of covertly sowing divisions, at least in the European subcontinent, which is much more resilient to manipulation than the American body politic and its president.
On the Western side, the issue of including Russia would give all European politics a compelling new focus. People will be motivated to rethink old conditioned reflexes. What really are the grounds for hostility between Western Europe and Russia? Isn’t it true that Russia has always been a European country? Isn’t inclusion of Russia merely the completion of the original European unity project, delayed by the Cold War?
The inclusion of Russia, once achieved, will give European unity a new vigor and dynamism. The merger of advanced manufacturing with abundant raw materials may generate a broad and deep economic boom. Europe with Russia in it will form a powerful independent counterweight to the American world influence. It will make Europe great again, this time for something other than colonialism and the rape of the third world.
No doubt there are many problems to be solved before something like peaceful Russian integration into Europe can become a reality. There were many problems to be overcome on the way to European integration in the first place. But a continuation of Plan A leads ultimately to a replay of the unthinkable bloodletting that inundated the Eastern European soil in the 1940s, with the added modern threat of a nuclear confrontation. Do we really want to go there? Isn’t it time to think about Plan B?