In my last post, I gave some thoughts on a book our European Politics class is reading this week, The Struggle for Europe by William I. Hitchcock. In my original post, I skipped over the UK chapter, titled “Building Jerusalem.” This chapter focused on the domestic and international politics of post-War Britain, and while everyone is welcome to comment on either section, I will be giving some of my thoughts on the foreign policy angle.
As I was reading (re-reading) this chapter, the section on British foreign policy stood out the most. In describing Anglo-American relations, Hitchcock almost portrays the US as having a passive (or maybe reactionary?) role in European politics in the immediate aftermath of World War II. American passivity almost seems a common theme in the early part of this book. It seems to come through especially in the chapters “German Midnight” and “Behind the Iron Curtain,” where US policy seems more a reaction to Soviet politics or a push from European (British?) leaders. In contrast, Hitchcock describes the UK as a much more active player, and figures like Churchill and Bevin seem to play a large role in shaping the Marshall Plan, building NATO, and shaping US Cold War strategy in general.
Reading this chapter reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a colleague. They had mentioned a fairly common argument (I’ve seen it before in US foreign policy textbooks): peaceful modern Europe exists because the US supplied security through NATO. According to this story, without the US providing a safe zone, Western Europe would have returned to the realpolitik behaviors that typified the early part of the 20th century, and the European Union would have gone the way of the League of Nations (nice dream, but too much fighting to make it work).
The above story stands in sharp contrast to many histories I have seen from the European perspective, and is noticeably different from the history Hitchcock presents. More often, a more “European” perspective would focus on the pragmatic choices of European leaders like Monnet and Schumann in dealing with post-War economic realities. Or, focusing on power politics, they instead contend that the fear of Stalin united Western Europe against a common enemy. A resurgent Germany, after all, doesn’t seem quite a scary when you have Stalin’s USSR looking over your shoulder…
Some final questions to consider:
- When considering the different political events covered in this chapter – Churchill’s electoral defeat, the rise of Labour and the “collectivist consensus,” and the successes and failures in British foreign policy – how much do leaders’ choices really shape these events?
- What exactly was the US’s role in shaping modern Europe, and what was Europe’s role in shaping modern US foreign policy?
I think these questions are also good to keep in mind as we move into reading the next chapter in the book, “The Miraculous Fifties.”