What Caused the Peace of Europe?
After century upon century of periodic warfare, the continent of Europe has, for the last 60 years or so, enjoyed a period of unprecedented peace. Why is that? To hear many Europeans tell it, the recent spate of peace in Europe is due to the advanced moral sentiments of its peoples. After enduring centuries of bloodshed, in the 1940s Europeans finally grew up, and learned to settle their disagreements peacefully (unlike the warmongering Americans).
This explanation is only plausible to the extent one ignores just how fragile and limited the peace of Europe since WWII has actually been. One can say that Europe has known 60 years of uninterrupted peace only if one ignores the Cold War that left half the continent under Soviet domination with the other half under constant threat of total annihilation, as well as repeated wars in the Balkans, the IRA in the United Kingdom, ETA in Spain, Greece’s civil war and conflict with Turkey, French wars in Algeria and Indochina, the Suez crisis, British military engagements ranging from Malaysia to the Falklands, not to mention participation by numerous European countries in the Korean war, Afghanistan, and one or both of the Iraq conflicts, to give but a partial list. If what European peace does exist is the result of some moral advancement and conflict resolution skills developed by the Europeans, then it is unclear why the above mentioned conflicts occurred.
The most one can say for European peace is that since WWII no western European power has gone to war against another western European power. But this is hardly a unique achievement. After all, the U.S. hasn’t gone to war with any of these countries since WWII either. And if it be objected that is not the same as the U.S. shares no border with any of these countries, then it should be noted that the last time the United States went to war with Mexico was 1848, and the last time it went to war with Canada was 1812. If peace with one’s immediate neighbors is evidence of moral advancement, then perhaps it is the U.S. that has something to teach Europe, rather than visa versa.
Still, by the standards of European history, the last 60 years have been relatively peaceful, at least on the continent itself. If moral advancement is not the cause of this peace, then what is?
No doubt there are many causes here. The increased wealth of Europeans may make them less willing to make the sacrifices necessary for war (though it has apparently not eliminated their willingness to fight wars abroad, nor has the U.S.’s wealth prevented it from getting involved in military conflicts). Democracy may have reduced political leaders’ ability to go to war for personal aggrandizement (though fascist Spain has managed to avoid war for longer than its democratic neighbors, and a war of sorts exists even as we speak between a democratic Israel and a democratically elected Hamas. Trade between countries is no doubt also an important factor, as evidence indicates increased trade and commerce between nations tends to lead to peace.
If I had to name the most underrated cause of European peace, however, I would probably name the U.S. military. Since WWII, the U.S. has maintained a military presence in most western European countries, and many European nations have effectively outsourced a large part of their security and defense to the U.S. military. Now obviously, to the extent one is relying on the U.S. for one’s military needs, going to war with another country that relies on the U.S. for its military needs is not going to be an option. And if one looks to the East, one sees that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all also known long stretches of peace, despite being threatened by their militarily more powerful neighbors. If not for U.S. military intervention, it is all but certain that South Korea would long since have been absorbed into North Korea, Taiwan long since absorbed into China, and it is at best unclear what conflicts a necessarily re-militarized Japan would have gotten itself into and at what human cost.