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Whither Europe?

EUROPE ADRIFT. By John Newhouse . Pantheon: 352 pp., $27.50

September 28, 1997|FLORA LEWIS | Flora Lewis is the author of "Europe: Tapestry of Nations" and an American syndicated columnist based in Paris

With the Soviet Union and the Cold War well buried, Europe no longer faces the threat of major war. Some argue that this is a reason for the United States to proclaim its responsibility for European security accomplished, to dissolve or downgrade its alliance and go home. In "Europe Adrift," John Newhouse offers a look at where Europe now stands in the post-Cold War era, with the euphoria and relief of its sudden unexpected ending worn off and the problems of adjustment dominant.

His conclusion is succinctly put in the book's title. Europe is adrift, uncertain of its fears, its desires and its ambitions. It can't do without the steadying hand and organizing vitality of the United States, even if at times it chafes at rough American manners. And the United States can't afford, in its own interest of a peaceable, stable world, to leave the continent that spawned Western civilization to its uneasy humors.

If the tasks are no longer clear, the threats no longer simple to define, the current dedication to mutual support between countries will need to continue. Newhouse does not try to predict what might happen if that common approach frayed or collapsed. He provides no extravagant nightmare scenario for shock effect, but he carefully examines trends, personalities and possibilities and finds the situation fragile.

One chapter heading, "A Collective Nervous Breakdown," may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but another, "Unthreatened but Insecure," is right on the mark. There is a diffuse sense of danger as history plods on or perhaps, even worse, as history threatens to circle back. The danger no longer bears the name of a country or a bloc. It is instability, old rivalries, the demons of Europe's past and the stormy shadows destabilizing its neighbors on the south shore of the Mediterranean, vital suppliers of oil. All in all, the decisions made over the last half century proved to be mostly the right ones. Now there is less conviction about the choices to be made and the guidelines to pursue.

A distinguished writer and analyst who has several books about strategy and nuclear policy to his credit, Newhouse wrote this book with the sponsorship of the Council on Foreign Relations. He visited the people in power and their opponents in the major countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey, to distill their sense of what they plan for the future.

Yet Newhouse portrays such a kaleidoscope of factors, subject to jolting change when little ahead seems fixed, that he has had to produce a series of snapshots limning the present but avoiding the temptation to predict the future. That approach may avoid the risk of looking into a cloudy crystal ball, but it accepts the opposite risk of being outdated fairly soon. No matter: The picture is accurate, and what does lie ahead will be formed of the elements the author describes.

He quotes Michael Mertes, a lucid senior German official, on the "true challenge of normality," a new idea not only for Germany but for Europe as a whole. For Central and Eastern Europe, attaining normality remains the goal. This usually means acquiring Western European standards of living in the broad sense, not only material comfort. This includes political and civic freedoms, responsible democratic government, openness to the world. Having a clearly labeled goal may be the reason Eastern Europeans, struggling desperately to catch up, seem to have more optimism and sense of purpose than do Western Europeans. They have arrived at normality. They can no longer consider it a destination, but the subsequent question of "Now what?" is not easy to answer.

No longer NATO's eastern front, Germany has returned to being the weighty center of Europe. For the first time in its history, it is surrounded on all borders by friends and allies. Chancellor Helmut Kohl is aware that Germany's strength provokes historical fears, and he is determined to allay them by "Europeanizing" and even, in the metaphor the French have adopted from Jonathan Swift, "Gulliverizing" Germany with such solid bonds to its neighbors that they will feel no impulse to offset it with old-fashioned anti-German coalitions.

But Kohl, whom Newhouse judiciously calls Olympian despite his earthy manner, has been chancellor longer than even the Federal Republic's founding father, Konrad Adenauer; and although Kohl intends to run once more in 1998, he has some serious political weaknesses. There are no self-evident successors. Chopping them down is one way that Kohl has managed to remain on top, helped by a combination of personality fights and policy squabbles within his socialist opposition.

There are now 4 million people unemployed in Germany; it is as bad as when Hitler stormed to power in 1933. The extreme right remains negligible, which is not at all the case in Austria and France, where fascist groups have grown ominously. But no one is sure if the next generation will trust the German shibboleth of self-restraint and making no enemies.

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