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Europa Quo Vadis? Emmanuel Levinas’ Challenge to the European Ethical Tradition

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism” –Edmund Husserl, University of Prague, 1935

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes.

After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded by 18th century rationalism. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity. Consequently, at the crossroad of a critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is a pervasive talk of a “democratic deficit,” that very democracy that ought to be integral part of Western Civilization and underpins the very concept of freedom and autonomy.

We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. I’d like to suggest that one such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1906. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps.

Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time.

In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality.

To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this totalizing Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger.

In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one.

In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.” It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man.

Lévinas’ life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas’ philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets.

Lévinas’ writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger’s philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas’ thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being? This crucial question goes back to Socrates and, more recently, the Italian Humanism of the 14th century.

Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas’ philosophy in two succinct words, they would be “being human.” This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, it is to allow oneself to become a monster.

Lévinas’ attack on what he considers negative elements of the Western philosophical tradition begins with analyses of the philosophical roots from which sprout the extreme individualism of modern times, and the reaction to it, extreme nationalism. Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the “self.”

The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical “self” which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity.

Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is “already responsible” for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas’ task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic “ethical” truth which Lévinas calls “pre-originary,” i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego.

In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is “older” than philosophy, it is “first philosophy,” on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato’s Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico’s pre-historical “bestioni” possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition.

In more mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements.

Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy. Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul as a lunatic in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened.

This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not narcissistically, with its own light?

This conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell.

Everything we have discussed above begs this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenweig (the author of Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time, 1988), are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both. Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology; the same operation some have attempted on Aquinas and Kierkegaard.

To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy.

Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato, that somewhow it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. It is that challenge that irritates our modern control freaks, bureaucrats, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely religious and mystical.

Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.” It’s a rather familiar dichotomy between theory and practice which led the likes of William James to declare that if one wants to know what a man really believes in, ignore what he says and pay attention to his actions.

The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge.

Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said. Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “ex-posed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world.

Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity.

This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science. Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my Self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being.

This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at that may be in itself, in the understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is an envisioned “Novantiqua Europa.”

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights

Nora Wolf

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The EU Commission Vice-PresidentMargaritis Shinas addressing the conference

Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.

It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.

However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.

On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.

Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.

Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.

Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.

This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.

Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.

All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.

Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.

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Metternich: The visionary reconstructor of Europe and champion of conservatism

Nikita Triandafillidis

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Klemens Von Metternich early life and orthodox ideas

Klemens Von Metternich was born on May 15, 1773, into the House of Metternich, a German noble family that originates from Rhineland. He was the son of a diplomat that had served at the Imperial court of Treves.

At the age of 15, he started studying law at the University of Strasbourg while getting more familiar with the concept of conservatism. In 1792 he was attending the University of Mainz, again at the faculty of law where his conservative ideas flourished, promoting traditional imperial institutions emphasizing the necessity of prosperity and stability in Europe.

Klemens Von Metternich is considered to be a controversial figure in international affairs due to his ideas of obstructionism, while some critics of him go as far as call him an enemy of freedom. He was a harsh critic of the French Revolution and its consequences and he dreaded the ideas of liberalism and nationalism that emerged after it.

On the other hand, he is praised for his vision of peace in Europe by holding on to the traditional monarchical systems that were the only way to establish peace and prosperity in his view. Thanks to Metternich, Europe established itself as a dominant economic and military power of the 19th century while reviving again the European values of stability and development for its European citizens.

The French Revolution

In 1789, amidst the French Revolution, Klemens Von Metternich expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation in France, calling the revolution a “hateful time” for Europe. His statements came when most of the French nobility was executed in France and there was a huge concern growing among the European powers that the situation would spread to the whole of Europe.

Soon enough, Metternich’s concerns turned out to be true, as France sunk into a period of political turmoil. In 1794, the king of France Louis the XVI was executed spreading chaos among the country. The so-called “Reign of Terror” was established where thousands of French citizens were executed.

The French Revolution brought out views and ideas of liberalism and nationalism that contradicted the traditional systems that ruled Europe. Metternich resented these ideas. He was more focused on the idea of the European Enlightenment. He understood clearly that to provide tranquility and stability in Europe, certain fundamental laws needed to be established for Europe to function properly.

He pointed out that aspects of religion and morality should be the primary necessities to co-govern with natural laws. His ideal system for Europe was a monarchical system that would co-share power with other classes of European society. Metternich’s goal was to prevent any further revolutions and uprisings in Europe, however, his plan was briefly jeopardized by the man that threatened to destroy everything he believed in.

Napoleon Bonaparte: Metternich’s political nemesis

Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most prestigious general at that time, re-emerged as France’s savior promising to save the French revolution and ending France’s political turmoil. In 1804, Napoleon became the emperor of France. However, he was never recognized by any monarch in Europe.

The Great Powers of Europe, fearing that the effects of the French Revolution will backfire to them, decided to invade France and restore the reign of King Louis XVI. However, this act gave justification to Napoleon to declare war on the European powers by proclaiming that this was just a defensive measure to preserve the French Revolution.

At first, Metternich viewed Napoleon with great interest, mentioning that he was the only one capable of providing discipline to a troubled France. An extraordinary man with practical knowledge about the common life of the citizens. However, his praise came with some precautions about Napoleon. He thought that he was a very practical and strong man but only if he was born in a different age. He did not find his abilities suitable for the age they were in.

Metternich was appointed as the Austrian Ambassador in France in 1806. By that time Napoleon had managed to defeat Spain, Prussia, and Austria making his advances to the Russian Empire. It was at that point that Metternich decided to use his diplomatic skills to keep Austria “breathing” long enough until Napoleon would be dethroned. His plans accelerated when he became Austria’s Foreign Minister in 1809.

At the same year he became a Foreign Minister, Metternich decided to show his diplomatic skills by arranging the marriage of Napoleon with Marie Louise the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Francis I. With this maneuver, he managed to convince Napoleon that Austria would be a close ally of him, while in reality, he was just buying time for Austria and the remaining great powers to come up with a plan to dethrone Napoleon. He didn’t have to wait long.

In 1812, Napoleon marched towards Russia. Certain for his victory, a naive Napoleon did not see how big of an obstacle Russia would be. While advancing to Moscow he captured an empty city that was set on fire, while the Russians retreated to the east. With his lines of supply being cut off and a devastating Russian winter approaching them, Napoleon decided to retreat, looking for gold at the surrender of Russia but receiving only copper.

In the meantime, Metternich put his plan on the motion. With Napoleon’s army retreating and being chased by the Russians, he convinced the remaining Great Powers to give a devastating blow to Napoleon. In 1813, Napoleon was defeated in Leipzig by the armies of Russia, England, Prussia, and Austria. Napoleon was imprisoned at the island of Elbe in the Mediterranean Sea. However, he managed to escape and rallied up soldiers that were loyal to him but again he was defeated for a second time in 1815, in the famous battle of Waterloo in Belgium. Metternich was crowded as a hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire. The only man that stood against his ideal formation of Europe was defeated.

The Vienna Congress

The year 1815, saw Metternich at the peak of his power. He had become a key figure in the plan to dethrone Napoleon, with his excellent diplomatic skills and his determination to steer Europe into the path of stability where Kings governed and people were governed. At the Congress, he made his points very clear for the beginning. He believed that the only way to ensure peace in the continent was to bring the Great powers together so that they could prevent any large European War to escalate again.

Metternich’s policies were based on two principles. One being the protection of historical traditional institutes such as the Church, the dynastic monarchies, and the essence of aristocratic privilege and the second was the establishment of a new vision of international balance in the continent of Europe. Instead of punishing France for the Napoleonic wars, he suggested including them in the table. With that move Metternich showed his true European face, putting the future of his continent above any nationalist notions.

The success of the Congress was inevitable. While including France at the Council of the Great Powers, Europe started to become more stable. The Council that included England, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia agreed to prevent any further revolutions and political uprising in Europe. All the disputes between the powers were resolved with diplomacy which gave them all leverage to re-organize Central Europe in a more simple way to avoid any internal intense rivalries.

Contributions to Europe and modern diplomacy

Klemens Von Metternich was viewed by many people as a great man and a true European citizen who managed to sustain a united European front for almost 100 years. Despite some minor uprising after the Vienna Congress, Metternich was a solid diplomat whose vision about Europe became a reality.

However, he is also viewed as an oppressor of freedom. His despise for liberal and nationalist movements made him an “enemy” of the common people. What Metternich was more afraid of about these movements was the potential disruption inside the Austrian Empire that was made up by a multinational coalition of 11 nations. He did not want to see the Empire being torn apart. He went as far as suppressing any suspicious uprisings in Germany where there was a lot of revolutionary activity, by censoring books and newspapers and installing secret police spies that would infiltrate universities to arrest any suspected revolutionaries.

On one hand, he has been a symbol of oppression but that is not a judgment that represents him. He was a great man and a man with a vision for Europe. Numerous times he mentioned that he felt more European than Austrian, putting the needs of Europe above the nation. In his memoirs, he wrote about the unfair judgment that he received but also mentioned how wrong those people were. “Old Europe is at the beginning of the end and new Europe has not yet begun its existence, and between the end and the beginning, there will be chaos. In a hundred years, historians will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today.”

Indeed, 100 years later historians acknowledged the wisdom and the vision of Klemens Von Metternich. After the devastating consequences of WWI and WWII, his diplomatic ideas that kept Europe at peace were missed and Europe realized that the failed liberal system will open the door to a nationalist and fascist system that will doom the whole continent.

History tends to repeat itself and while our world is more connected now and more liberal the shadows of nationalist far-right movements lure Europe. This aspect, combined with failed liberal policies result in dissatisfaction of the masses and without order, chaos would erupt as it did hundreds of years ago. Metternich’s contributions to modern diplomacy and the history of Europe are remarkable. His ideas flourished after WWII with the creation of the European Union, a system that might not share the same conservative ideas as he did, but surely contributed to the prosperity of the continent.

His ideas of European stability and control of power are more relevant now with the new crisis that the EU is facingand soon enough the European Union will have to rethink Metternich’s ideas for the neo-liberal system to survive, otherwise, there will be only room for nationalistic far-right movements that threaten the dream of the EU by returning to failed protectionism measures and policies.

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Democratic Backsliding in the Visegrad Four: Examining the Illiberal Turn

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The initial years of the post-communist era reflected a promising beginning of the consolidation of democracy in the Visegrad Four countries. Slovakia, the only exception to this regional trend of democratic consolidation under Mečiarism, also showed signs of successful transition with the revival of democracy after the 1998 elections. However, in the last few years, with the rise of eurosceptics, ultra-nationalists and populists, the democratic model has been facing grave challenges in these countries. Besides attacking the opposition, students’ organisations and NGOs,  the conservative leadership in these countries, have also passed regressive reforms in media, constitution, as well as the judiciary. These attacks and reforms are aimed at strengthening the power of eurosceptic populist leaders, and thereby reducing any chances of Eurocentric opposition in the future. But why, despite initial years of promising success, democratic consolidation failed in the V4 countries? This essay argues that the challenges to the democratic consolidation in these post-communist countries have been a result of myriad local, national and international factors at economic, political and social levels.

Primarily, the membership in the EU, which was a major foreign policy objective of the new political elite post-1989, had raised numerous expectations among the citizens in these countries. But after the EU membership in May 2004, when those expectations still seemed a distant dream for the citizens in these countries, the disappointment with the EU membership’s promises rose throughout the region. This disappointment soon became a fertile ground on which the conservative section of the political elite mobilised their support, which became evident with the victory of nationalistic and eurosceptic parties throughout the region.

This discontentment with the Western European model was made further worse by the economic crises of 2008-9 and the subsequent Euro debt crisis of 2011. Contrary to expectations that the EU membership will be a guarantor of economic prosperity and improved standards of living, the V4 countries had to suffer immensely as a result of these crises which primarily resulted because of the loopholes in other countries. Furthermore, the subsequent burden of reforms with adoption of EU’s austerity policies aimed at stabilising the European économies post-crises, also proved costly for these countries, and hence furthered their apathy towards the integrationist model of Brussels.

Post 2015, the Refugee Crisis, resulting due to the massive influx of illegal migrants into Europe from politically unstable areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, further fuelled the simmering anti-EU attitudes among the V4 countries. Though only Hungary was directly affected by the wave of these migrants, all V4 countries reflected a response which was reminiscent of classical xenophobia and exclusive nationalism. Despite these countries officially voting against Brussels’ proposal of obligatory refugee quotas, and opposing the financial aid given to Turkey following EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees from entering the EU, the conservative media and politicians in these countries left no stone unturned to show a face of refugees that immediately mobilised the people to vote populist demagogues to power at the cost of ruling out the Eurocentric federalists.

Finally, another important, and often overlooked reason for the failed democratic consolidation in the V4 countries has been their lack of historical experience with democracy. As a result of this lacked democratic experience, people in these countries failed to develop a democratic culture in a few decades post-1989, and instead found it easy to turn back to their familiar models.

However, despite all the gloomy prospects of democratic consolidation in the V4 countries, the region is not the only aberration. The rise of Euroscepticism, nationalism, and populism has been on the rise throughout the continent, which became evident with Brexit and the rise of conservative parties, like National Front and Alternative for Germany, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU that these occasional setbacks in few countries must not hinder its vision of greater European integration. Because, any void created by declining role of Brussels in the Visegrad region will immediately be filled by Russia, which is craving to regain its influence in its ‘near-abroad.’

Moreover, the recent experiences from Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, also made it clear that the quick imposition of the democratic model is not the universal solution for discrete problems across the world. The fact that the evolution of democracy took centuries of deliberate transformations, and occasional violent conflicts, in England, France, USA and elsewhere, must be kept in mind while assessing the democratic consolidation in any part of the world. Expecting successful transition and consolidation of democracy in the V4 countries, without keeping in mind that it has been only a few decades since these countries embarked on this painful transition, is in itself problematic.

Nonetheless, the post-1989 transition has also successfully contributed to transforming a considerable section of the population in these countries, who now show major disliking towards any non-democratic model. Therefore, even if the current situation of the V4is not a pleasant one, the big picture coming post-1989 is a reflection of a successful break with the ‘Other’ past.

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