#91: The Transatlantic Perspective Needs to be Global

Since the end of World War II, the transatlantic focus has been on the northern hemisphere. This is a result primarily influenced by three factors:

  • The inevitable realization that the defense of Europe against any aggressor can only be successful if North America, especially the United States, is included in any European security framework. Any attempt to imagine European defense independently of the US has failed so far.
  • The main problem in Europe is the containment of the European center. This means the maintenance of peace between Germany of France, the containment of Germany, but actually, since the defeat of Napoleon, the securing of a stable balance of power on the continent, for which it ideally needs an outside force not invested too heavily in either side of the equation.
  • The competition between, on the one hand, this Euro-American alliance by necessity, and on the other, another power block like the Soviet Union, Russia, China, or any other system contender. The Cold War has been the guarantor of NATO’s success, and currently, it is Putin’s Russia which, by ostentatiously questioning the strength and purpose of NATO is ironically strengthening its resolve.

If we widen the historical perspective though, two other major factors become visible:

  • The two World Wars in the Twentieth Century have been preceded by other conflicts of a global reach: The Crimean War (1853-1856), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the Seven Years War (1756-1763), the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). In all these cases, the global dimension of these wars is the result of European colonial empires.
  • The American influence grows in direct correlation with the decline of the power of European colonialism, which declines as result to fights amongst the European powers themselves. This is what some historians call the “European Civil War.”

But even this perspective is not wide enough. European geography determines its security concerns. It is not an island. It has always been at the center of waves of migration, of empires and states fighting for dominance. The only relative period of some form of peace, or rather, predictability, was the time of solidified Roman power that united the Mediterranean. Connected with the fall of Roman power in the West – despite all attempts of reconstituting imperial power by Germanic kingdoms – is the loss of Mediterranean unity, and with it, the loss of the connection between the three continents of Europe (both East and West), Africa and Asia. From the beginning of what we can call Europe – namely the fall of the Western part of the Roman Empire in 476 – till the end of World War II, there have been a succession of military attempts to dominate the continent, none successful for very long, and if so, only partial. If Europe is supposed to have a future, it must, again, see a future in unison with its neighbors. Such a demand translates to the transatlantic sphere for reasons of security and prosperity.

There is another dimension as well. Colonialism and imperialism, conducted mainly but not exclusively by nations located in the Europe and Mediterranean area, has put its inevitable mark upon the entire world. No continent has remained untouched by this. The end of colonialism proper has not necessarily left the world a better place. We need to confront and account for the history of what Paul Gilroy calls the Black Atlantic. The combined impact of the transatlantic slave trade and the destruction of indigenous cultures mainly, but not exclusively, in the Americas dictate a charge for nations that can trace their origin back to the European area. For centuries, it was European colonial powers that shaped the world, for better or worse. It would seem only logical that centuries of domination and profit need to be followed by centuries of partnership, cooperation, aid and alliance. Historical responsibility must translate into present and future accountability.

(also published on trasym.blog)

#32: Guilt vs. (Historical) Responsibility

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.

Every country on the planet has probably had at least one moment in their history that does not quite inspire pride. This is what humans do: while aspiring for the best, we frequently succumb to our worst instincts. We do this on an individual and on a group level. We are fallible. We are not perfect. We can hope to be angels, but can be devils as well.

When we do horrible things as individuals, it is clear that we need to own up to them also as individuals. If we do horrible things as a group, and we individually are implicated, we will also need to own up to being part of the group that did something horrible. But what if the horrible things that happened are historical, and we have no other connection to them than to be born into this country, or into a group within the country, which committed the crime?

Guilt can only be individual. The notion that there is something like “group guilt” can only be maintained if you believe that you, as an individual, have no way of resisting against group pressure, and that your identity is only determined by the group. This kind of philosophy is preferred by criminal gangs, totalitarian regimes, and by those who want to promote a view of humanity that sees people as unemancipated cogs in the machine. Unless you want to deny the dignity of the individual, you need to accept that individual actions and individual motivations do matter. Guilt is personal, it cannot be inherited. Nobody is to blame for the sins of their predecessors, or for those of other people allegedly like them.

But there is such a thing as historical responsibility. You may not be guilty in the sense of having committed a horrible act, but if your country and your way of life is built on this crime, then – whether you like it or not – you are living in the shadow of whatever people in the past did, sadly, also in your name when soiling the future. Just as any parent will have to ask “will I make my children proud?” so will every political leader need to ask “will generations after me be cursed for what I made my country do?” Sadly, some leaders have not asked this question, or found ways to justify their actions which were committed also in the name of future human beings not yet born. Nobody is born an empty slate, we all have historical baggage, and our lives are built on it, for better or worse.

Historical responsibility is put upon generations after the fact. This is deeply unfair, but we cannot change the past, we can only change the present to make the future better. Our historical duty is to act responsibly by making sure the memory of the crimes and their victims is honored by building a better society. We are not guilty, but ours is the responsibility to learn the lessons our predecessors had not learnt.

You might say that morality changes over time, and that you cannot judge over historical events. Maybe something we find horrible now was perfectly acceptable then. That might very well be so, in some cases. But in the most egregious cases, there were always individuals who stood up against injustice, who recognized that what was happening then was not right, and who were attempting to correct the course of their country. They did not always succeed. But we need to honor their memory as well by recognizing that typically, horrible crimes in history were crimes already then. Genocide, chattel slavery, and the severe mistreatment of human beings were always wrong. Some societies were just better at deluding themselves into tolerating the abuse.

Our responsibility is not to feel personally guilty. That would defeat the purpose. We did not do it unless we were alive back then; and making people feel that they did will only create resentment. History simply has homework for us. Our task is to build a better future, that’s all there is to it. We cannot undo history. But we can shape the future, and we have the responsibility to make it better.