In 1853 or thereabouts, Czar Nicholas I described Turkey as the sick man of Europe. A century and a half later, Turkey is increasingly the strong man of the Middle East, and the sick man of Europe is Europe — or, rather, "Europe." The transformation of a geographical patchwork of nation-states into a single political entity has been the dominant Big Idea of the post-war era, the Big Idea the Continent's elites turned to after all the other Big Ideas — Fascism, Nazism, and eventually Communism — failed, spectacularly. The West's last Big Idea is now dying in the eurozone debt crisis. Although less obviously malign than the big totalitarian -isms, this particular idea has proved so insinuating and debilitating that the only question is whether most of the West dies with it.
"Europe" has a basic identity crisis: As the Germans have begun to figure out, just because the Greeks live in the same general neighborhood is no reason to open a joint checking account. And yet a decade ago, when it counted, everyone who mattered on the Continent assumed a common currency for nations with nothing in common was so obviously brilliant an idea it was barely worth explaining to the masses. In the absence of ethnic or cultural compatibility, the European Union offered Big Government as a substitute: The project was propped up by two pillars — social welfare and defense welfare. The former regulated Europe into economic sloth even as India, China, and Brazil began figuring out how this capitalism thing worked. The latter meant that the U.S. defense umbrella ensured once-lavish budgets for hussars and lancers could be reallocated to government health care and other lollipops — and it still wasn't enough. Whatever the individual merits of ever-more-leisurely education, 30-hour work weeks, six weeks' vacation, retirement at 50, the cumulative impact is that not enough people do not enough work for not enough of their lives. And once large numbers of people acquire the habits of a leisured class, there are not many easy ways back to reality.
Defense welfare does the same at a geopolitical level. In absolving the Continent of responsibility for its own defense, the United States not only enabled Europe to beat its swords into Ponzi shares but, in a subtle and profound way, helped enervate the survival instincts of some of the oldest nation-states on the planet. I tend to agree with John Keegan, the great military historian and my old Telegraph colleague, that a nation without a military is in a sense no longer a nation. One of the few remaining serious second-tier powers is now joining their ranks: Under the "Conservative" premiership of David Cameron, a nation that within living memory governed a fifth of the earth's surface and a quarter of its population and provided what global order there was for much of the rest will have a military incapable of independent force projection. Were the Argies to seize the Falklands today, Her Majesty's Government would have to content itself with going to the U.N. and getting a strong resolution. Were the toppling of Saddam to be attempted today, Britain would be incapable of reprising the role it played eight years ago — of holding down the lower third of Iraq all but singlehanded while the Yanks pressed on to Baghdad. But beyond that, in a more general sense, nations that abandon their militaries tend also to abandon their national interests: Increasingly, instead of policies, they have attitudes. "Global warming" — "saving" the planet — is the perfect preoccupation for the ever-more-refined sensibilities of the post-national nation.
While Europe slept in and slept around, new powers emerged. China and India, on course to be the world's top two economies within a couple of decades, both act as more or less conventional nation-states. So too do Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey — and many lesser players. We live on a planet in which the wealthiest societies in history, from Norway to New Zealand, are incapable of defending their own borders while basket cases like North Korea and Pakistan have gone nuclear, and Sudan and Somalia are anxious to follow. Whatever supple lies it may tell itself, a rich nation that cannot bother keeping up an army is retreating not only from imperialism and conquest but also from greatness. Continentals enjoy more paid leisure time than anybody else, yet they produce less and less great art, music, literature. A land of universal welfare invariably universalizes mediocrity.
Whether Greece defaults or gets bailed out one mo' time doesn't really matter: It's insolvent, and there isn't enough money in Germany to obscure that fact indefinitely. The longer "political reality" tries to dodge real reality, the bloodier the eventual reacquaintance will be. Europeans are going to have to relearn impulses three generations of Continentals have learned to regard as hopelessly vulgar. Can they do that? A land of 30-year-old students and 50-year-old retirees has so thoroughly diverted the great stream of life that it barely comprehends what's at stake. "Europe" as a geopolitical rather than geographical concept has been for half a century the most conventional of conventional wisdom. Those, like Britain's Euroskeptics, who dissented from it were derided as "swivel-eyed" "loony tunes." The loons were right, and the smart set — the political class, the universities, the BBC, Le Monde — were wrong. "Europe" was a blueprint for sclerosis and decline, and then a sudden, devastating fall. As the "loony tunes" could have told them, it ends with, "That's all, folks."