When Europe ruled the world

The European Union is currently passing through a prolonged social, political and economic crisis. Britain will soon vote on whether to withdraw from the European Union altogether. There are grave doubts that the common currency can be made to work. Unemployment, especially amongst youth, is very high throughout southern Europe. When I was in Spain last summer, I was struck by the signs in stores that promised discounts for the unemployed, which suggested how entrenched such unemployment has become.Throughout the region relatively low rates of economic growth have undermined people’s faith in the region’s current economic model.

In Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, in particular, there are serious doubts about a resurgent Russia (for an explanation of why, see Brooks and Wohlforth’s excellent article “the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century,” International Security, Winter 2015, pp. 20-21). The events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine make it clear that invasion and warfare remain threats for European states, particularly the Baltic nations.  At the same time, the disastrous violence from Syria to Libya has let to a flood of migrants, who are crossing borders in Italy and Greece. The result is a human catastrophe, as boats sink in the Mediterranean, families are divided, and poor states are overwhelmed by a flood of migrants. In relative terms, Europe’s global influence relative to other major powers -such as China- is waning. The European Union is beset by multiple crises, which perhaps explains the rise of populist and nationalist political parties, which reflects some citizens’ belief that fundamental change is desperately needed.

At this moment, it’s difficult to understand the power that Europe had a century ago. In the textbook, Kim Brown and I began with a chapter on history, so that students can understand the origins of the modern global system. It’s worth reading this selection from Margaret MacMillan’s the War that Ended Peace to understand how profoundly the global system has changed, and why World War One truly should be seen as a watershed in global history. World War One shattered the global system, which is why historians and International Relations scholars continually revisit it. For those who are curious, I also recommend Richard Rosecrance and Steven Miller’s new (2015) edited volume, the Next Great War.

Shawn Smallman, 2016

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