PRAGUE — Europe is in search of its identity. I believe it is easy to find: The European Union embodies the principle of open society, which could serve as a force for a global open society. Let me explain what I mean.
The concept of an open society was first used by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in his book “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion.”
One source, according to Bergson, is tribal and leads to a closed society whose members feel affinity for each other but fear or hostility toward others. The other source is universal, leading to an open society guided by universal human rights that protects and promotes the freedom of the individual.
Karl Popper modified this scheme in his seminal book “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” published in 1944. He pointed out that an open society can be endangered by abstract, universal ideologies like communism and fascism. Because these ideologies’ claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth is bound to be false, they can be imposed on society only through repression and compulsion. By contrast, an open society accepts uncertainty, and it establishes laws and institutions that allow people with divergent views and interests to coexist.
The EU embodies the principles of an open society to a remarkable extent. Although its guiding principles have not been enshrined in a constitution, even this may be appropriate to an open society because, as Popper argued, our imperfect understanding does not permit permanent and eternally valid definitions of social arrangements.
The EU was brought into existence by a process of piecemeal social engineering — the method Popper considered appropriate to an open society — directed by a far-sighted, purposeful elite who recognized that perfection is unattainable. It proceeded step by step, setting limited objectives with limited timetables, knowing full well that each step would prove inadequate and require a further step.
That step-by-step approach ground to a halt with the defeat of the European constitution. The EU is left in an untenable position, with an enlarged membership of 27 states and a governing structure designed for six. The political will to keep the process moving forward has eroded. The memory of past wars has faded, and the threat posed by the Soviet Union has disappeared. Nationalist, xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiments are on the rise, aggravated by the failure to integrate immigrant communities.
Unfortunately the disarray within the EU is part of a broader global turmoil. The United States used to be the dominant power and set the agenda for the world. But President George W. Bush’s war on terror undermined the basic principles of American democracy by expanding executive powers. It undermined the critical process that is at the heart of an open society by treating any criticism of the administration’s policies as unpatriotic, thereby allowing Bush to order the invasion of Iraq.
Worse still, the war on terror was counterproductive. It increased the terrorist threat by creating innocent victims, while leading to a precipitous decline in American power and influence. As a result, the U.S. is no longer in a position to set the world’s agenda.
The EU cannot possibly take the place of the U.S. as the world’s leader. But it can set an example within its own borders and beyond. The prospect of membership has been the most powerful tool in turning candidate countries into open societies. Although most of its citizens do not realize it, the EU serves as an inspiring example. All that is needed now is for Europe’s people to be inspired by the idea of the EU as the prototype of a global open society.
What this means in principle can be stated concisely: The EU needs a common foreign policy. That is the one part of the European constitution that urgently needs to be rescued.
In the meantime, the absence of institutional reform should not be allowed to serve as a pretext for inaction. As the single biggest market, the EU already possesses ample resources to make an impact on the world stage. It provides half of the world’s overseas development assistance, has 45,000 diplomats and almost 100,000 peacekeepers. It can use the prospect of trade, aid and EU membership as a catalyst to encourage neighboring states to become open societies.
Where Europe has adopted a common policy — as on Iran — it has succeeded in persuading others, including the U.S., to change long-held positions. But all too often the EU fails to live up to its potential.
For example, Europe has made little progress in formulating a common energy policy, leaving it increasingly dependent on Russia, which has not hesitated to exploit its bargaining position. Likewise, the EU has failed to give adequate support to Georgia or to impose appropriate sanctions on Uzbekistan for last year’s massacre at Andijon. Nor has the European Neighborhood Policy gathered any momentum, while the EU’s treatment of Turkey is pushing an important ally in the wrong direction.
There is also trouble brewing in some of the newly admitted member countries, such as Hungary and Poland, where the EU could play a more proactive role in promoting democratic stability.
Needless to say, a common EU foreign policy should not be anti-American. Such a posture would be self-defeating, because it would reinforce the division of the international community that the Bush administration has initiated. But the EU can set an example of international cooperation that the U.S., under a different leadership — which is bound to come — would eventually emulate.