Orthodoxy and Europe

March 19, 2014


By Robert D. Kaplan

Horia-Roman Patapievici is a Romanian philosopher who, way back in the late 1990s, told me that Romania’s task was to acquire a public style based on impersonal and transparent rules like in the West, otherwise business and politics would be full of intrigue. And he questioned whether Romania’s Eastern Orthodox tradition is helpful in this regard. He went on to explain that Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Russia, Greece and Cyprus — the Orthodox nations of Europe — were all characterized by weak institutions, compared with those of northwestern Europe. He and many others have intimated that this is partly because Orthodoxy is flexible and contemplative, thus tolerant of the world as it is, having created its own alternative order.

Because of Orthodoxy, according to the late British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, early 20th-century Russians who lost their religious faith did not become “rationalist skeptics” in the Western tradition; they merely transferred their spiritual fervor to social revolution. Nicolas Berdyaev, a Russian intellectual of the era, observed that Bolshevism was an Orthodox form of Marxism, because it underscored “totality.” (Indeed, Stalin, who studied for six years at an Orthodox monastery in Georgia, gave speeches that evoked the singsong litanies of the church.)

There is much to debate here. But clearly, given the millennia-old traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, with its forests of beeswax candles, silver-plated icons and other exemplars of intoxicating magic, there is a clear otherness to Orthodoxy that defines it as a great world religion. To say that the Orthodox countries that dominate the Balkans and Russia are capable eventually of the same level of institutional development as those in northwestern Europe is altogether reasonable; but to say that such things as culture and religion simply do not contribute at all to different development patterns in Greater Europe is not reasonable.

Culture, geography and historical experience are all of primary significance. They make us what we are. To erase the past and to say that we are suddenly all identical creatures in a global meeting hall is the height of folly. Yet that, after a fashion, is what Europe’s elites have believed for decades. If you even mention national characteristics to them, such as those devolved from Orthodoxy, you are an “essentialist,” an academic word that means you are guilty of ethnic stereotyping. But can it be wholly an accident that the countries facing the direst financial and political straits in Europe today are mainly in the southeastern and southern parts of the continent? Clearly, geography, history and religion play some sort of a role, however much they can be overcome, and however difficult it is to quantify them.

The key word in Orthodoxy is “Eastern.” This is a Christianity that has battled Western Roman Catholicism just as much as it has battled Islam. Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy have the common experience of having lived for centuries under the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Muslim Turks were often more tolerant of their Orthodox Christian subjects than the Catholic Habsburgs had been. And before the Turks there was the Byzantine Empire in southeastern Europe. All of this gave the Balkans a weaker institutional and economic basis than the countries of Central and Western Europe, which lived under Prussian, Habsburg and Bourbon rule. These things matter, even if they are not determinative. Indeed, prior to the onslaught of Nazism and Communism, countries such as France, Germany, Austria and Poland were characterized by authentic middle classes more than by peasantries — unlike Orthodox countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Greece.

Today, Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Serbia and Macedonia, are engulfed by political intrigue and bad governance to a much greater degree than countries to the north and the west. Greece is in the midst of an economic catastrophe comparable to the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s, and Cyprus has undergone the worst banking crisis in Europe, in part related to deposits from many shady Russians. And that, in turn, is a demonstration of the weak institutions that bedevil Russia, another Orthodox country. The situation is, of course, complex. Cyprus, for instance, even though it is the closest of these countries to the Middle East, actually has had the most efficient institutions of any of them, owing to its strong British colonial heritage. And Romania, despite the awful legacy of Nicolae Ceausescu’s national Stalinism, has impressively avoided catastrophe for a quarter century now and is inching forward in terms of its economy and institutions. Nevertheless, as someone who lived in Greece and traveled through the Balkans continually for many years, I can say that this region is clearly not entirely Europe, but an intermediary zone between Europe and the Near East.

The incorporation of much of this area into the European Union was not necessarily imprudent. To be sure, years from now the Balkans could well be a zone of stability and prosperity as much as anyplace in Western Europe. Again, the record of history and religion does not determine a country’s fate. Vastly better and worse outcomes are possible, based on the choices made by policymakers.

But the more informed by history and geography decision makers are, the better the likelihood for wise choices. Unfortunately, that was not entirely the case in Europe. In fact, an ahistorical generation of Eurocrats in Brussels and elsewhere decided to form a geographically wide-ranging currency union, composed of countries with a vast variety of historical and developmental experiences, without also forming a political union to better manage the single currency.

By contrast, the United States could form a single currency union over an entire continent, with significant political autonomy for the individual states. This is because, while there were stark developmental and cultural differences between, say, Minnesota in the north and Mississippi in the south, everyone nevertheless spoke one language. What’s more, the common historical experience of democracy and westward expansion was something that the far-flung member states of the EU never enjoyed.

The United States, moreover, has had a federal government presiding over all the 50 states, and while different religions are practiced, they are not geographically specific to the extent that they are in Europe — Catholicism and Protestantism in the west and Orthodoxy in the southeast. Religion plus geographical specificity equals identity and historical experience. Thus, the United States, with all its current political pathologies, is workable; a united Europe isn’t yet.

The Eurocrats in Brussels spent decades extoling the social welfare state as a panacea to Europe’s historical ills. This was possible only because the United States took care of Europe’s physical security. As the U.S. troop footprint in Europe lessens from its Cold War heights, and as the social welfare state in the Mediterranean south becomes undone, Europe may well — in a very subtle way, to be sure — revert to regions loosely based on historical experience, like those of Orthodoxy and the Turkish and Habsburg empires. You could have a strong eurozone in the north and weaker eurozones in the Balkans and southern Europe.

Europe is not strictly a financial story. It is a political story, and therefore a geopolitical one. Orthodox Russia, despite the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, still lies uncomfortably next door to Central and Eastern Europe, as we have seen especially in recent weeks. The Balkans are still what they always have been: on the fault line between Europe and Asia. And Iberia bears a history of modern dictatorship that still affects its politics and economics. Therefore, the cultural observations of those like Romanian philosopher Patapievici, historian Seton-Watson and Russian intellectual Berdyaev are still relevant. Patapievici, in particular, is a liberal humanist and a cosmopolitan who believes fervently in human agency and the sanctity of the individual, but who also knows that centuries-old traditions and belief systems do count for something. They simply cannot be dismissed out of hand.

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