Just a few years ago, a spate of books trumpeted the ascendancy of a uniting Europe as the new global superpower that would run the 21st century. Europe’s mastery of soft power seemed destined to eclipse military might in the post-Cold War age. The building of a continent “whole and free” following the collapse of the Soviet empire would finally put an end to ethnic and nationalist conflicts. And the historic creation of the euro, as the coin of the realm in the world’s biggest trading bloc encompassing 500 million prosperous citizens, foreshadowed the demise of the dollar’s supremacy.

These days the European dream seems to be turning into a nightmare. The prospect of the euro’s collapse — caused by a sovereign debt crisis among its southern tier or “Club Med” members — threatens to unravel the elaborate construction of a peaceful, prosperous and united Europe that stands as one of the West’s greatest achievements in the wake of the devastation of World War II. The failure of the European project would not only cause catastrophic problems for the global economy, it would also imperil the foreign and security interests of the United States by destabilizing our nation’s closest allies.

How did it happen? How could Europe’s enviable progress toward building a zone of perpetual peace and prosperity suddenly detour toward the brink of disaster? In this book, the distinguished historian Walter Laqueur explains how Europe’s recent success in constructing a harmonious community of states actually masked serious vulnerabilities in social, economic and political institutions that proved too fragile to bear the impact of the world’s most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.

As in a previous work, “The Last Days of Europe,” written six years ago, Laqueur describes in detail the demographic crisis that lies at the root of many of Europe’s troubles. He cites U.N. forecasts showing that, by the year 2050, the whole of Europe, including Russia, will shrink by 130 million people. Decades of low birth rates have resulted in aging populations that have placed a huge strain on pensions and health care largely covered by Europe’s generous social welfare systems. These problems are now affecting many key policies. Indeed, in the current euro crisis, German government officials say their reluctance to bail out Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal is driven largely by fears among its own taxpayers that the bill will become so onerous as to jeopardize their retirement.

The flip side of Europe’s population problem is its growing difficulty of integrating large immigrant communities, which in turn has fueled a xenophobic backlash among populist ideologues who want to expel or reduce the number of foreigners, especially from North Africa. Yet in many countries, the troubles stem from second- or third-generation offspring who, while born and raised in Europe, have not been properly integrated but left abandoned in a cultural no-man’s land outside mainstream society. In places as dispersed as the Paris suburbs and the British Midlands, large concentrations of unskilled and disaffected Muslim youths become potential recruits for criminal gangs or Islamic radicalism. Laqueur cites demographers’ predictions that “major European cities, including Birmingham, Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, and Marseilles, will have a non-native majority in the not-too-distant future.”

‘After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent’ by Walter Laqueur (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 322 pp. $26.99). (Thomas Dunne Books)

Yet demography and immigration represent only part of Europe’s pathology. The continent at large has failed to respond effectively to the competition posed by cheap-labor nations such as China and India. Except in a few isolated industries such as machine tools and luxury automobiles, Europe has lacked the entrepreneurial spirit to find ways to stay ahead of the rest of the world. As Laqueur suggests, a marginalized Europe may simply be the latest example of the inevitable rise and fall of great powers throughout the course of history. “The decline of Europe, once the center of the world,” he writes, “can be interpreted above all as a decline of will and dynamism.”

Can Europe manage to rejuvenate itself and become once again a powerful and influential force in world affairs? Laqueur sounds doubtful. He suggests, rather, that Europe’s fate may become that of a cultural theme park, “a kind of sophisticated Disneyland for well-to-do visitors from China and India.” As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Europe guided Western civilization out of the Dark Ages into a new era of enlightenment. In the modern age, the Old World banished centuries of nationalistic conflict through ingenious statesmanship that created a community of states pooling their resources of iron, steel and coal — the raw materials of war — that serves as the basis of the present-day European Union. It would be a tragedy for the world if this remarkable achievement in supranational governance should fall victim to myopic leadership and parochial impulses in the global financial crisis.

William Drozdiak , formerly the foreign editor and chief European correspondent for The Post, is president of the American Council on Germany.

AFTER THE FALL

The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent

By Walter Laqueur

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 322 pp. $26.99

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