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Coalition of the Uninspired

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"I'm here because I have a vote and, basically, I've been told what to do with it," one Irishman told a London reporter. "Thank God they will all shut up now," a Dublin pensioner told a German newspaper. Both had just voted yes in this past weekend's Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, whose passage removes one of the last remaining obstacles to ratification of a document that will, among other things, create a president and a foreign minister of Europe. Both had voted no during the first referendum last year, when the treaty failed to pass.

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Both had changed their minds because they were tired of hearing politicians endlessly urging them to do so. Some also felt that, during the worst recession in recent memory, they might need Europe's help. Not many Irish seem to have been inspired by the high ideals and lofty aspirations of what is sometimes called "the European project": Although a whopping two-thirds of Irish voters said yes to the treaty, there wasn't much audible or visible enthusiasm. A few politicians in Ireland and across the continent hailed the referendum as a "great victory for Europe," but no one believed them. And thus did Europe take another, limping step toward the creation of a unified foreign policy apparatus, complaining bitterly all the way.

Which is not a bad thing: If Europe is to have a single apparatus to make its foreign policy, it is important that nobody has too many illusions about it. When the referendum failed last year, I wrote that it was for the best, since "European" foreign policy has always been most successful when it represents the wishes of the national governments of at least two or three large countries plus several small ones, and has always been most disastrous when carried out by bureaucrats in Brussels who don't represent anyone in particular. I hesitate to use the tainted expression "coalitions of the willing," but actually they work very well, in diplomacy as well as in military conflicts.

Still, since I don't feel like railing against the inevitable this week, and since I suspect that there really will be a European president and a European foreign minister in the near future, it's worth contemplating what that might mean. Clearly, the real test of whether Europe's most powerful countries are taking this new treaty seriously wasn't the Irish referendum. The question of whether the recalcitrant Czech president will finally be browbeaten into signing the thing is irrelevant, too (and if he does, it will certainly not represent a "triumph of the European ideal," whatever they say in Brussels).

But do watch closely, over the coming months, to see who is selected to fill these jobs, and, more important, how they are chosen. Traditionally, leaders of multilateral institutions are selected through a process of elimination: The person who is the least interesting, least opinionated and least influential gets the job, precisely because nobody else objects. Yet this is not how the president or prime minister of a country is selected: He gets the job because he has convinced the electorate that he is better than somebody else. I'm not saying that democracy always produces the most gifted leaders, but it does frequently produce politicians who are willing to argue loudly in favor of some things and against others. By contrast, people often wind up running multilateral institutions -- and not just European ones -- because they are not willing to argue about anything at all.

Here, then, is how to evaluate the Lisbon Treaty: If there really is a coalition of the willing in favor of a common European policy, then it will support the selection of forceful and opinionated leaders. Europe will then have, in Henry Kissinger's immortal phrasing, a phone number to call when America (or Russia, or China) wants to talk. And if there is no such coalition? Then you won't hear much about the president or the foreign minister of Europe again, so it doesn't really matter.


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