Most well informed citizens these days know quite a bit about the Middle East and perhaps even China. Some of it may come from superficial things like Thomas Friedman op-eds, but these are topics people talk about. Yuppie parents want their children to learn Mandarin.
But this is wrong. We’re taking Europe for granted. We think, at some level, that between World War II and the end of the Cold War that we’ve fixed Europe. Things like the crisis in Ukraine and the financial crisis make the news here, but they seem far away and aren’t met with much anxiety. They should be.
It may come to nothing, but our level of concern about Europe isn’t high enough. There are three nuclear powers and one of the world’s largest economies (i.e., the EU as a whole) involved, which is the same justifications that we use to stoke yellow peril and all things China.
But Europe is in trouble. At least the post-Cold War Europe we know. Across Europe, politics has been destabilized by anti-immigration sentiment, with immigrants primarily arriving from culturally different societies. This isn’t to say that xenophobia should prevail, just that there is a threshold beyond which immigration always causes some political blowback in the native population, and, based on the votes, that threshold was passed long ago.
The tipping point on this issue may be something dramatic like Marine Le Pen winning the French presidency, but as recent events have shown, it could be as simple as a viral internet photo of a dead toddler.
A similar but related phenomenon is anti-EU sentiment. Eurosceptic parties have made major gains across Europe and today a poll shows that the UK is, for the first time, by a majority, ready to leave. This is probably also in part related to the Greek crisis which, either way you look at it, is bad for European integration. If you took the Greek side, it makes the EU look undemocratic and totalitarian. If you took the other side, it looks like the EU is a resource draining mechanism headed south.
If the UK does vote itself out, this would probably serve to reverse the sentiment in Scotland about independence enough to make a second referendum likely to succeed. That puts rump-England’s capabilities as a nuclear power in question, since its main nuclear force is based in Scotland.
A non-nuclear, fractured UK (ignoring what a rightist France under Le Pen might bring into the equation), certainly changes the NATO bargain. It also would certainly change Russia’s strategic calculus.
The worst-case scenario is a new fractured Europe divided between a xenophobic bloc and an integrationist one, with no clear “Iron Curtain,” but rather a balkanized patchwork of countries with differing views.
While Upper East Side kids are learning Mandarin and our naval aviators are playing chicken with the Chinese over a few uninhabited rocks jockeying for supremacy over the importation of poison dog food and shitty children’s toys, Europe is at risk of falling apart.