An alternative future for Europe

US President Joe Biden (right) speaks with EU leaders during a March 24 summit in Belgium on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. [Reuters]

According to an anecdote known in several variants, some debate what would have changed in the history of the world if Khrushchev had been assassinated in 1963 in place of Kennedy. A well-known statesman gave a cutting answer: “Only one thing is certain: Onassis would not have married his widow.” “Alternate histories” are the source of fascinating novels, such as CJ Sansom’s “Dominion” (2012), in which Lord Halifax becomes Prime Minister in May 1940, in place of Churchill, and Great Britain capitulates, or “The Plot Against America” ​​by Philip Roth. (2004), in which pro-Nazi pilot Lindbergh becomes President of the United States in 1940.

Alternative history is also an interesting mental exercise for historians. What would have happened if in 1920 the German shepherd of the Greek king Alexander had not taken care of the macaques of the royal domain? Alternate history allows us to better understand why things happened the way they did. But it can also inspire us to imagine for the future something that was not possible in the past.

In 1991 Yeltsin put on the table the prospect of the Russian Federation joining NATO; the proposal was repeated by Putin in 2000, on the condition that his country did not have to wait in line. What would have happened if Yeltsin, instead of approaching NATO and the “leader of the Western world”, had acted like a European statesman? What would have happened if he had turned to Mitterrand, Kohl and Major to propose the creation of an alliance of European countries and European interests? What would have been the implications for the Middle East, the refugee crisis, poverty and hunger in Africa, or the development of China? Such a prospect was unrealistic in the 1990s. The political leaders of the time were in the grip of the past. Their perceptions had been shaped by the Cold War. In the West, it was the euphoria of the collapse of communist regimes.

During a war, alliance changes do not occur. But they are prepared by leaders who think long term

Is what was unrealistic 30 years ago undesirable and inaccessible in the future? The war in Ukraine gave NATO the kiss of life and made the United States once again the guarantor of the security of European countries. But the presidential system in the United States does not guarantee the continuity of foreign policy. The withdrawal of the United States from international obligations is the belief of many in the Republican Party, whether or not the developments ground them in reality. George W. Bush, as a presidential candidate, could not indicate where Afghanistan was on a map; two years later, he waged war there.

Trump’s hostility to European allies is obvious. On April 21, he made it clear that as president he would not fulfill America’s obligation to defend its allies unless they dramatically increased defense spending. The probable return to power of the Republicans under the slogan “America first” will have important consequences for both NATO and Europe. But even under Biden, the United States signed a defense cooperation agreement with Britain and Australia in September 2021, without consulting its European partners. The United States looked after its own interests; Europeans are reluctant to consider an alternative future for Europe.

During a war, alliance changes do not occur. But they are prepared by leaders who think long term. The war in Ukraine is likely to be long and the weakening of Russia will be gradual, not rapid. Rapid seems to be the exodus of members of the scientific and intellectual elite. When the United States considers expedited visas for Russians with advanced degrees in order to weaken Russia, the Europeans stand idly by. The brains leaving Russia today could, by returning to their country after regime change, become a force for change towards a European security pact to replace the North Atlantic Treaty. Putin himself said in an interview with David Frost in 2000: “Russia is part of European culture. And I can’t imagine my country isolated from Europe. An alternative Europe is not a utopia.


Angelos Chaniotis is Professor of Ancient History and Classics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.