One of the more prominent intellectual fallacies is outsiders’ skewed perception of Europe as a region of cultural geographic simplicity.  Such a view stems from a superficial understanding of its complexity.  It is based primarily upon comparisons between Europe and seemingly more complex regions in Africa and Asia.  After all, explorers and colonizers did not venture towards distant and unexplored shores, deserts, and rainforests of Europe; their exploration of the world originated here and spread outward.

For the modern day explorers, who arrive in Europe on planes or cruise ships, there is not much new to explore other than rocks and stones of medieval churches and castles.  Europe is now “known” and simple.  Heroes and villains change roles less frequently, wars are fewer and far between, and freedom of movement has greatly expanded.

In reality, however, Europe is extremely complex.  But the web of complexity is more subtle than elsewhere and requires a keen eye of an observer to understand such intricacies.  Much more geographic knowledge than simple memorization of facts is required to genuinely understand the European region.

What we observe today is a manifestation of cultural interaction that has evolved through centuries, only to culminate in its present form.  Contemporary Europe is icing on the cake—tastes sweet and interesting, although being incomplete and inadequate without the cake and its many layers.

Mental Issues and Internal Affairs

Unfortunately, it is exactly the icing, rather than cake, that is a focus of current American foreign policy, making it difficult to swallow for many Europeans.  This policy lacks clarity and direction, principles and vision and, most importantly, an understanding of the long-term impact of strategic and tactical decisions.  It seems that regardless of how long the post-Cold War period will extend, the Cold War mentality will never be overcome in the context of how to deal with “East” and “West.”

In regard to forthcoming Catalan referendum of independence from Spain, the United States’ Department of State has issued the following statement: “We want to reiterate that, as we have said on previous occasions, the position of the United States government over Catalonia is that it is an internal matter of Spain.  We are deeply committed to maintaining the relationship with a strong and united Spain.” [Emphasis mine]

What exactly is the united (Kingdom of Spain) the American diplomats refer to in the above statement?  Spain is a collection of different regional identities initially put together by force centuries ago, and made to remain in such an arrangement for a period of time longer than the entire history of the United States.

Spain is certainly not a champion of historic voluntary associations of different peoples and is not going to become a champion of voluntary disassociations.  Hence, the State Department has announced that, unlike in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, the Americans (as in U.S. government) do not support self-determination west of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.  America’s response to Catalan independence resembles the country’s lack of enthusiasm for Scottish independence in 2014 (which I observed while residing in Scotland at the time).

Matters of Geographic Scale

Anti-secession calls and announcements frequently have geographic note weaved in their list of arguments.  Among them is that a country can be too small and not strong enough to successfully run its own affairs.  Yet, when Scotland and Catalonia (“West”) are considered too small, Montenegro and Kosovo (“East”) seem spatially and economically adequate.

Figure 1. Catalonia and Montenegro in Europe (scale purposely omitted).

The whole argument is another geographic fallacy.  No one can fully predict how a country will evolve and determine whether levels of strength and size are adequate.  To come close, however, one must be familiar with a long-term evolution of a nation and how it transformed into what it is today.

Anniversaries and Commemorations

For example, in Germany, the European power center, it is the season of anniversaries and celebrations.  The current chancellor, Angela Merkel is poised to win yet another election.  With such a rate of success she may even surpass Otto von Bismarck in length of tenure in office.  On October 3, the Germans will celebrate Unity Day, and 27 years of re-unification between the East and West Germany (German Democratic Republic and Federal Republic of Germany).

In October, the 500-year anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe will be celebrated in Wittenberg, a short ride from Berlin.  The initial impact of Martin Luther, and subsequent the Protestant’s challenge to the mighty power of Catholic Europe, have changed Germany forever.

Seven months later, in May of 2018, Germany will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Thirty Years War.  Commemoration of one of the most devastating wars in the European history (8 million deaths estimated), most of which was fought in present-day Germany, will only be celebrated in academic political science departments.  This war, which was commonly attributed to carryover of 16th century’s Protestant versus Catholic animosities, in essence was a greater culture war about freedoms for self-determination and resulted in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).  The political scientists love the year of 1648, because in the Treaty of Westphalia lies the philosophical foundation for evolution of modern nation-states, and formation of the contemporary European cultural realm.

Figure 2.  Tourists take selfies in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, once a site of the Berlin Wall, under the shadow of the United States’ Embassy complex. (Photograph by author.)

In a short period of time we will experience a sequence of events: free elections, remembering again unification after decades of unwanted separation, the anniversary of challenges against monopolistic authority (1517), and a commemoration of the beginning of the Thirty Years War.  It took a period of at least five centuries in order to shape Germany in what it is today!

Wings of Desire

The will of the people should be the main determinant of a nation’s future.  When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was the will of the Germans that made the change, despite their “illegal” actions according to the East Germany’s law.  The U.S. State Department was pleased with such an outcome, because people’s actions spoke more than words of law in dissolution of East Germany.

Figure 3. Catalonian flag in (former East) Berlin.  Individual self-determination behind the Berlin Wall.  (Photograph by author.)

People of Catalonia’s desire to determine their own future is not a temporary fad.  That, too, has evolved through a long period of time.  Yet an independence referendum is illegal according to the Spain’s law.  Constitutions in countries like Spain are purposely written in order to constrain minority’s dissent, to prevent self-determination through referendums for independence.

If the Catalans choose to make their actions speak more than words, would the U.S. State Department react like it did in 1989 Berlin?  No, because the Cold War logic dictates that secession and dissolution is allowed only for the previously-Communist Eastern Europe.

Cultural Geographic Simplicity and Complexity of Europe

3 thoughts on “Cultural Geographic Simplicity and Complexity of Europe

  • September 25, 2017 at 3:22 pm
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    Zok
    Very interesting and informative article. I will be passing it onto my colleagues in the USA in order to improve their knowledge beyond the USA border.
    I look forward to reading more of your articles.

    Reply
    • September 27, 2017 at 8:58 am
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      Thank you, Norman! I am glad that you enjoyed reading it.

      Reply
  • September 27, 2017 at 10:44 am
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    Meanwhile in D.C.:
    https://www.voanews.com/a/donald-trump-endorses-spanish-unity-catalan-independence-vote/4045551.html

    U.S. President Donald Trump has come out unequivocally in favor of Spanish unity, just days before voters in the Catalan region are slated to vote on independence from Madrid.

    At a joint news conference Tuesday with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a sweltering White House Rose Garden, Trump said he would bet most Catalonians want unity.

    “I’m just for a united Spain,” Trump said. “I really think the people of Catalonia would stay with Spain. I think it would be foolish not to.”

    Trump’s comments appear to go against official U.S. government policy. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said this month the United States would not take a position on the Catalan vote….Trump said he could not predict whether the referendum would be held, even as he follows developments in the independence-minded province.

    “I’ve been watching that unfold. But it’s actually been unfolding for centuries and I think that nobody knows if they’re going to have a vote,” he said.

    Reply

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