When I visited Europe in 2008 and before, the idea that Europe was not going to emerge as one united political entity was regarded as heresy by many leaders. The European enterprise was seen as a work in progress moving inevitably toward unification — a group of nations committed to a common fate. What was a core vision in 2008 is now gone. What was inconceivable — the primacy of the traditional nation-state — is now commonly discussed, and steps to devolve Europe in part or in whole (such as ejecting Greece from the eurozone) are being contemplated. This is not a trivial event.
Before 1492, Europe was a backwater of small nationalities struggling over a relatively small piece of cold, rainy land. But one technological change made Europe the center of the international system: deep-water navigation.
The ability to engage in long-range shipping safely allowed businesses on the Continent’s various navigable rivers to interact easily with each other, magnifying the rivers’ capital-generation capacity. Deep-water navigation also allowed many of the European nations to conquer vast extra-European empires. And the close proximity of those nations combined with ever more wealth allowed for technological innovation and advancement at a pace theretofore unheard of anywhere on the planet. As a whole, Europe became very rich, became engaged in very far-flung empire-building that redefined the human condition and became very good at making war. In short order, Europe went from being a cultural and economic backwater to being the engine of the world.
At home, Europe’s growing economic development was exceeded only by the growing ferocity of its conflicts. Abroad, Europe had achieved the ability to apply military force to achieve economic aims — and vice versa. The brutal exploitation of wealth from some places (South America in particular) and the thorough subjugation and imposed trading systems in others (East and South Asia in particular) created the foundation of the modern order. Such alternations of traditional systems increased the wealth of Europe dramatically.
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